Plastic-Treasure-Map_5108436I can’t get this joke out of my head:

Q: Why are pirates pirates?

A: Because they just ARRRR!!

Makes me laugh every time, which means I am simple, so beware. It also means I have a fresh way to introduce yet another ditty about my springtime obsession: morels. After all, morel hunting in Wisconsin is a lot like treasure hunting, a favorite of pirates everywhere.

Though there are key differences. Morels, for instance, don’t come with handy maps with dotted lines and big Xs to mark the spot. You just have to know where to look for these rascally little mushrooms. And look and look and look. There’s no one withholding information you can force down the plank at swordpoint, either. When you’re hunting morels, you’re on your own, and the deer ticks know it, so be careful.

This deficiency of fungal stoolpigeons gives you hours of solitary time to play mind games with yourself while in pursuit. My number one mind-game topic (MGT) as I battle all the woodland prickers is soil. Soil is the exact place where the morels were not yesterday, but where they somehow are today. What the heck changed overnight? Temperature? Moisture? Cosmic dust? Mushroom fairies?

After years of experience, I have learned it’s the mushroom fairies. What else could it be? Moisture doesn’t seem to matter—I find morels when it’s bone dry and during spring floods. Neither does temperature (okay, temperature matters in general—winter morel hunts are kinda crazy—but spring temperature is a poor guide to pinpoint pop-up locations). Cosmic dust is a non-factor. Studies show it brings only sorrow. But, ah, fairies! The soil is full of fairies, as anyone familiar with soil will tell you. In fact, I can smell them when the breeze is just right.

Which brings me to the key similarities between morel hunting and treasure-hunting pirates. Each comes complete with its own fairy lore. I don’t have to tell you Captain Hook was nothing without his sprightly nemesis, Tinker Bell. Most other pirates will not admit to association with fairies, but trust me, they have ‘em. They’re in the rum.

The other key similarity I will not dwell on, due to the pirate it may uncover in yours truly. Let’s just say there are times when morels pop up irresistibly on the unfortunate side of “no trespassing” signs, and leave it at that.

Getting back to the aroma of fairies, I can’t stress enough how important a factor it becomes in a successful morel hunt. It’s not as pleasant as you might imagine. In fact, because they spend so much time in the soil, rubbing wings with all sorts of stinky things like bugs and worms, mammals and bacteria, mushroom fairies are unmistakably pungent. It’s a lot like the smell of asparagus pee when the house is holding the aerosol aftermath of a fried liver-n-onion dinner. It’s nature’s pure expression of joy in renewal. I can tell you that you’ll never experience this olfactory delight if the nearby soil has been sprayed with poison. Mushrooms—and their fairy helpers—don’t dig on poison. Conventional farm fields and roadsides should be avoided. They are almost always mushroom-less. Trust me; I’ve put in the empty hours.

What you want is the tilthy rich soil of untouched places. Tramp deep into the woods, or hit the edges near grass-covered fields where the soil is airy and crumbly with microbial parties. That’s where you’ll smell the smell.

But, it takes more than fairies. With all treasure, death is a prerequisite. Pirates plug a limey to guard the stash; fairies whack an elm tree to make morels surface.

It’s magical. Down in the secret soil, amongst the itsy-bitsy capillaries of roots and mycelium, a microcirculating food and water bazaar is suddenly shut down by a fairy’s spell. She sings the ancient melody—a sound like dry limbs squeaking together—and invokes the mushroom brains to rise.

When you hear this, mark the spot, come back the next day, and there they just are for the taking.

See 'em? There they are.

See ’em? There they are.