Dancing through the woods, pretending we were gypsies in search of food, my sisters long ago taught me that somewhere around May Day we might stumble upon mushrooms, and a day of play would become an evening for a feast.
One particular year, after a very snowy winter followed by a rainy spring, we were cowboys with toy guns blazing, playing in the big woods on the western boundary of the farm. Suddenly, my oldest sister said to me, “Run to the house as fast as you can and bring back two — no, three! — pillowcases.”
I was quick to question why it had to be me who did the running, and why in the world did she want me to bring pillowcases to the woods, of all things. She whispered in my ear, “It’s a secret. You’ll see why just as soon as you come back. Now, hurry!”
She knew I was a sucker for the word “secret” and that alone would prompt me to move as though my life depended upon it. Returning to the woods with three pillowcases, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw that my big sisters had already picked at least a bushel of mushrooms.
My mouth started to water, recalling the taste of fresh mushrooms fried in butter. Dad had taught us some mushroom hunting tips, and I remember that searching around dead elm trees seemed to have been part of his instruction. We found our best crop on the southern side of that woods, some hiding under what we always called Maypole weeds.
He taught us to always leave a few mushrooms behind, because taking them all would ruin the chance of spores producing more mushrooms in the years to come. In more recent years, we were placing our order with a waitress at a local restaurant when the subject of mushrooms came up.
This young waitress said that she had just had the best success mushroom hunting, bagging nearly 300 that very morning. My father was curious where she liked to hunt, and she proceeded to give him detailed directions to her favorite woods.
After she left our table, Dad said, “You do realize where our waitress got those mushrooms, don’t you?”
I admitted that I hadn’t really been paying much attention. She had given directions to one of my parents’ farms, the one we referred to as “the Wolf place.”
When we finished eating, Dad complimented the waitress on her service, telling her he was going to leave a nice tip on the table for her to take to the bank, and that he had another tip for her to take to heart.
She smiled and waited to hear what he had to say. “I have been thinking about those directions you gave me, and I just happen to know the fellow who owns that woods. He is one mean son-of-a-gun, so you might want to ask permission before you go back!”
We sometimes found mushrooms on the fencerow edge of what we called the wilderness field, though others who didn’t mind trespassing sometimes beat us to that crop, too.
The farm we referred to as the Springer place, though a Springer hasn’t lived in this community for 70 years or so, was the best of the best. I always felt that was because it hadn’t been over-harvested throughout the years, sitting far back off the beaten path.
I have a feeling this just might be the perfect year to go hunting. If there are no mushrooms to be found, I can always fill a pillowcase with wild flowers instead.