In pursuit of some peace from the barrage of political propaganda filling the airwaves, Flip and I headed into the woods. In some ways, we were seeking higher ground on a variety of fronts.
How fortunate we are to live in a valley surrounded by towering hills that reach right to the base of the mountains. We can set our compass in any direction, south, west or north, to reach the lush forests that make up the foothills of Mount Hood, Mount Defiance or Mount Adams.
As you move upwards, you are blessed at every turn in the road with panoramic views of the valley below. The palette is so vibrant in the fall. The fiery red of the vine maples, golden leaves of the oaks and poplars, brilliant oranges of the sugar maples as they begin to turn. Flashes of color are intensified against the forest greens and blues of the towering firs. Top that off with a coat of fresh new snow on the mountain tops, a white so brilliant it warrants pulling out the sunglasses.
Our spirits were rewarded with a technicolor assault on all our senses. The air was so much fresher at the higher altitude, thanks to a recent fall rain. The scent of pine and fir trees filled our noses, opened our lungs, mysteriously lifting an oppressive weight off our shoulders. As our eyes scanned the forest floor the memorable scent of moist moss wafted upwards, a velvet blanket covering the unmistakable scent of Matsutake mushrooms lying just below the surface.
Nothing rekindles your spirits more than a walk in the woods on a fall afternoon combined with the thrill of discovering some delectable Matsutake mushrooms. We are not professional nor dedicated mushroom hunters. I guess you would call us traditional mushroom hunters, connected to the Japanese custom of going to the hills in the fall to seek out the elusive pine mushroom. The hunt has more to do with connecting with family and nature, bringing your children and theirs into the fold of foraging for food, inhaling the beauty of your surroundings and experiencing the thrill of discovering treasures underfoot.
Your heart skips a beat when you see the tell-tale mound that signals mushrooms below. As you carefully probe the earth with your mushroom “walking” stick the excitement builds, only to ebb as the mushroom emerges from its underground bed, a pristine white, its stalk shattering into a multitude of pieces. Not the prized matsutake or pine mushroom you are seeking. It should have a very firm stalk that doesn’t shatter and have a creamy color rather than a brilliant white and the scent of pine or cinnamon.
Mushroom hunting is best done by strong hikers who can crawl over fallen trees, climb up steep hillsides and traverse small streams. I am not in that shape at this moment. I am awaiting surgery on both hip and knee, a procedure that has been put on the back burner for too many years. So this year, we search the mountain sides for flat forest floors easily walkable by those with unsteady limbs. I seek an open forest with few fallen trees or underbrush and a relatively level forest floor. If I let the excitement of spotting a mushroom mound overcome my lack of mobility I could become the star of one of those commercials that feature a woman who has fallen and can’t get up. I doubt that Flip could help me up either. So I am content with exploring the logging roads by truck, windows rolled down, mist on my face, road hunting, something I would have held in great disdain a few years ago. If we find a promising spot too difficult to navigate on unstable legs, we call in our kids and grandkids as reinforcements, always with the promise of utmost secrecy.
This is a good year for mushrooms. And a great year for seeking out places that restore your spirit and provide relief from the ills of mankind. It helps you recharge your batteries and re-energize your efforts to help others. It carries on a centuries-old tradition among the Japanese who settled in the valley. Matsutake hunting brings the family together each fall, passing on a healthy activity to the next generation; sharing the location of the family secret garden, breathing in the beauty of the forest, teaching the little ones how to choose the perfect matsutake stick and at days end how to clean and prepare the mushrooms. There is nothing more satisfying than a steaming bowl of sukiyaki and a pot of sticky rice laden with bits of the prized Matsutake mushroom you gathered only hours before.
Mushroom season began with a solemn end this year. We lost Aunt Miyuki last winter, but some of her ashes were spread at the Homer Yasui family’s secret gardens. Homer’s children and grandchildren made the trek into the forest where Aunt “Mik” had hunted for the last seven decades of her 93 years. No one expected there to be Matsutake out in August. It had been hot and dry and the fall rains were yet to come. It was a loving tradition depicting the circle of life and honoring this very special woman. Low and behold, near the very log Aunt “Mik” always sat on as she prepared her matsutake stick and pulled her cotton rice bag from her jacket pocket, there were two large matsutake. The family gathered round and sang one of the Methodist hymns she loved. Then one by one three generations sprinkled her ashes between the mushrooms on the fertile forest floor. The family’s secret garden was blessed with the ashes of an amazing woman who had persevered through some difficult times but always celebrated life to the fullest.
I wish that every family had a secret garden where they could go and escape the woes of the world, restore their spirit and establish a tradition that lived on with each new generation.