Moving at Mushroom Speed
I am squatting at the base of a dying apple tree on a long-abandoned pig farm in central Massachusetts. I alternate between scanning the dark leaf litter and watching a tick hobble up the ladder of my shoelaces. The tick won’t survive the synthetic chrysanthemum extract with which I’ve treated my hiking boots — it will soon drop to the ground, which is why I’m maintaining my stillness rather than flicking it away. And maintaining stillness, even in the face of potential Lyme disease, helps with my other vigil.
What has brought me to this haven of bloodsuckers, poison ivy, and brambles as forbidding as barbed wire? I’m here to hunt morels, mushrooms that famously trick the eye into looking right through them. To see past a morel’s camouflage, one must cultivate unhurriedness. One must move, and think, at mushroom speed.
At the start of the pandemic, those of us lucky enough to stay home went from careering about at a breakneck speed to a cessation so complete that it left us dazed. Neither extreme — hurried, stagnant — seems suited to our evolutionary inheritance. I’d like to make the case that what we need is a third way of moving through the world.
Mushroom speed allows us to do a proper sweep of the forest floor, but it encourages much more than that. It adjusts our expectations from quick gratification to the prolonged pleasure of the long game. Over a lifetime, mushroom hunting spreads its slowness through multiple time scales in the hunter’s life. It rewards everything from a single day spent learning to identify a foolproof edible mushroom — then spotting it on a walk and cooking it up for dinner — to checking next year on the oak where you saw a decomposing hen-of-the-woods, to countless seasons of learning patterns of fungal preference and distaste thoroughly enough that you develop instincts for what you’ll find where, when. It’s making a pact to fall for a particular patch of land, year after year, through flood and drought, and then passing that love along.
Even when you don’t find dinner, your time in the woods reintegrates your senses with the larger body of the earth, a body of which you are but a small part, just as the bacteria in your gut are small parts of you. And just as that intestinal microbiome can be put to rights by pickles or sourdough, you can be put to rights by a walk among the trees. What the Japanese call forest-bathing (meditative immersion in the woods) has been shown to trigger parasympathetic nervous system responses: slowing your heart rate, reducing stress hormones like cortisol, boosting immunity, jogging your metabolism… basically, encouraging you to relax.
That’s why in 2020, as the pandemic shut off many urbanites’ routes to the woods, we felt keenly our inability to unwind beneath leafy canopies. In contrast to mushroom speed — a rate of living that we choose — the coronavirus slowdown of 2020 was claustrophobic, as we forewent human community to protect it. For all the jokes about nature healing, it was hard to feel that, amid the trauma of separation from the things that kept us well.
But hunting morels is a different kind of slowdown altogether. Where I live, finding even a few of the alien, spongelike beings proves that you paid close, slow attention to things like the types of trees you’re walking among; the soil’s makeup and temperature; whether the lilacs are in bloom; what size the new oak leaves have grown to; and especially the variegated patterns that let you distinguish fallen leaf from fungal edifice.
When you’ve learned where morels might grow during their fleeting season, it means that you’ve walked, crawled, squatted, crouched, gotten low, and genuflected to the forest floor to pay due respect to the agents of rot. (Of course, it also means that you’re nobody’s favorite hiking partner, that your companions have left you behind to see the view from the top of the mountain, while you stick to the lowlands, alert to each tented leaf.)
This depth of attention isn’t needed for morels alone. Black trumpets in summer, the nearly invisible bumps indicating autumnal matsutake; finding any of these means you’ve rappelled down from the jagged cliffs of human scale and learned to find signs in the dirt. And to be constantly stooped like that might make you take better care of your back, so you can comfortably assume an earthbound position for many mushroom seasons to come. In fact, remembering our earthbound condition is the point.
Here on this old farm where pigs once outnumbered townspeople, I like to imagine immense flushes of morels going unnoticed, the fungus fodder only for deer, slugs, and other creatures who travel at mushroom speed. When I first arrived at the farm, in spring of 2018, I spotted 13 specimens of Morchella americana under that ailing apple tree. However, only a repeat visit would reveal whether I could expect future harvests.
So one year later, on the sweltering late May day where this story began, I was displeased when a fifth, sixth, and seventh circuit around the ancient tree’s gnarled trunk yielded nothing to me and my hiking companions. I’d looked forward to this meeting for a year, only to be frustrated — in front of an audience. Because of how slow our progress had been along those trails (how slow it had to be), I felt duty-bound to call it before the sweet, anticipatory slowness converted to tedium. I said, “I guess there aren’t—"
“Is this one?” Interrupted my friend R., whose job as a hospital chaplain had given her practice with patience. She peeled back a curtain of brush and pointed to one of the most delightfully strange sights in all of creation, a blond stalk capped by gray-blond ridges and valleys of extraterrestrial origami. She had found the first morel of the day. The rest of our trio would discover 13 more — quickly, now that she’d taken us across the boundary from human to mushroom speed.
FORAGE is an ongoing series of columns about foraging as a wellbeing practice.