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Renegade Chef: Morels, fiddle-heads and lots of garbage

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Morels, fiddle-heads and lots of garbage

I roam the woods frequently this time of year. The morels have popped up, the ferns are uncoiling their fiddle-heads and even the dead, fallen birch and oak trees exude a simple beauty that seems to intensify against the dark green backdrop of the forest floor.

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The canvas subtly changes in color and depth as the day passes — from the mist of an early morning rain, through a cloudy afternoon and into the pre-twilight when the sun finally breaks through and casts a brilliant shimmer to the edges of emerging ferns and the green velvet of dead oak. Even the poison ivy is beautiful.

This is one of the best times of year to forage the woods. Treading the forest floor is relatively easy. The mosquitoes haven’t quite figured out their simple, blood-sucking destiny and the air is still cool. The ticks are horrendous, but, hey, people get Lyme disease in the winter.

The key here is visibility. In two weeks the forest will turn into a jungle of undergrowth and all objects will disappear. But today, as I write this column, I can spy a mushroom or a Monarch caterpillar hiding in the decaying compost of last autumn’s leaves; animal droppings, from rabbits, deer, even bear, are everywhere. The bleached skull and bones of what? — a porcupine? — is almost fluorescent in the distance. And what is that shimmering just ahead?

A beer can — Michelob Light. A few feet away is another can — Coors Light. Apparently whoever left these cans was somewhat health-conscious but didn’t give a darn about the environment. The next time I find myself in a local watering hole and see two people drinking those very same brands, I might just fine them $700 for littering.

But then I find a mushroom — a baby black morel that was too small to harvest. I marked the spot with the Michelob can. I spotted another baby morel and marked the sight with the Coors Light can. Unfortunately, I find no more mushrooms, but I do find several more cans, a rusty hubcap, a moldy couch with rusty springs, two junked dishwashers, a stove, three orange highway cones, a golf ball, a refrigerator, a shattered car windshield, a gas can, a lawnmower, two car batteries and several garbage bags filled with who knows what — Jimmy Hoffa?

Every season I find more garbage and fewer mushrooms so I bribe a veteran morel picker for advice. Search in woods dominated with deciduous trees, he tells me. Look for hills and valleys with southern exposure. And, if possible, find a place where no human has ever been.

“Do you know of such a place?” I ask.

He directs me to a remote area in the foothills near Backus, well-known for being unknown. It’s easy to find, he says.

“Just take the third trail to the left. You can’t miss it — it’s marked with an old Kenmore water heater. Follow that trail until you come to a cluster of old creosote buckets and turn right. Once you get past the piles of sheetrock and cement rubble, turn right at the rusty burn barrel and you’re home-free. If you come across a junked Pontiac, you’ve gone too far.”

But I decide against making the long trip to the pristine, uninhabited wilderness of the foothills. There is plenty of garbage closer to home. And if I come across a nice cluster of wild mushrooms, I’ll know I took the right path — the one leading to the produce aisle in Cub Foods.

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