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Morel Hunting in the Pandemic

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Steve Burger
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WNIN

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a popular spring activity that has not been canceled. 

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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
The first finds of the day in hand, Chris looks for more.

If you want to tag along on a morel hunt with New Harmony musician Christopher Layer, you’ll have to be up at the crack of dawn and in the woods by 7am.

The air is cool, but with the sun just starting to show itself, it promises to be a beautiful spring day. The heavy clothing we’re wearing is not so much to ward off the chill as it is protection against the one big danger of morel hunting- wood ticks and deer ticks.

Layer said, “That is the one drawback to what me and some of my friends refer to as ‘the high holy days’, kinda’ like Christmas.”

In Southwestern Indiana, those days come around Easter. The month of April is pretty much prime time for morels here. As we walk deeper into the forest, Layer spots a morel poking up from behind a dry leaf on the forest floor.

He said, “Oh, here we go. Our first true find of the day. He’s about an inch and a half tall. And the way it works is you just look at that one, and talk to it sweetly, and you look between your feet and make sure you’re not standing on one- oop, there’s two more. They’re twins and they’re right between my feet.”

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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
Chris likes the smell of fresh morels plucked from the underbrush.

He continued, "When I find the first one, I like to hold it in my hand and memorize that pattern. And then I give it a good sniff, because I like the smell. Some people say they can smell ‘em, dogs of course can,  and if you get into a big patch you can smell ‘em that’s for sure.

Normally in about a two hour period, although I can cover a lot of territory, if I run into a patch, I can spend an hour within about a twenty foot diameter circle and find a hundred mushrooms. It helps if you don’t mind to crawl on your hands and knees- really get in touch with nature. You’re definitely not social distancing from nature.”

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Morel hunting is hard. 

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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
To get an idea of how difficult it can be to spot them, see if you can find the morel mushroom located roughly in the middle of this image.
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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
Here's a close-up of the morel, hidden among the leaves in the image above.

Their normal colors are perfect camouflage for their surroundings, blending in with dry leaves and brush. They tease those who seek them, hiding among brush or peeking out from behind a single leaf that may appear just a little bit out of place among a pile of leaves next to a fallen tree.

Hard core hunters use all manner of ways to focus on the task. Being a musician, Chris Layer uses music by British artist Brian Eno to get into the morel zone.

As he walked slowly, Layer described the conditions necessary for morels to sprout. 

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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
Chris Layer looks for a few more morels on our way out of the forest.

“If we find three or four here on the surface, there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of little tiny versions of these mushrooms just shortly underground. If the soil temperature, four inches down, is at fifty five degrees(F), the fruiting of the fungus begins. And as long as that temperature is maintained between fifty five and say, sixty two degrees, four inches underneath the surface of the forest, that mycelium will continue to produce. So all those that are waiting in line, they’re below the surface too. It’s why I take such care when I’m walking around the woods. I try not to step on the plants, and they don’t step on me.”

“So the sixty two degrees is when they stop?”

“Yup. Usually in mid-May or so. I don’t know, I’ve gone as far into May as the tenth, but it just depends on the weather.”

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Credit Steve Burger / WNIN
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WNIN
Our haul for the morning.

“The individual morels that pop up then are not individual plants so much as they are just nodes on a network?”

“That is correct.  If they’re under a half inch or three quarters of an inch, I leave ‘em be, ‘cause they still have a future. And I might not find it, but someone else will, or a deer, or a raccoon.”

By now, the sun is up and other groups are beginning to show up to hunt morels. A family is poking among the fallen trees in our area. It’s time to call it a morning.

Our haul, about thirty morels, will be added to Chris Layer's annual store of the mushrooms. Some are cooked, some are dehydrated and saved, some are given away. It's an annual ritual that this year gives a little purpose and comfort during the pandemic.

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