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Roots And Branches: Super Mario? Super ‘Matsi’

It really isn’t just about the mushrooms, although they are undeniably a delectable bonus.

It’s about the Christmas morning heightened anticipation that sets your pulse racing, stomach churning, palm perspiring as you clutch the door latch waiting to shout, I see one! Stop!

Bow hunters and mountain bikers pass you by paying scant attention to your inane look, like a dog riding shotgun in the pickup, head out the window, saliva streaming off the side of his mouth, tongue hanging in a goofy grin.

Catching that first glimpse of white peeking cautiously through the thick forest floor gets my juices flowing. Game on! It’s matsutake time.

Even the name sets the heart of many Japanese thumping, turning the gruffest Asian into a poet, waxing on and on about the distinctive spicy aroma, the pristine white flesh firm to a gentle squeeze and capital Oh the ecstasy when you unearth a “matsi” with its veil still intact.

How can such a small, white mound of mushroom mass turn generations of Yasuis into salivating zombies, cruising the forest back roads, truck lurching forward and back to the shotgun rider’s shouts of “There’s one!”?

It isn’t just about the excitement of the hunt, although October is turning into a real thriller. It is more about the total experience. Mushrooms come gift-wrapped in the golden glow of a crisp October morning, beneath a comforter of blazing red vine maple leaves, nestled in the emerald-green velvet of moss that covers the forest floor.

I remind myself to gather a bag of moss so our grandkids can make a fairy garden with the treasures they uncover, piquing their interest in a trip to the forest.

The smell of smoldering slash is in the air, but not so pungent as to mask the rich aroma of fall. Dedicated mushroom hunters use all their senses to find the illusive prize. A keen set of eyes is extremely helpful, but one of the senses that has begun to fade as I age, missed treasures masked by the shadows of the towering trees. I can see that engaging the grandkids is becoming more and more important.

Walking with toddlers slows you down, making you pay more attention to the ground underfoot. They are like little vacuum cleaners, picking up everything in sight, prodding, poking and kicking everything in their path. I need them by my side as much as they need me, to lift them over logs, show them how to pick the right mushroom, look under trees for the secretive mounds. Circle of life, each generation helping the other.

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I remember learning to hunt matsutake with Grandma Kageyama over 40 years ago. She was an amazing sensei, teacher of many life lessons. But it is October and memories of her teaching me how to forage in the forest are forefront in my mind.

Forest lessons began when my children were infants, one baby or another always on my back in one of those “new-fangled” metal and canvas contraptions. Grandma showed me how to bundle the babes in a scarf slung over my right shoulder, holding them softly in the curve of the opposite arm. Comforting for mother and child. Most importantly, when I bent down to dig a mushroom the baby didn’t spill out the top.

These babies grew into avid mushroom hunters, the smell of the forest and matsutake imprinted in their souls.

I can see her as if it was yesterday. Grandma with a sturdy walking stick, bandana tied to her neck, grey wool sweater hanging close to her knees dwarfing her 4-foot-10-inch body, rice bag looped through her belt. Life’s lessons in love and hardship crisscrossed her face, turning the corners of her eyes upward in a perpetual smile.

She taught me everything I needed to know in the woods. How to appreciate the forest, the rich soil, deep moss, and telltale bear grass that was supposed to mark mushroom country.

Sometimes we found mushrooms where they were supposed to be, beneath the ancient pines for which the pine mushroom was named. But we also found them under rhododendrons, along the dirt road, snuggled between twisted vines and among fields of ferns.

She smelled the mushroom before she ever saw them. Her nostrils would flare slightly and she would turn and smile. I learned they were close, and kept my eyes glued to the forest floor for any sign of a small telltale hump under which they hid from even the most discerning eyes.

It’s time to pass the Kageyama legacy on to the grandkids. Four-year-old twins Mac and Ray and 6-year-old Cooper are ripe for the experience. Or perhaps I am demented. Is it possible to engage this electronic generation in the love of the woods? Can a fungus compete with an iPad? Maybe I can interest Cooper by referencing that toadstool that kept popping up on his Mario video game. There is only one way to find out.

We pack up the truck and van and head for the forests that reach up to the mountain slopes. We sing songs, watch for cows, horses, birds or red trees — anything to keep them entertained. Cooper sings a Mario song that is as monotonous as the multiple curves we must transcend to get to the forest. My fears escalate. How will the wonder of the woods compare to Super Mario?

How wrong could I be!? The grandkids tumble out of the vehicles, eager to explore. They love the trees and the rocks, the moss and mushrooms. They love the song that the stream sings to them, the stumps they stand on, the logs they carefully traverse like a pirate walking the plank. They loving watching for mushrooms, kicking the death angels, stomping the slimy ones, picking the ones we tell them are edible. They peek into holes, absorbing the smells, sounds and touch of all things new in the forest.

They collect treasures from the forest floor, pebbles worn smooth by the stream, porous lava rock full of mysterious holes, autumn leaves of all colors and shapes, cones, sticks and berries. Moss and lichens fill their little plastic bags, riches fit for a fairy prince or princess. They frolic about like forest fairies, drinking in the wonder of the woods.

Life couldn’t be better. I have filled their heads with stories of Grandma Kage and mushroom hunting adventures with their dad when he was just a child. I have embedded the magic of the forest in their spirit and spent an amazing autumn afternoon in search of life’s many treasures; nature, family and matsutake.

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