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Morel Mushroom Hunters

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Last January the seed catalogs arrived as usual amid the cold winds and snows. I was lost in a spectacular imaginary garden composed from the catalog illustrations until I came to "new this year" and discovered the "grow your own morel mushroom kit" for $19.95.

Is nothing sacred? I imagined the effect of this kit on that small select society of morel mushroom hunters whose fields of dreams are the wooded bluffs and valleys of the Mississippi River. For fifty weeks a year they lead unassuming lives, but for two weeks in late April or May in good years when the spring temperature is just right and the rains and mists cooperate, these hunters disappear at first light, each into his or her own secret Eden in the woods to harvest these wrinkled deep-brown delicacies of the mushroom world.

Where and how they find them is a secret they will not share. Perhaps it’s an intuition they cannot share, a gift bestowed by nature rather than a skill to be learned. Hunting the morel is neither a hobby nor a job—it is a calling.

Those fortunate people who know a morel hunter receive a few morels when hunting is good. It’s a transaction under the table; one does not share his or her hunter. With doors and kitchen windows closed, morels are soon frying lightly in butter. Each bite of smoky, nutty morel puts one back in contact with the earth and with creation, a ritual rather than a meal.

Now, for $19.95, you too can take the magic out of the morel. As it has been taken out of so much of the rest of our modern lives by the push to make things easier. We add water to mix to make a cake, push three buttons on the microwave to fix exotic meals, and e-mail messages to colleagues three offices down to avoid a walk.

Are you familiar with those craft catalogs that tell you the skill level needed to complete this or that project? What do you think our days will be like in a generation or two when, in a catalog of activities, the description under “living” will read skill level: zero?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.