No place like woods to find wonder and mushrooms

The mind of a true hunter is one of connection, connection to all the surroundings, even to those unseen by the common senses. To some tribes in Africa, hunters have learned to read the “energy paths” of light similar to auras seen by some people. They follow these bluish-white streams of light to “see” where the animal they are pursuing has traveled. For the rest of us, we learn to read tracks.

On a bright February day, after a snowstorm, I venture up the southwest side of the local mountain. My father-in-law Brian Hoyt and I start out from his house. We notice the small trails where field mice have burrowed under the snow. We come upon a stand of locusts with their deeply indented bark and sage-green moss covering the jagged edges. I ask him if he thinks it is true that moss only grows on the north side of trees. He shrugs and says, “That’s what they say, but I think it’s an old wives’ tale.”

Further up the hill we meander through some pines, when a partridge explodes from under a pine-cone-laden tree. The bird takes to the air in a burst of snow, brown wings thundering together, to fly an escape route that not even a jet fighter could navigate.

Courtesy photo
Fruits of the winter woods harvest — a chaga mushroom and the horns of bucks.
Courtesy photo Fruits of the winter woods harvest — a chaga mushroom and the horns of bucks.

“Partridge!” I shout. (Technically they are called a ruffed grouse, but I like to call them by their colloquial moniker just to tick off the gentry.) If you really want to be snobby about it, call them “Bonasa umbellus” which means “good to roast” or “valued as a game bird.” Partridge medicine (what this bird represents in Native American ideology) is community, fertility, mobility and invisibility. There is much to learn from Bonasa umbellus.

As we summit the cliffs, we begin to see a story played out in the snow. It takes some time to reveal itself. First, we see the tracks of a large cat-like being with its belly dragging on the top of the snow. It is crouching and trying to sneak up to the edge of the cliff. Why? We surmise it’s a fisher cat, judging by the claws and conical-shaped footprint. Then the tracks disappear off the edge of the cliff. We look over the 10’ drop to the next plateau and see where he enters the snow in a deep hole. Is he under the snow even now? Where did he go?

We climb down around the boulders and discover, at the edge of this little flat spot, another hole with paw prints and the outline of primary feathers from a large wing. They are scratched in the snow in a perfectly symmetrical pattern as if beating against the surface in an attempt to take flight. It is then we discover blood where the feet of a turkey had been.

“I’ll bet the rest of the story is below this drop-off,” I tell Brian.

We climb down the slippery rocks to the next flat spot, and sure enough, there are the remains of a turkey splayed between two sharp rocks, with only its head eaten off. Fisher cats are notorious for doing this. The carnage reminds me that nature can be as violent as she is beautiful. The fisher cat will have lived through another harsh winter because he was courageous enough to dive off a cliff, burrow under the snow and still hit his target, coming up to ambush the bird from underneath the wintry forest floor.

Nature has all the drama of an Academy Award-winning movie, but when you have discovered it for yourself and borne witness to the mystery, you are not just a viewer but a participant.

On the walk home, we pass a yellow birch with a chaga mushroom growing out of its side. I cut off a chunk and put it in my jacket pocket. Chaga or Inonotus obliquus is revered by native healers for its medicinal qualities. Laboratory studies have indicated possible future potential in cancer therapy, as an antioxidant, in immunotherapy and as an anti-inflammatory. Whether you choose to believe this or not, it makes a wonderful tea.

Back at the house, we have quite a story to share with everyone. We brew the chaga and sit down in front of the woodstove to replay the story of our winter walk. At the core of the storytelling, I realize that the root of all happiness is wonder. And there is no place to find such wonder as in the winter woods.

(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter LLC, a platform for his writing that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.)