Joyo York from The Rustic Belt.com reflects on how the hunt for an elusive springtime mushroom led to lessons in happiness, ideas for new normals, and a pandemic mascot
by Josh York
“What did you do during the Quarantine?” It had been silent for a few minutes, aside from the sound of bar knives slicing through lemon rinds against cutting boards. The question made me chuckle, especially coming out of the silence. It reminded me of being back in school, when they would ask about your summer break and make you write something about it on the first day.
Well, it’s my first day back at the restaurant after our forced, long, spring break sabbatical. And let me tell you, I didn’t realize it till now, but it feels a lot like being back to school after the summer. Everything is mostly the same, but shinier and more organized. But it’s also different because you are in a new grade, so every process has changed from the way you were used to. I don’t know if it was the new color that was painted on the walls or the spread out floorplan of socially distant tables, but I was surprised at just how strange it felt to be back. I looked up at the young host, and through my mask responded, “Oh you know, the usual stuff. Hiked, biked, cleaned, cooked. Foraged ramps. Spent a lot of time trying to hunt down those dang morels too!” Another coworker joked, “You mean hunting down some morals? Good luck with that.” I retorted, “More like hunting morale, those little suckers are impossible to find!” Everyone laughed except the young host, and when the laughter died down, she asked, “What’s a morel?”
“What’s a morel?!” I thought. Well, I suppose this was shocking to hear since hunting morel mushrooms is an all-consuming hobby for me and my people during this time of year [See page 5 of The Tremonster Issue #55, May-June, 2019]. March and April are tough months for outdoors people here in the rustic belt, because you get a little taste of good weather for your favorite springtime activities. But then winter fights back, and it’s too wet for mountain biking, too cold for gardening, too warm for snow sports, and the rivers are too muddy for fishing. There are no leaves or plants to look at while hiking, and the views you get without those leaves have been checked out for 5 months now. In early April, the wild leeks (aka ramps) start to emerge, and you know by the 2nd week, northeast Ohio morels will be popping out too. Lots of folks find the first morels of the season while picking ramps.
Now getting into hunting morels can be a very frustrating hobby. Once that first morel gets found by someone you know, the FOMO kicks in, and a hunting frenzy starts. You start reading all these articles about where to look, and what trees to look around, since morels grow close to certain dying trees. Let me tell you how confident you feel while rocking in your chair reading field guide after field guide that you can spot an elm or an ash the next time you are in the woods. Then you get in the woods and realize, there are no leaves to check out, or twig buds growing for identification. Every bark pattern looks roughly the same too. The more you study, the worse it gets! Is this an elm? Is this an elm? And then you think, I have to be where other people haven’t thought to go. This probably WAS the perfect location and they probably WERE right here but someone probably DID already grab them. Then you start to think you are stepping all over them while walking around off trail, because every inch of the springtime forest floor looks like the perfect home for a morel. Stressful! Pretty soon, you looked for 8 hours with no results. You weren’t even sure you were looking in the same haystack that the needle is in. What a frustrating hobby!
If you haven’t even yet found your first morel, it gets even worse. Trust me, I know. This is my third year looking, and I still haven’t found one. It seems like everyone around you is finding them too. I drove out to Mohican State Park and looked in a spot for 8-9 hours. Nothing. The next day, my friends go to the same woods, they find a bunch. Dang it! Someone texts and says, “Hey, look what my 2 year old just found when they tripped at the park”. Dang it! Or random non hiking, non-mushroom friends post a morel pic on Instagram captioned, “My first time ever out in the woods, and I found this!” Dannng It! Or you show someone a picture of a morel and they say, “Oh I randomly found one of those in my yard the other day” Daaaang It! Talk about hunting morale. Dry on both fronts, morale and morel. A very frustrating hobby indeed!
So what goes through your mind in 8 hours of staring at the ground? At least half of it is your inner voice telling you to give up this stupid hobby, or your subconscious pining for the end of morel season so a hike can go back to being a hike. After I have gone out for three or four days with no sign of mushrooms, I swear the next hike I take is going to be for walking and exercising. Then I get out of my car and about 17 steps into the woods and say “wait now, this might be a good spot for a morel” Dang! Consumed. Like Golem with his ring. The morels whisper to you!
Despite the frustrations, morel hunting can be gratifying too. Aside from the actual mushroom, there is a lot of first growth going on around the forest floor in that earliest part of spring. Many shoots and stalks are emerging. The forest changes so fast that every day you go out looking, new plants will have utilized the position of a previous plant for its life starting needs. It is an ebb and flow. It can be competitive, but can also be communal. In the summertime, you will see plants actively fighting for position and resources. In the spring that battle can be more subtle. The one thing I see consistently is that there is no waste. Where one plant can’t maintain its life and longevity, another will take its spot.
That is the nature of the morel. It thrives off of the nutrients is gets by breaking down the dying elm and ash trees. I had a bit of a conflicted viewpoint once I learned that. When you camp, you see signs everywhere about not moving firewood across county lines because of the bugs that can catch a ride on the wood and do great damage to new forests. One of the worst offenders is the emerald ash borer, a bug that kills the ash trees. Another bad illness in our forests is the dutch elm disease. It also kills the elm tree it infects. So if I am wishing to find morels, am I wishing for more of these trees to be killed?
Of course not. The morel doesn’t kill the tree, just helps redistribute the tree’s resources once it dies. One of the biggest reasons I hike a ton, and advocate for people to be out in nature more, is that the concepts you observe in nature scale up. The physics work the same. You learn the general way the world works. And in nature, problems are dealt with pragmatically. Nature will find the most direct yet clever solution to deal with a problem. I suppose it may have something to do with the fact that I do a lot of this morel hunting and hiking and foraging with other laid off restaurant and service folk, but our trail conversation often has turned to topics of economics, the new processes that restaurants will have to develop to survive, and the general future of our industry. This has been interwoven into the constant talk of morels growing from dead elms. You can’t help but think the restaurant scene is going to look different now. Will this pandemic take down the restaurant scene? No. Will there be restaurants that don’t survive it? Yes. The pandemic sucks. It’s unfair. It’s stressful. But there are opportunities to refine our processes. To learn from the restaurants that don’t make it. There can be opportunity for new types of restaurant designs to emerge. Will the Emerald Ash Borer take down the entire forest? No, but some ashes will be lost before their primes. So what does a fallen ash look like to a morel? Opportunity. The morel is simply a noble workhorse of the forest, rearranging the leftover resources to be used by other plants. Finding the opportunities in the debris. I feel like I want to be the morel of the post pandemic society. I have dubbed the morel as my quarantine mascot.
So everyone was laughing about morale/moral/morel jokes and I answered the host about the elusive mushroom and how it was indeed like hunting morals, morale, and morels. She said, “Hunh, weird. Never heard of any of that. That’s when it hit me just how strange this pandemic and quarantine time really has been, just because, life seemed normal until I realized that my quarantine activities seemed odd to others. Something that consumed me all this time didn’t even matter to any of my coworkers. I suppose I WAS hunting morals and found at least one. The moral of this quarantine story is to not let the feeling that something is so important and overwhelming that it matters so heavily, when in the wider context, it is isn’t even a matter of importance. Even though I felt such jealousy over others finding morels all around me, a couple weeks go by, and no one in my circles are even talking about them anymore, as they all dry up and go away. Kind of like many of our stresses in stressy times. I suppose I even was hunting morale too, because whether you find any morels or not, the season ends because it gets too warm and the green leaves of the trees overshadow the sunny spots the morels need to grow. This means it is full-on-summer leaning-spring, and swimming and mountain biking are next on the agenda. Not a bad consolation prize, whether your morel hunt was a success or not.
I hunted a moral and found it, and I hunted morale and found it too. But what about that little b*st*rd of a fungus, the elusive morel. Did I go another season without a find? Nope, I hunted the morel and finally found one! My Golem style morel obsession curse is lifted. I can now look forward to a year of change and opportunity. And I can apply what I have learned from the morel and become an agent of regrowth in this post pandemic society by helping to pick up the pieces of our service industry and retool them for future success. And maybe next year, I can go back to enjoying my early spring hikes again!