Text & photos—Emily Reed
At the beginning of March I was waltzing in and out of my local coffee shop in small-town Wyoming and spending my nights with friends at the bar. Now I am doing none of those things; instead, I’m walking across a once-blazing mountainside, staring at the ground. My eyes scan the undersides of blackened logs and around the edges of newly sprouted vegetation. And then I see it…instinctively, I flip my pocket knife open, the sound breaking silence. I lean down, slicing the stem of my first foraged morel mushroom. The previous day, I found nothing while my friend and foraging guide, Kevin Coates, found dozens as we crisscrossed the same mountainside.
By the end of our second day I had finally learned to pick out the morels’ darkened honeycomb-like patterns from the forest floor.
With a handful of morels harvested and fully embracing my new title of forager, I was as surprised as anyone. I thought the idea of foraging sounded romantic and I’d always wanted to foster a deeper connection with the food I consumed, but somehow I had a hard time picturing myself engaging in the slow-paced activity.
I might never have thought to try my hand if it weren’t for the global pandemic and the food security issues it has brought to the forefront.
Even my remote little town, insulated from the rest of the world, is experiencing the effects of the pandemic on global supply chains. It was a moment of stark realization for me to walk into my local grocery store and see nearly every aisle empty. It was even harder to hear that the agricultural producers that owned the wide-open spaces surrounding town are having to consider selling their ranches and farms to survive. It began to occur to me how complacent I had become in my consumption of food.
Even though I was a huge supporter of ranch-to-table initiatives and attended my local farmers’ market almost every week in the summer, all my food came to me second-hand. I had no intimate connection with what I was eating.
Fortunately, I live somewhere that afforded me the opportunity to work on building that connection. I packed up my camping supplies for a long weekend and headed westward towards public forest service land to meet up with Kevin. As we rolled down dusty dirt roads, Kevin pointed out potential foraging areas, telling me about the very specific environmental conditions required for morels to grow, obliging foragers and professional pickers to keep track of spring temperatures, tree stand health, and fire patterns.
With a mesh bag in hand I waded out into a sea of green shrubbery. It became a meditation for me, silent hours spent moving slowly up and down the mountain, noticing the tiniest details in the texture of bark, the sounds of hummingbirds’ wings and my own body.
At one point I was startled out of my trance as Kevin and I stumbled upon a newborn fawn nestled up against a log. In the evenings we soaked off our muscle fatigue in a natural hot spring on the river and sautéed the delicate mushrooms in butter. If that’s not the definition of backcountry foraging bliss, I don’t know what is.
I now see why the morel mushroom is so popular, the rich savory taste paired with the enticing challenge of finding where they are hidden in the forest make them irresistible and addicting. If the pandemic has taught me anything it’s that it has prompted people to do extraordinary things for themselves and for others. I urge you to not be complacent when it comes to what you eat: to go out into your backyard, to public land, to urban areas, and find wild food.
Disclaimer from the author: Foraging can come with risks, and mistakenly eating the wrong plant can lead to illness and even death. I learned, for instance, that there such things as “false morels,” fungi that resemble morels but in fact are not edible. Also, it is important to remember that it is recommended to only consume cooked morels.
Emily Reed writes and photographs stories that illuminate modern day life in the West, where humans and nature intersect. You can find her in the vast landscapes of Wyoming with her dog not far behind her.