The grass is too green for September and the mosquitoes too numerous. The rain keeps coming too hard. The humidity hangs on too long. Like a lot of things this year, the weather just seems off.
We’re amateur mushroom hunters. It’s been a great year for fungus. I can spend hours out in the woods with my eyes scanning the ground, downed trees, and high-up branches for oysters, elm caps, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods. I keep trying to train the dogs to sniff them out for me, but so far, no luck. Pony and Polar Bear seem bent on digging up mole tunnels and raccoon scat.
We discovered chanterelle and lobster mushrooms for the first time in our mushroom hunting history in the area. Maybe they’ve always been there, but I thought the discovery was strange. They were so orange bright and abundant, that I spied them out the car window as my husband was driving.
“Pull over!” I said. Before he put the car in park, I was unlocked from my seat belt and out the door. First, I smelled the air. If you really try, you can smell mushrooms. Then, I crouched over and admired the forest floor. My lungs filled and my heartbeat in my fingertips. Chanterelles, these flower-shape beauties, were everywhere underfoot. As we picked our favorites (it’s good practice to harvest with restraint and reservation; take only half of what you see), I said, “This is so weird. They don’t grow here.”
The lobster we discovered about another five minutes into a walk. “No way. No way!” He pointed to it. I knelt down and admired its weird little curls, its density, and especially its rust color. The lobster is a very, very distinctive mushroom. My husband kept his eyes to the ground and discovered one after another, mushrooms of varied stems, gills, caps, and colors.
Mushroom hunting is like treasure hunting. Every fungus is a specimen to be admired and studied and researched and photographed and shared all over social media. The best fun is learning which ones are edible and which ones can give you stomachache. You can pinch off the stems, take the caps, place them gill or pore side down on white or black paper and wait. The cap will drop its spores into a distinctive pattern and color, enough evidence to hazard a reliable guess as to what it is with the help of a good guide book.
The afternoon is still one of my favorite memories of summer, even though the insects soon homed in on us and chased us back to the safety of the car. “God,” I said. “They’re awful.” I shook my hair out, which loosened a few of the buzzers. I clapped my hands and smashed one. “Relentless.”
My dogs love when the dragonflies come. The dragonflies show up after the waves of gnats and mosquitoes and feast on them. Around this house, when we are feeling under attack by gnats or mosquitoes, the kids will say, “Where are the dragonflies?!?” That’s because I used to teach them that nature balances itself out. I used to teach them there was a relationship between cause and effect, food source and predator. So, the dragonflies would save us from suffering bites. Usually, the dragonflies hang on until the food source dries up. They’re still here, and Pony and Polar Bear find it very fun to chase them down into the ravine. Dragonflies seem to have a sense of humor. As in, they’ll flit close to the nuzzles of my dogs and then flight off in hilarity.
Pony darted off into the ravine after a dragonfly. When she returned, small burs covered her fur. Thick. Green. Tiny. Hundreds of them.
I let her into the kitchen. “Jesus, Pony,” I said. I began the assessment. These burs weren’t like ordinary cockleburs, big, identifiable star shaped seeds, annoying but easy enough to pull. These burrs were little, kind of like hundreds of tiny ticks. I began pulling off the ones on her face, around her eyes. “What did you get into?” Her chocolate eyes appealed to me for help. “Sit. Sit down.”
Polar Bear paced and moaned around in the kitchen. He was clearly nervous about what was happening. For thirty minutes, I sat there, pinching off one burr after another and setting it carefully on a paper towel. When I realized I’d be there until the pandemic was over or the end of the world, whichever came first, I decided to try to comb them out. While I searched for the comb, Polar Bear comforted Pony with a lick and a sneeze. I dragged the comb across her back, picking up some burs along the way. Pony didn’t like the yanking and pulling and tried to move away from me and hide behind Polar Bear.
So, I remembered what mom used to do when we had gum in our hair: grease. I slathered some bacon grease on her fur and started removing them again. I’d swipe the comb through her fur, wipe it off on a paper towel, and go back again. This worked slightly better and I kept at it until one side of her was pretty clear and until she couldn’t tolerate the unwanted attention anymore. “Fine. We’ll work on it some more later.”
The next morning, I came downstairs to the kitchen and found the two dogs cozily snuggled up together. I noticed that nearly every bur was gone. “What the…” Polar Bear licked Pony’s ear and a spark alighted in my brain. “Polar Bear, did you…”
He wagged his tail like he was proud of himself.
“Good dog,” I said.
Later that day, I went out to check a hen of the woods spot near a dying oak. I was so busy swatting at mosquitoes and carefully stepping around the prickly currant brambles, that I didn’t notice the long, stringy, sticky leaves full of the same burrs that Pony had. Although I barely brushed the plant, it was like it reached out to grab for me. When I got back to the house, I looked at the bacon grease and looked at Polar Bear, then thought better of it. I threw the pants in the garbage.