Firsts Among Fungi

My husband and I have spent enough time morel-hunting over the years to border on embarrassing considering we have never found a single one. That is until now, or rather, our last week at our new home. Best or most ironic of all: it was in our own backyard. We had purchased a bagful at the Eugene farmer’s market the morning before.

We actually found two, both in burn pits. I had the highest hopes for finding morels among the charred debris and across the snarled land that was logged last year, both inviting conditions for the delicious mushrooms. I’m hoping that there will be many more in two weeks as people have been reporting their finds all over the Willamette Valley and at higher elevations.

My husband fried them up– along with our market specimens– in a bit of butter, and the flavor was unparalleled.

My daughter also picked her first mushrooms on that trip: dozens of puffballs scattered across a sunny field. She’s been with me as I’ve collected meadow and brown field mushrooms plenty of times, but these little white delights were all hers. Like a true fungophile in the making, she drank in their mellow mushroomy scent.

On a short hike up the road we also came across gatherings of gregarious Agrocybe praecox, which are pretty and interesting, but whose edibility is, according to David Arora, “mediocre at best; disgusting at worst.” We took enough for identification but let the rest be.

All those hours in the woods and meadows of the Pacific Northwest are never wasted, even when the disappointment over an empty bag is at its worst. I’m notorious for traversing the most majestic of landscapes with my back hunched and my eyes trained intently on the ground. The forest floors have so much to offer– orchids, trillium, violets; beautiful but toxic salamanders; and on a good day, the most intriguing of wild mushrooms.

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Rain Means Puddles (And Happy Toddlers and Waddlers)

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In nearly four years, we’ve had few enough real rainy days that I can count them on my ten fingers. The drought has been aggressive and draining. But when it does rain here, the episodes are torrential. The clouds grow dark as they turn and flex. Then they open up abruptly and dump cascades onto the arid, tightlipped Earth.

California rain differs from Oregon rain. My hometown in coastal northern California accrues nearly as much annual rainfall as Eugene, Oregon, but in fits and spates relatively rare to the Pacific Northwest. The misty drizzle of so many days in Oregon is foreign to its southern neighbor. It’s that perpetual cooling dampness that draws the verdant abundance of the land, feeds the fantastic fungi, and soothes my soul. It also makes spring sunshine a worthy celebration.

Our Corner of the Earth

This was the first time since beginning this transition that returning to California felt like leaving home. Maybe it’s because this time we moved all of our treasured and most frequently used books: cookbooks, field guides, reference books on animal husbandry and gardening. Maybe it’s because the crisp, piney mountain air had begun to do its work on our lungs. Or perhaps the work we did at the property this trip began to truly make it our own.

The little house is arranged with enough furniture to fulfill most of our basic needs; enough so that we are questioning what we may simply leave behind. I still need my desk. We have yet to convert the range to propane, so we were still cooking on the induction burner and smoker. But the essentials, we found, more than supported us. The bare property, I think, with its spectacular scenery and rich potential, could keep us happy with little else.

The weather was temperate all week, with a few downpours of quenching rain. With my daughter on my back or playing in the grass, my husband and I raked more than a dozen trailer-loads of leaf mulch from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees and hauled the piles to the area we selected for our garden: a spread of field between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

As we sweated in the chilly air, we both felt incredulous that this is where we would toil and grow. The beauty was overwhelming.

My husband used the chainsaw to cut a fallen tree into five-foot lengths and hauled them down the mountain while I dragged and rolled down what I could. The work was hard, and only a glimpse at what we can anticipate. We left the property feeling satisfied that we’d accomplished much from our list, but we have a long, challenging journey ahead of us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Going Home: Part 1 of the Move North

We’ve just returned from the first leg of the move to our Oregon property. The trip was a whirlwind, filled with the ups and downs that were mostly expected, some less so. We had some weather-related surprises, and I broke my finger on day-2.

When we drove up mid-day on the 28th, the highway wound along rivers and creeks so full and brown and powerful, they were washing into people’s yards and lapping at homes and outbuildings. Each of us was imagining the worst– that our bridge would be consumed, the buildings threatened, that our innocent, chortling creek might have grown into a wintertime monster.

We were relieved to discover that our creek was still blue-gray and not particularly full, even with streams across the property feeding steadily into it. If our creek ever flooded its banks, the towns below would have long since been washed away by the larger waterways.

Over the next few days, the rain stopped and temperatures plummeted into the teens. Moisture was sucked from the clay soil into towering ice formations. I spent hours each day photographing the land, the forest, the crystalized grasses and frosted leaves.

The entire place was quiet but for occasional rooster crows from a distant neighbor’s and birds in the cedar and redwood trees. We explored the outbuildings. Two small shacks were a surprise to us, clinging to the bank of the creek and buried in blackberry brambles. They appear to be cabins of the early 1900s. A large tree had crushed the one most accessible, and it and its contents had been abandoned. A chest with a broken lock contained photographs and hand-written letters with postmarks from the ’60s.

I documented everything.

One of our dogs got into a snarling scuffle with my dad’s on the second day after their breakfast. I lunged into the mix to separate them, which everyone should know (and I better than anyone thanks to prior related injuries) you never do. The dogs were both fine, not a scratch on either. I, however, did not come out unscathed: my ring finger was obviously broken between the last joint and the tip. I didn’t feel it then, thanks to the pulsing adrenaline, but I could see it clearly and I felt it soon enough! I was hindered by acute pain and a splint for the remainder of the trip.

We set the house up to be comfortable, sparsely furnished with the essentials, except for a stove since we have yet to install a gas line. We cooked on the smoker, induction burner and toaster oven: spaghetti the first night, then smoked ribs and mashed potatoes, chili, and refried bean burritos (we used the recipe I posted prior, but in lieu of water I made a broth from the rib bones, so they were not vegetarian but especially delicious!).

Every day I gathered wild greens for fresh salads: dandelion leaves, buds and blossoms, chickweed, dock, and cat’s ear, dressed lightly with olive oil and vinegar.

While we did not get any new fencing up as I’d hoped, I did get a small plot of garden turned, amended and planted with garlic and shallots. I mulched it thickly with leaves from the Norway maple, and laid branches across it (unattractively) to prevent the wind from carrying the leaves away.

On the last full day I cut immense, years-dead broken limbs from a plum tree near the house. It felt like a great accomplishment to begin restoring a tree in such poor health. I saved a beautiful abandoned bird’s nest from the snarl.

When I photographed the end result, my memory card showed an error. But I didn’t know until I began to upload on our drive home that the malfunction had deleted every file but the last eight: thousands of photos, none of which from the past ten days had been backed up.

So the second, far more painful lesson I had to relearn: back up precious work often and use multiple memory cards.

I’ve been consoling myself that my photos were not of a one-time event, no cherished memory left behind. I can take new pictures on our next trip. There may not be the unique frozen earth. The wreath I made of ivy, yellow-tipped cedar and holly and hung on our new front door may have withered. But there will be scenes and wreathes to replace those; many. There’s an entire future to play out there. A home to be built, and life to create. And plenty of time for new photographs soon enough.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Year In A Word

If there were a word to represent 2014, for us it would be change. I’m hardly the person whose shoes I wore in January, and as we wind down toward the holidays, looking back on the year and forward to the next, I could not feel more optimistic or joyful.

The thematic transitioning of 2014 has not yet concluded: in a few days, after warm celebration and feasting and hot toddies at my mom’s, we’ll be standing in our new home in Oregon.

This first leg of the move will be for the essentials. We’ll install appliances, stretch fencing wire, find new homes for plates and towels. I’m determined to dig one small patch of garden to tuck some garlic away for overwintering.

Isis of the wonderful Little Mountain Haven writes about her New Year intention in a word. This year hers was growth, which I must borrow because it perfectly represents our coming year. We will be growing our homestead, adding more animals and projects. We’ll be growing our own food to the greatest possible extent. We’ll be growing our hopes and goals, growing our experiences. We’ll begin thinking about growing our family.

As we embark on this journey, I’ll keep the intention of growth near to my heart. The work will be hard and good. We’ll have triumphs and setbacks and the help of family and friends.

Since I’m not sure how frequently we will have internet access during our travels, I’ll be reflecting on the year with some prior stories, recipes and photos. I look forward to returning with much to tell of the coming chapter on the new homestead.

Do you have a word that encapsulates your past year or an intention for the next?

The Creek

This is home as it awaits us, where my daughter will blossom and explore, where the seasons will mold us and teach us.

It seems impossible, steeped in magic. Inevitably it will lack perfection: all whole things do. But that place will be there, only yards from our front door, beckoning, awaiting discovery.