By Bill Sherwonit
Lots of attention has been given to “magic mushrooms” lately, from media reports (including the Anchorage Press) about Denver becoming the first U.S. city to decriminalize the psychoactive molecule psilocybin, to Michael Pollan’s remarkable book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, and all the discussion that provocative book has stirred up.
It’s reported that psilocybin mushrooms occur in Alaska, though they appear similar to many other LBMs—little brown mushrooms—some of which are toxic to humans. So mushroom hunters seeking a psychedelic experience must choose carefully and wisely. In other words: picker, beware.
For all of the allure that Psilocybes hold for our species, a different family of mushrooms has worked its magic on me, one known to mycologists as Morcellaceae. In plain English, they’re simply called morels.
Morels have built a loyal human following for a number of reasons, the chief one being this: they’re considered fungal delicacies, among the tastiest of wild, edible mushrooms.
I can vouch for their appealing flavor, having sautéed and eaten my share. But what’s even more appealing to me is that morels have perfected the art of camouflage. Particularly in mature, undisturbed northern forests, members of the Morcellaceae family are known for their ability to hide in plain sight. In large part that’s because they poke out of the ground in spring and early summer, when their earth-toned caps easily blend with brown and brittle leaves and other forest debris.
Though some people might have a natural “eye” for these mushrooms, it seems to take dedicated practice for most mushroom hunters to easily notice the presence of morels, which have a conical, earth-toned form and honey-combed, “ridges-and-pits” texture.
Though I was first introduced to morels in 2014, it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that these earth-toned fungal fruits truly gained my attention—and, in short order, became something of an obsession. This happened after a 2016 forest fire burned portions of the wooded landscape above Turnagain Arm, which in turn led to an unusual—yet predictable, given the morel-friendly habitat—“bloom” of morels the following summer.
As any mushroom devotee knows, morels (like other mushrooms) are simply the fruits of much larger and mysterious “filamentus fungi” networks that may stretch considerable distances beneath the ground. In undisturbed woodlands, the number of morels tends to be small and—to the human eye—sporadically distributed.
For reasons that scientists still don’t understand, forest fires trigger an exceptionally large fruiting episode the following year (and sometimes two). That post-fire fruiting makes morels considerably easier to find, for a couple of reasons: first, they are much more abundant; second, they are much easier to spot in ashy soil.
Lured into the burn area by curiosity that summer of 2017, I gradually began to better spot the morels, even along the untouched edges of the burn where they can more easily hide. The more I found, the more intrigued I became and more intently I looked. As I would later write in an essay titled “Confessions of a morel hunter” (published in We Alaskans), “There was a time in late May when I would close my eyes and visions of mushrooms suddenly appeared before me. Remarkably vivid images . . .”
It seems that the intensity of my quest for morels had burned their forms into my consciousness.
At the time I wasn’t sure if what I was experiencing would become a short-lived fungal infatuation or a longer-lived romance. It’s turned out to be the latter. This year I again spent many hours wandering the forested hillsides above Turnagain Arm in search of Morcellaceae fruits. The person who knows my habits best, Jan Myers, could only shake her head and chuckle, “You’re obsessed.”
So it goes.
Here I’ll briefly reflect upon the deepening of my relationship with Morcellaceae—what I’ve come to consider something of an enchantment.
In searching the same general area that I first hunted in 2017, I’ve discovered that—as mycologists would predict from their studies of other forest fire events—morel fruiting within the Turnagain Arm burn has fallen off dramatically (at least in the places I’ve checked out).
This year I found only a few morels in recovering burn areas and had much more success in adjacent mature, undisturbed woodlands; that is, places that didn’t catch fire in 2016.
To be honest, I’ve found greater pleasure—and perhaps fulfillment?—in discovering morels within those intact, unharmed areas, where they most easily hide themselves from mushroom hunters. I think it’s because the search for them becomes more of a practice, a ritualized quest.
You have to move slowly through the forest and really pay attention. And if you’re patient and persistent and humble and thankful, the morels—some of them, anyway—will reveal themselves to you.
This may sound strange, but it’s as if a relationship begins to grow between fungus and human. Not only the fruiting morels, but the larger, more complicated underground networks that produce the fruits, and which mycologist Diane Pleninger calls “the thinking, feeding, acting parts of the fungus.”
To seek morels (and I’ve come to imagine myself more of a seeker than hunter) is to participate in mystery. There is so much we don’t know about them or the larger bodies from which they grow. That too feeds my passion.
So, you see, it’s true: morels have worked their magic on me.
And that seems enough to share for now, except for one final observation and a caution. First: like several other local life forms that are reborn or reawakened each spring—for instance frogs and wildflowers and the leaves on trees—morels, and the peak of their fruiting, seemed to occur much earlier than usual this year.
And finally, the caution: the morels I’ve harvested are considered “true” morels. There are other local mushrooms—dubbed “false” morels—that vaguely resemble true morels and which fruit at about the same time and in similar habitats. As with any wild mushroom, anyone seeking to harvest the edible fungal fruits must learn to positively identify them, because false morels are dangerously poisonous to humans. When in doubt, leave a mushroom in the ground—or bring it to an expert, who can tell true from false.
Even with edibles, experts warn that wild mushrooms should not be eaten raw. And because some people are sensitive to mushrooms, it’s recommended that anyone consuming morels—or, I suppose, psilocybins--for the first time eat only a small portion and then wait a day to be sure the mushroom doesn’t cause intestinal distress.
There’s no urgency to any of this now, because the local morel season appears to be over. But that leaves plenty of time to do true-or-false research before morels fruit again next spring, bringing new magic into the world.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.