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Morels, morals, and asparagus

Food for Thought

At this time of year, we often see people patrolling the ditches along highways and county roads. They are not picking up trash or searching for returnable aluminum cans. They are hunting for mushrooms and asparagus, but they prefer that you think they’re just taking a pleasant stroll in the country. As your car approaches, they look up and surreptitiously drop that plastic bag into the grass at their feet– often pretending to watch a meadowlark on a nearby fence post, or count the new calves in a pasture. Only when you are well out of sight will they retrieve their booty and continue with their real purpose– the stalking of wild asparagus and the unique spring morel, sometimes known as the sponge mushroom. The reason for the pretense, of course, is that they are afraid you may be in pursuit of the same delicacies and intrude on what they perceive as their personal territory.
These spring foragers maintain a code of secrecy and proprietorship that is shared by only a few fishermen and hunters of bittersweet. No matter whose property their quarry is on, they claim an unwritten right of ownership by virtue of having discovered it. In public parks and along public roads, this right of discovery seems to be questionable. Whoever gets there first gets the goodies. If someone else happens to have discovered that hot-bed of asparagus in the past, and been there first, the other ‘owners’ are resentful and angry– feeling as though they have been robbed of personal property. Those foragers who trespass on private property are of another breed. If they were hunting pheasants or deer, they would feel obligated to obtain permission from the land-owner. Not true when it comes to mushrooms. For some reason, mushrooms are not considered to be components of the land one owns but, rather, the rightful property of whoever finds them. The same person who would conscientiously attempt to find the owner of a lost mitten will not hesitate to climb a fence and pick the mushrooms growing around the base of a tree that supports a no trespassing sign.
The really greedy ones are those who pick more mushrooms than they want for their own use, then sell them or, worst of all, let them spoil, rather than leave them for other hopeful hunters. Those are the ones who seem to believe they have special rights of ownership and don’t give others the same chances they expect for themselves. (I guess you could call those black-market mushrooms “im-morels.”)
This is the same mind-set that prompts autumnal gatherers to wipe out bowers of bittersweet vines in the fall. Those sturdy vines like sun and support– thus, they are most often found growing in a tangle on a fence. When the orange berries open to display their ruby hearts, they are easy to spot as one drives down a country road. Unfortunately, these aggressive vines grow heavy and can destroy a fence within a few years. Many farmers, understandably, spray them with herbicides in order to save their fences. Bittersweet is popular with hobbyists and crafters who use it in dried arrangements and they can never seem to obtain enough of it. The greedy gatherers who cut virtually all the fruit-bearing branches literally destroy the plant and all hope for future berries. It never seems to occur to them that, since those vines are growing on someone’s fence, they are private property and not up for grabs. These people would never go into your front yard and pick your tulips, but they will steal your bittersweet without conscience.
Unlike the showy bittersweet, morels require close-to-the-ground searching and those who successfully hunt them are close-mouthed about their sources. I’ve heard some pretty elaborate lies and evasions from mushroom hunters when they are asked where they find them. Some give helpful hints without being specific. They say things like, ‘look around dead elm trees,’ or, ‘I always look under the may-apples.’ Nothing specific– just general pointers that may– or may not– be good advice.
And, asparagus hunters have admitted to cutting the feathery tops of their favorite patch after the edible shoots are spent, and dumping them in a ditch far away in order to mislead those who might be on the look-out for places to search next spring. While it’s possible to seed down a patch of asparagus in your own garden space so that you don’t have to share the ditches in this uncertain way, having your own private mushroom patch isn’t so easy.
I guess I have to admire the ingenuity of those who try to protect their secret troves, but is it really fair? I guess it all depends on whether or not you have your own secret hot-spot, doesn’t it?