I went to the Strand bookstore in New York City and bought an enormous illustrated tome on mushrooms, which I hauled up to Vermont. It was full of Latin names and stern warnings and symbols representing degrees of edibility. I studied the picture of the lovely white mushroom known as the angel of death, learned how to make spore prints on paper towels, and felt properly nervous but still eager to proceed. Finally I went off to the woods without my mushroom bible, which was far too heavy to carry. I was a middle-aged city dweller still unaccustomed to being alone in the woods, and sometimes I thought I had to be crazy as I scrambled down the ravines and over fallen tree trunks and wrenched my sneakers out of oozing mud. If I broke my leg, who would find me? Perhaps days would pass before my friends started inquiring, "By the way, have you heard from Joyce?" And once I was rescued and was asked, "Why did you take such a foolish risk?" The truth would be somewhat ridiculous: "Because I wanted chanterelles."
I'd been told they grew everywhere in Vermont, and even for a beginner like me, the delicious little saffron trumpets were easily identifiable. Like a child, I wanted there to be chanterelles in my part of the woods. I found only three or four of them that first day, growing out of rotted logs, but still it was a victory. I brought them home in a strawberry box and put them in an omelette after double-checking them with the book. In the following days, I went farther afield and brought home a few more, saving them up until I had enough to cook with pasta. I liked the way the urge to seek them cleared out my mind, brought purpose and suspense to my rambles; I thought of nothing in the woods but of spotting a few dots of cadmium yellow in last year's dead brown leaves. One day, wandering contentedly in circles, I completely lost my way. I headed toward the sunlight and found myself in a strangely familiar place that turned out to be my neighbor's yard. There was a lone chaterelle growing in his driveway. With a twinge of guilt, I picked it.
My city cat had come to Vermont with me; I'd kept her in the house for fear of losing her to coyotes, but finally she made her escape through some torn screening. I ran after her, tearfully calling her name, but she melted into the woods. As I walked back to the house, I found myself in a stand of birches near the road, only a few yards from my door—the ground was covered with small yellow trumpets, more than I'd ever hoped to see in one spot. They'd been hiding in plain sight—like the cat, as it turned out. She materialized on the porch at five the next morning, ravenously hungry and full of fleas.
So thanks to her I have my own secret place, filled with the mysterious bounty of the forest. I can only guess at what makes the chanterelles so abundant there. Is it the particular amount of sunlight filtering through the trees, the birch bark and decaying limbs on the ground mixed with just the right proportions of maple leaves and pine needles? My chanterelles come back year after year. Like all miracles, it's nothing measurable.
Joyce Johnson is the author of Minor Characters and Door Wide Open.
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