Walking to Ada’s last week, I passed Mom & Dad’s neighbors’ house. Herbert came out, said “hello” then asked why I was carrying two cornstalks. When I told him it was to keep the mean country dogs from biting me, he raised an eyebrow. He can raise one eyebrow higher than anyone I’ve ever met. “Come here… Take this.” I had deliberately not picked up a stick, thinking that would be too heavy. “It’s hickory. It’s not heavy. You’ll need it for the house on the corner.” It was as light as my two cornstalks combined. We walked to the end of his drive and then he walked down the road with me. I explained I was walking in the Avon Walk Boston in May and was putting in a few miles while visiting Mom & Dad. “Hmm, I walked two miles yesterday, picked morels.”
I could smell them frying when he said that. Dad had brought a few home from his travels earlier in the week; Mom fried them in flour and butter. We each had a tiny serving. An appetizer. A tease.
(For those unfamiliar with morel mushrooms… They have a relatively short season and look like sponges. They are earthy tasting and pretty common in Iowa, but ya gotta know where to look for them. Any timber with cattle grazing won’t have them. They sell for $40 or more a pound. No one I know sells them. They EAT them.)
Salivating, I say, “Where?” A question no morel mushroom hunter answers. The one-word question just tumbled out of my mouth.
“In our timber.” Right next to the field I had been cultivating in on Sunday.
“Oh.” Wondering if I could sneak in and pick just a few.
“We must have gotten four pounds yesterday. But there were snakes everywhere. Little baby ones.”
“Oh…” 80% chance this was a bluff. Morel Mushroom Territory Protection Strategy.
“Just little garters?”
“No. Some other kind.”
“No… Fox I think.”
I had never heard of a fox snake. 90% chance this was a bluff.
“I know what you’re doing. You’re just telling me there are snakes so I won’t touch your mushrooms!”
“Noooo! I wouldn’t do that. I’m not kidding. There were snakes all over the place.”
He seemed honest. Sincere. 70% chance this was a bluff.
We parted ways after a quarter mile; he returned home and I continued to Ada’s. On the way, I met the three dogs on the corner. They rushed to the road, angrily barking. I held the stick and the cornstalks high and shouted “Stay!” They stopped.
Back at home, I told Mom about my encounter with Herbert. She laughed – 99% sure it was a bluff.
Snakes make me scream. I could not go morel hunting back there to prove it right or wrong with the possibility of barging in on a snake family.
That afternoon, Mom & I took the boys to a wildlife exhibit featuring Iowa animals. And there it was slithering in an aquarium tank: a fox snake. Native to Iowa, it emits a smell like a fox to ward off enemies.
But the sign said nothing about their ability to guard patches of morel mushrooms, nestled amongst bluebells, jack-in-the-pulpits, ground ginger, and the plants that look like little beach umbrellas. This specimen was at least three feet long. No regrets in not calling Herbert’s bluff.