Even experts can be fooled when hunting wild mushrooms.
My legs are tired, but I am content, because I have been to the woods and gathered the first of this season's elusive morels.
Molly, my Jack Russell terrier, always accompanies me. Or, perhaps I should say, Molly occasionally crosses her orbits with mine. As I trudge along, systematically combing my favorite wooded hillsides for mushrooms, Molly races past, making wide arcs to the left or right, in pursuit of unseen game and delicious scents in the air. Her pell-mell patrols take her out of sight ahead of me, but then, every five minutes or so, she comes from behind, out of nowhere, and passes me again without so much as a blink or a nod.
The effect is as if I am continually being overtaken by a whole pack of tiny black-and-white terriers. Had I a gun, and the notion to depart from my mushroom quest, I could follow Molly when she barks, from time to time, and augment my feast of fungi with squirrel, rabbit, oppossum or coon.
But I have an appetite only for morels, and for the hunt that nourishes my soul in ways only another mushroom hunter can appreciate. The feel of the spongy earth under my feet, the dry crackle of leaves, and the intoxicating smell of wild phlox would be enough, even if the morels never reveal themselves to me.
Morels are one of the safest mushrooms to hunt, because they cannot be mistaken for any other fungi that grow at this time of year, but I like to tell and retell a cautionary tale that should give pause to any expert or novice mushroom hunter who decides to go hunting wild mushrooms.
I first heard it myself at the Missouri State Fair, where a mycologist from the Conservation Department was giving a talk in a crowded hall. His slides included both edible and deadly poisonous mushrooms, and I fretted as people came and went throughout his program, many of them missing the warning he finally gave. I really wished everyone had been made to stay until the end.
The conservation officer related how a professor of his, a doctor of mycology, had been on a picnic in late spring with his family. Not expecting to find any edible mushrooms, they had not gone with gathering baskets. But there had been a recent rain and the temperature was apparently just right, so after lunch, they discovered the meadow where they ate was filled with mushrooms.
Overconfident from years of study, "Dr. Mushroom" gave his children the go-ahead to pick the plentiful mushrooms, although he had not done the critical spoor check, or cross-referenced them to potentially deadly look-alikes. The family gathered enough of the mystery mushrooms to fill their picnic basket and the tablecloth they had brought along to lay on the grass. When they returned home, they had more than a large shopping bag full.
Still without checking as to their edibility, the pompous professor encouraged his wife to fry up a big feast of the mushrooms. After a day in the country, with lots of activity and fresh air, the family was hungry again, and they supped on mushrooms, with little else, until they were all full. There were even mushrooms left over, so the professor's wife scraped them out of the frying pan and fed them to the cat.
As they were all sitting around the living room, patting their full stomachs and happily reliving the events of the day, the cat suddenly entered the room, meowing insistently and acting strange.
Suddenly, it dawned on the mushroom expert that he had been too hasty and violated the first rule of hunting and eating wild mushrooms. Always verify your find before you feast.
In a panic, he didn't even tell his family there are some poisonous mushrooms for which there are no antidotes. He lost no time in piling the family back into the car, and they rushed to the local hospital emergency room. The staff there acted quickly to administer strong emetics, and within a couple of hours, all in the family had their stomachs pumped.
Feeling shaken and exhausted, but thankful to be alive, the family returned to their house. Lights were still on, the dishes still dirty as they had left them, but the family cat was nowhere to be seen.
The children became understandably frantic, and now the concern became how to find and save their cat, Miss Kitty, who had first caused their father to sense something might be wrong.
They practically tore the house apart, searching and calling for their beloved pet, until they finally found her, down in a dark corner of the basement, behind some old boxes.
Perfectly fine, Miss Kitty had given birth to six kittens.
Josh Young is the author of Missouri Curiosities, which will soon be out in a second edition, published by The Globe Pequot Press.