I love to wander in the woods this time of year, when the forest yields its last fruits: the river birches and aspens going gold, the mountain maples blazing red, and the larch starting to think about their green needles turning flaxen and carpeting the forest floor. After twenty-seven Montana winters, I always get this pioneer sixth sense at the start of October. Suddenly I’m scaling the forest for dead trees for firewood, making sure they’re not bird habitat. I forage for rosehips to pull off the wild rugosas to make Vitamin C-packed jelly and marmalade. I take the arnica I’ve been steeping in almond oil since spring, drain it, and cook up my salve for aching winter backs. And I try to time it just right so that I pull the tomatoes off the vine to can, before the first hard frost. Sometimes I nail it. Sometimes I don’t. Such is the dance with October.
But my favorite of all fall forest fruit is the mushroom. This time of year, in my opinion, the best edible mushroom that grows around here is the white chanterelle and I’m obsessed. But I’m also obsessed with all mushrooms, just to see how they grow in their rings, or from hard wood, or push up through the rough detritus and moss to bloom in such blithe and ephemeral glory. Something you could kick with your boot and never notice was there, but something that if you go slowly enough, and dig around, you can stop to behold– to see if it’s edible or poisonous by its gills and stems and caps. I’ve always wondered what creatures eat mushrooms, especially the poisonous ones. I wonder, and then I move on, on a hunt for my harvest.
But today…it was like the forest was playing a trick on me. A really clever trick, and yes, with mushrooms.
I went into a forest where I’ve found chanterelles this time of year. I went with dreams of sautéing them with butter and freezing them as special delicacies when winter is dark and cold and seemingly endless. Maybe I’d brown some butter and add chanterelles with the last sage from my garden for dinner tonight. I salivated as I went, looking for lodgepoles and spruce, and a good canopy and just the right forest bottom– my eye on the prize.
I saw boletes mostly. Every-so-often a meadow mushroom. But no chanterelles. So I stopped and looked around to see if I could spot a better way to go. And that’s when my mind went into contortions. I consider myself pretty observant, especially when it comes to walking in the woods, but this one had me flummoxed. Because…laid carefully in the boughs of larch and Doug fir and spruce, eye level and above…there were mushrooms. All the way up the trees. Perfectly placed mushrooms, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. The stems and caps untouched as if a forager had sliced them from the ground with a well-sharpened knife. I found myself saying what my kids say, “What even?”
My mind whipped into the mystical, as it has since childhood, especially in the woods. Were they placed there as an invitation to some underworld where beetles and ladybugs had tea with fairies and gnomes? If I touched one of them, maybe I’d be through the portal, sitting at their tiny table like Alice! Was there some system I was missing where insects loosened them and tossed them treeward for fairies to catch and place in the trees for winter food? I’m not kidding. This is where my mind goes in the woods. Don’t judge.
I almost touched one but then I stopped. I didn’t want to disturb this numinous design. My practical mind thought, Are they growing there? I looked more closely. No. They were most definitely placed there. Did a hunter do it? Why would they bother– such bigger plans? Were they dropped by raptors? Birds don’t eat mushrooms. I walked further and saw more– mushrooms in conifers everywhere. Carefully placed there and camouflaged. I’ve never seen this before in all my years of wandering in the woods. What even?
My mind went back to my childhood storybooks. Maybe I’d come across some dark magic. Wizardry. A witch who needed these exact fungi to make her brew, posing as an old crone with a walking stick in a black robe hiding behind the tree, ready to cast a spell if I didn’t move along. I started to freak myself out. I think I actually like freaking myself out, but only in this way, in the woods. I’ve been doing it all my life, but don’t ask me to watch a scary movie or read Stephen King. (unless it’s his book about writing! Brilliant!)
I shook it out of me. There must be some obvious answer. I just had to stop. And pay attention. As is the requirement of the wild if you really want to understand its lessons.
So I found a stump and sat, and I watched. Nothing but a light wind in the trees. And as I watched, I wondered: Why don’t I do this more often, sit on a stump? Why am I always walking in the woods instead of sitting in the woods? What happened to the girl who sat in the woods for hours trying to get one bird to come to me and let me touch it. It happened. A few times. When is the last time I tried to charm a bird? Or what about that girl who lay in her treehouse all day in summer, reading and writing and watching spiders spin webs? I had such a deep sense of wonder and connection then. And even more, I believed that I was not totally apart of this world, but a stranger to another that would surely welcome me with love and belonging. If only I could find that last filament of belief…I could enter a portal and be in another world. I was sure it existed. I knew that all it took was just one more Peter Pan “I believe,” and I’d be in. I always bemoaned my flaw. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t muster that one magic “I believe?”
Along the way, I stopped asking. But I never stopped believing and today was proof of it. I mean—mushrooms in trees? My mind so quick to go to magic, light or dark?
My head started to tingle and I began to lose feeling in my feet. That out-of-body feeling hasn’t happened in a while, and I took a deep breath and wiggled my toes. “Right here. Right now,” I said. That feeling scares me. Maybe it’s why I’ve never danced with beetles and gnomes… Maybe I’m too afraid for true wonder. So I sat there in shame, watching, letting my questions go and just noticing. Noticing is something I ask myself to do when I don’t know the questions to ask, and especially when I’m fairly certain I’m not going to find answers. I just allowed myself to be suspended in wonder. And that required stopping, sitting, watching, being.
As the dogs bounded into the woods, I watched closer. And I saw a stirring in the snowberry bushes. Sure enough, it was a squirrel digging up a mushroom. And I watched as it picked it up, ran it up a tree, and left it there perfectly whole on a bough, I suspected, to dry and store for winter. How fascinating. How magical. And…how not unlike…me…in the woods, with mushrooms on my mind. My stomach fluttered with wonder, only on the “this world” side of it.
Maybe we don’t need tea parties with fairies if we have this, I thought. Maybe this IS tea parties with fairies. And a surge of joy, like I felt when I was a little girl, started in my chest and spread out to my fingertips and toes. I held it there, afraid it would go, but it didn’t. It stayed. For a good long time, watching this little busy, dexterous, squirrel. As if the stump was the conduit, the keeper, and as long as I sat there, I would feel this elation and connection with the woodland kingdom. So I sat and I sat, and I watched and I watched. Until the dogs came back and chased the squirrel and the spell was suspended if not broken.
I stood, a little sad, but I smiled at the stump, memorizing it, promising to return. But then I remembered that stumps are everywhere in the woods, and where I live, the woods are everywhere. In that moment, I was moved to take a vow: All I have to do is walk into them and that magic will be there. But I won’t find it if I don’t look up, look down, go slowly, and from time to time stop altogether and find a good stump to sit on. If I find a chanterelle, that’s just a bonus. I’m looking for something much deeper than a mushroom. I’m looking for my wonder. I vow to look mostly for my wonder.
I didn’t find my beloved chanterelles. But I walked home and I went to my window seat where I keep my children’s books going back four generations. Hundreds of years of adults opening children’s already open minds to dancing with fairies in the woods. Maybe those books are really for the parents. And I pulled out a few about fairies and gnomes and witches and insects and mushrooms and the woods…and opened them and read them with tears in my eyes and a stirring in my belly. I’m really no different than that girl whose eyes gazed into these exact images with loving words spoken by my elders, while I lay in bed.
And I made myself say out loud: “I believe. I believe.” I wonder what the squirrels know.
Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats Montana 2020!
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October 28-November 1
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