Just as we’re about to abandon our mountainside search in defeat, my 6-year-old son shouts, “I found one, guys!” His older brother, my husband and I step over brambles to join him where he’s crouched on the old logging trail we’ve followed through the forest. His small hand cups our family’s first-ever morel mushroom, the honeycombed cap of this elusive spring ephemeral unmistakable. We whoop and cheer, and he deposits his find into our basket with a proud smile.
We’re foraging the mountain we live on for morels for our dinner, something our family has always intended to do but couldn’t seem to find the time. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, North Carolina’s stay-at-home order mandates that time is one resource our family has ample access to. As the world has stilled its frenetic pace, time has illuminated the offerings of the forest that surrounds our home. In our corner of Appalachia, the virus has yet to hit us hard. But as we all face uncertainties, the forest provides solace.
From what we’ve read before embarking on this day’s hike, where there’s one morel, there are more morels, so we disperse and scour the nearby forest floor, shuffling layers of dry brown leaves as we move through them, methodically covering ground and yelling “morel!” when we spot another. This patch of woods has seen recent fire — morels thrive in that particular destruction.
Like any family, we have our dysfunction. And it’s heightened in this time of stress and social isolation, especially our mornings spent navigating home-school and work and boredom. My default is anxiety and my husband’s is anger, but thankfully the kids seem to, so far, be fairly insulated from any emotional effects of the pandemic. My husband and I worry a lot, fight sometimes, work through it and start over again. Though our gratitude for our safety and health is immense, sometimes isolation feels claustrophobic and hopeless. But our troubles do not follow us into the woods.
On our first day of isolation, my 6- and 8-year old sons took the lead as we roamed downhill and they located a spring-fed stream tumbling over rocks within earshot of the house. It was hot, so they played, digging in the dirt and letting the water pool around their feet. I wandered back inside to wash dishes with the windows open, their collaborative conversation threading in with the bird song.
Another day we sat cross-legged on the ground and listened to the calls of the birds in the branches above us: Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, robin and blue jay. We watched a fat squirrel groom a smaller one from head to tail, the receiver’s eyes narrowing in pleasure. We hiked from the bottom of our property to the top, naming the wildflowers underfoot: spring beauty, trillium, bloodroot, purple dead nettle, May apple, the words like pearls in our mouths.
The heap of mushrooms in my basket grows. “I kind of like life right now, and I kind of don’t,” my younger son says, voicing something that’s been weighing on my mind as we comb the mountainside. “I like hunting for morels, but I don’t like the coronavirus.”
His observation points to the dissonance of locating a pulse of joy amid tragedy. Like the photos widely shared on social media of blue skies absent of their usual air pollution, it is discomforting to appreciate unintended but nonetheless beautiful effects of a faltering economy, disease and death.
I recently read an account from a nurse on the front lines. She described the terror of her days. She also said she’s never felt closer to God.
While I don’t believe in a deity in the sky who doles out grace to some and withholds it from others, I do believe in a little spark of the divine in each and every one of us. And proximity to both nature and death can sometimes draw us closer to it, can thin the veil into something threadbare and shimmering. Though we remain on the pandemic’s periphery, my husband and I stare at each other each evening when we say good night, awed by a heightened awareness that life is precious and finite.
In a different account, another front line nurse described having never felt this alone.
The boys toss several snail shells into the basket, and the youngest finds a broken and bleached turtle shell that he places on top of his head, giggling. The sun is settling behind the mountain, and it’s time for us to hike back home and cook.
The mushrooms reduce in the pan, and I’m impressed with how much work it takes to grow, forage or hunt enough food to feed a family. So much work for so little yield. As I place dinner on the table, I light a candle for the people who work to provide the rest of us with food so we don’t have to rely on our own labor to do so. Just as the pandemic has designated our mountain living a privilege, it has thrust food production and grocery-store workers into roles both essential and precarious.
The morels are delicious, meaty and robust; even those of us who claim to hate mushrooms are enthused. Everyone is worn out, the adults grateful another day at home is done and our duties nearly finished, the kids happy, our bellies full. Our days in the forest are beautiful.
I do not mean to imply that this pandemic is a blessing. Quite the opposite: to save ourselves, society is betraying our very human nature, much as we poison a body to rid it of cancer. We’re sitting in our apartments and houses alone, away from the loving touch of family, away from the warmth of friends. We’re entering hospitals alone and we’re dying alone. We’re enduring food insecurity and job loss and rotting crops and working with the public despite exposure risk. And there are those of us spending long shifts tending very sick patients without the right medical equipment or appropriate protective gear.
But as sure as spring comes to the forest, incidental beauty emerges from crisis. This is also human nature. We can’t help but hope for good things. Hope for survival, for better medicine, for widespread testing, for more ventilators, for intuitive leadership, for a successful vaccine. Hope for the day we will gather to grieve what’s gone and celebrate being together again.
My family didn’t do a damn thing to deserve this time, just as those to whom this contagion is bringing suffering didn’t do a damn thing to deserve it either.
But here we are, with an unexpected opportunity to cultivate a connection to the land and to each other. Being together in the woods feels more authentic, more grounded, more connected than what we had before. I would trade it in a second if it meant this collective trauma would ease. But despite the weight of the circumstances that brought us here, my human nature can’t help but appreciate the beauty.
Mary Pembleton is a writer and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.