In Search of Wood Sprites Hiding in Plain Sight.
July 7, 2013
There was a velvet autumn haze that morning when we left the road and climbed through the fence. The dawn sky was mother-of-pearl streaked with long thin ruby clouds and the woods were solemn and quiet. We walked on amber pine needles that cushioned our footfalls in their bed of springy loam. Bill wore his customary sandals and I had on my hunting boots.
We were hunting, all right, Bill and I. We carried orange mesh sacks that had once held grocery store onions. The sacks were empty, but if you held one close to your nose you could smell the pungent aroma of Sedalia onions. I followed the burly man as he headed for a small ash tree that grew next to a small mound of earth.
Bill stopped and picked up something off the diminutive hillock. He held it up to the pale light and beckoned for me to come close.
“This is the first one,” he said. “A morel.”
I had never heard of a morel before I met Bill Letterman down at Cedar Creek in Missouri. The night before our hunt he had extolled the virtues of the morel in glowing terms. His mouth watered as he talked about them.
“What’s a morel?” I asked him.
“A wild mushroom. Delicious. We’ll get some in the morning. You’ll see.”
The morels grew on mounds near ash trees. We found a great many, but I realized that only Bill could find them. After our foray, I began to think of those morels as wood sprites. Oh, I found a number of toadstools and some poisonous mushrooms, but it took me about three years of hunting with Bill to forage and find the elusive morels on my own.
He washed the mushrooms thoroughly, then dipped them in milk and fried or boiled them. I developed a taste for morels and, when I was deer hunting with my .50 caliber muzzleloader Hawken, I often stuffed my camo shirt full of those I found in the woods.
Bill told me that the reason we carried those mesh sacks was so that the spores could escape as we walked around. That would mean more mushrooms the next year. The morels took on a mystical quality for me. Wood sprites, little wood folk who hid in plain sight. Life is astonishing, no matter what form it takes. But, those morels seemed to be sentient. They hid from me until I became adept. I hunted them with other people over the years, but Bill was the most able of the hunters.
He taught me how to tell the different between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms and I soon learned to trust myself to pick the benevolent ones. My mouth waters now as I think of those little wood sprites which seemed to have emerged from children’s fairy tales I read as a child.
You can’t see the spores, but those morels released their invisible seeds and the wind carried them to the right places. I pictured them in their winter nests, growing underground, until the sun seeped into them and they pushed upward through the earth where they flourished in autumn shade and sunlight beneath those ash trees and on those pine-needled mounds.
I still marvel at the process and, although Bill has since passed on, he left me a valuable legacy. I know where the wood sprites live now. There are colonies of them all through the Ozarks woods. They seem to be waiting for me to return and pluck them from their perches, like living manna sent down from heaven.
Or, perhaps their spores flew through the air from that faraway Eden and landed in these Ozarks hills like parachutists in the night. I could see these tiny moths of spores fall silently to earth and nestle in the lavender shadows of scrub pines and cedars as the dawn stretched its fingers out like the dainty wave of a maiden’s hand.