I grew up picking matsutake in the pacific northwest with my dad. We joined the first chapter of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and would go on field trips. It is one of my most precious memories and in the Northwest. The whole Japanese community buzzes with matsutake talk in the fall.
Memories of Matsutake (September, 1983)
Indian summer brings some golden weather but the air has a sharp edge. There is frost on the grass some mornings and windshields have to be scraped. Now is when the Japanese community in Seattle perks up it ears for the first reports of the pine mushroom "matsutake". Thus begins the annual ritual of autumn.
"Hear Yamamoto got some matsutake from someone. Must have come from Rainier area. It's only the middle of September.", George says when he comes home from visiting a neighbor. "Oh", I reply but I think to myself that now he won't be able to stay still. Is it going to be this coming weekend? No, we're retired so we can beat the crowd by going Thursday perhaps. "Let's take a run out there since the weather's so nice anyways, " he says. Anyone else?" I ask. "I'll call Bob and John, " he replies.
Wednesday night I make some rice balls and teriyaki chicken, and George gets his hiking sticks, compass, and a cotton sack for carrying the mushrooms. Thursday morning, Bob and John come by at 7, old men but they are grinning like little boys that know something. Bob's driving, and we load our gear in his old Buick truck and climb into the back seat. "Too bad it didn't rain a little more last week. I think it's been too dry. We'll try Crystal Spring, they come out early there." "You going to take us to your secret spot this year?" George asks Bob. "No use taking secrets like that to the grave." "I'm taking them," says Bob. They start talking about a neighbor that had a stroke a few days ago. It used to be that so and so's wife ran off with someone or see that new barmaid at Bush, but lately it's talk and isn't so cheerful. Yet I don't feel as upset as I used to get about people getting sick or dying. I guess there isn't time to waste on feeling sorry for those who drop dead when I feel like I dodging bullets myself. George has snuggled into the corner of the seat and is dozing off. I feel it's not fair to sleep when Bob has to drive.
"How come Mary didn't come?" "Someone has to work. She's watching the shop today." I forgot that not everyone has retired. "Too bad" I say but already I'm yawning and feeling warm. I try valiantly to go on. "How's your daughter getting along with the new baby?" Bob starts to describe the baby boy, how it looks Japanese one day and Jewish the next, but then despite all my efforts I fall asleep.
The car jolts to a stop and both George and I wake up. We seem to have arrived someplace. I glance at my watch and discover it's been an hour and half ride. "Remember this place?" John says. I look out to see a huge mountainside of tree stumps. "Where are we?" I ask. "It's by Blueberry Creek." That beautiful forest and all those mushrooms reduced to an expanse of sawed off stumps. We are silent. Every year some former haunt disappears and a familiar place we're looking for is wiped out. Over and over, to become old is to find ourselves strangers in our own world.
"We're not getting any matsutake here." says Bob and he starts up the car. We drive on some bumpy roads by so many beautiful creeks and forests and every place looks good, like it might be a spot we ought to stop and explore. Suddenly John says, "Hold it. I remember this place. Just a little ways in, I know a place." We tumble out of the car, stiff after nearly two hours of riding. I feel for my compass and whistle in my pocket. Bob has opened the car trunk and we grab our walking sticks and bags. I brought a little basket so the mushrooms won't get ground together with the dirt. The men start drinking tea and I have just a sip, holding back because thre are no bathrooms in the forest and I'm with three men. Bob bangs the trunk door down and John is already in the woods. I can see his orange knit cap bobbing up and down as he hurries toward some spot. George holds back to wait for me and he shouts to the other two, "let's meet back here in an hour and a half".
We start trudging toward the forest, stepping over bushes and I think about Christmas. I must have stepped on some fir and it's fragrance of the holidays floating through the woods. The brush on the edge of the woods disappears and it's easy walking now. I try to keep up with George as he tramps ahead of me. Already he has forgotten me and his head is down looking for signs of matsutake, trying not to miss any suspicious white cracks in the ground. My vision is always half of his back as the idea of being lost in the woods terrifies me and it's the sight of the trees, the woods, the feeling of being embraced in the world of nature that I seek. Once again I feel at home under the quiet trees, apart from the crush of human entanglements. I press on the outside world drops away. There is only the occasional crack of twigs, the sudden scurrying of a chipmunk, the flash of a bird in flight. George and I are as we were when we first met. I follow in silence and we are suddenly in a clear space covered with bright green moss. Over the moss grows some little white mushrooms. Their caps are white, light, and small. Their thin stems are almost invisible. I feel a sensation of floating. These mushrooms seem to be suspended, motionless, and I understand why fairies are associated with these delicate ethereal mushrooms. I stand for a moment and stare at the lovely sight. I wish my children and parents were here with me now. Eventually the children will enjoy the same trip, some day, but alas, these joys are no longer for my parents.
It was on a long ago October day when the autumn skies were gloriously blue and clear like today when I saw Dad for the last time. George had gone mushrooming the day before and I took two matsutake for him. His wrinkled brown face was all smiles, his eyes brightened and I could feel worlds of past memories unfoling in his mind. "George went to the Cascades yesterday," I said and then rushed outside to pursue some errand. As I started driving off, I saw him waving goodbye from the window. That turned out to be the last time I saw him alive. Mom called about 5 o'clock that day and said Dad hadn't returned. After I left them he had taken one of the two matsutake or perhaps the beautiful day must have pushed him on to visit other friends. He walked further and further, finally taking the bus to the Public Market where a friend had a flower stall. Was he bidding farewell to every one? He boarded a bus in the 5 o'clock downtown rush and suffered a heart attack. Do we pick a time to go? I think he did.
Suddenly as I stand memerized by the floating mushroom caps, I see something and I can't believe it. Near my feet there is a crack in the mossy floor and I see that something white is showing under the moss. I hurriedly lift the dirt and moss, and there is a matsutake. The fragrance is unmistakeable as I use the pick of my walking stick to dig it out. I lay it on the green moss and see that this stem is a good inch and a half in diameter and the white shaggy cap, not fully opened, hugs the stem. The first matsutake of the season. It's like seeing an old friend. No other picked or seen later in the season will be as wonderful.
Suddenly, I feel alone and I call out for George. There is no answer. I look up and the gently swaying tops of the trees merge together layer after layer into the distance. It is like staring into deep waters. I fumble around for my whistle and realize my throat is dry. I blow frantically so that anyone for miles around can surely hear me but there is no answer. I put the mushroom in my basket and tell myself to stay calm. I take out my compass but realize I hadn't taken a reading on the way in. If only I hadn't stopped. Knowing George's relentless speed I should have kept up with him. I decide to stay put and keep blowing my whistle.
Finally I hear a whistle responding but I can't tell which direction it's coming from. "George, George," I keep screaming, repeating, determined not to lose his response. Suddenly I can fathom the direction and I shout, "Don't move," and start trudging in that direction hanging on to my basket and stick. After an interminable mad scramble I catch sight of his red Scottish beret. "Were you lost?" he asks. He hadn't really missed me. "Got one, huh?. That's a beauty," he says. I want to explain to him the terror I had just experienced but he seems to be in a world of his own. Besides there is no time because he starts pushing ahead, always running this way and that to follow up on all the little clues that seem to beckon him from all over the forest floor. I have my one, and I now feel my only interest is not to get lost. It's the first time I got one before he did and I realize his eyesight isn't as sharp as it used to be. He used to have 20/20 vision but lately he's been thinking of getting glasses. Still his mushroom sense is sharp, he seems to smell them out, and my the time this trip is over he'll have far more than I do. He always does. Sure enough at that moment he's stooped down and he's yelling for me to hurry. Climbing over a few logs I reach him by the base of a tree and he's found three, no, it turns out to be five as he uproots the first few. "Only reason I saw it, the deer had eaten the cap off of one and it was sitting there completely exposed." He dusts off the brown needles and the bits of dirt. How different from the old days when he just threw it into the bag, dirt and all, rotten ones and all. Now he admires them, each one, takes time to clean it. Then he pats the dirt down over the disrupted ground and we start out again.
"Its going to be a good year, " he says and I notice there are all sorts showing here and there. There are the shiny little orange cups in a line running over the logs. There are the purple ones and those that look like toasted rounds of bread. The brown velvet caps that remind me of animal backs. Once in a while I skirt around bear and deer droppings, reminding me that we humans are not alone. Sometimes I actually catch the scent of deer but I don't recall ever running into one. They must hear us lumbering through the woods from long distances away. I glance at my watch and tell George it's time to start back. "Just that little spot over that log," he says. Sometimes it's harder to get George out of the woods than to find the matsutake. "No, let's give ourselves at least twenty minutes to find our way back. You know how you hate it when others don't get back in time." So reluctantly he pulls out his compass and we start our trek back. But all the while we are trudging his eyes keep scouting all over the ground and indeed he does find a few. "Isn't it funny you walk over the same path and you always find some you missed." I agree but I don't find anymore.
When we return, Bob and John are already waiting. The truck is open and they are looking for lunch and beer. I look for the tea and see their matsutake spread out in 2 separate wooden crates, carefully arranged on fresh fir boughs. There are seven in one and three in the other. George and I arrange ours in a box together. There are ten, my one and his nine, some only as big as a thumb. "George, I think it's mother must be crying for that one," I say, pointing to the little one. "Yeh, but look at this one," he says, picking one up that looks like it must weigh a quarter pound. "I found it next to the one eaten by deer." We all pause to admire it. The cap is shiny, as if sheer silk is drawn over it. Some sunlight must filter in, even into these dense woods to give a sheen to the slightly tan cap. The shaggy stem has bits of thick soft veil clinging to it. There are signs of rich black loam clinging to the upper part of the stem but the base is gray with dry dirt. The twisted stem gives the feeling it has struggled to rise out of the ground and triumphed. I sigh in wonder and George is smiling.
Everyone in the party has found matsutake, a rare and joyous event for a first trip of the season. Of course, we intend to take in a few more spots after a little rest. I think to myself, we all made it again. Together. How nice. I untie the white dishcloth wrapped around our lunch box and pass the rice balls to Bob, John and George.