Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Morels and Box Turtles

The first time I was in the woods with Michael Klemens, he was making a quick biodiversity survey of an area near my home. Michael is a herpetologist and ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he is the executive director of the Metropolitan Conservation Alliance, which is based in Rye, New York, and which is a project of the WCS. We've since become friends, although at the time he was someone whom I had heard of and met once or twice but did not know very well. Our trip to the woods was back in 1999, and it was as enlightening and eye-opening as reading a difficult poem or novel with a first-rate professor.

Box Turtle

The first hill we crossed that day, dotted with junipers and tufts of little bluestem grass, wasn't merely a hill -- it was excellent box turtle habitat. The grass that grew in patches throughout the woods was evidence of fire within the last 15 years or so. The little brown thing he found amid a scoop of what seemed like nothing but muck from a vernal pool was the larva of one of the lungless salamanders -- and who even knew that salamanders did or did not have lungs? The little white fragments on a sandy scar on top of a hill were the remnant shells of turtle eggs.

I was happy that I could identify the song of a common yellowthroat, or the shaggy bark of an American hop-hornbeam, which grew in a hillside grove, but this other stuff was new to me.

At one point, walking along the side of a wooded hillside on which a handful of very old apple trees grew among the maples, I found a grove of morel mushrooms.

"Look at this," I called out. "More - eels!" (I preferred the quasi-French pronunciation, which I picked up from my wife.)

I slipped my pack off my back to get ready to pick some for dinner.

Michael Klemens gave a look.

"Wonderful!" he said. "Box turtles love to eat them."

I put my pack back on and made believe I had never intended to pick any.

But I remembered where they were, and last year and the year before I went back with my son, who is now seven. Two years ago we found a bunch, picked a few, and left most. Last year we were too late -- the mushrooms were just about as plentiful, but slugs and bugs, and I hope turtles, had gotten to them first. None were worth picking.


When I got home from work this evening, I mentioned to my son that we'd have to go back there soon because it's morel season again.

"Oh, Dad, I found some on our property."

"What? You're kidding me."

He led me to a spot alongside the driveway, near where a storm had toppled a decrepit apple tree several years ago, and there, no bigger than golf balls, were two morels. I covered them with deer netting in hopes that they'd grow bigger.

But I'm not sure who I'm saving them for. We'd love to eat them. But two tiny morels don't add up to much. And one of the great things about our property -- one of the things I brag about to Michael Klemens -- is that we have box turtles here. And box turtles love to eat morels.


Blogger Norm said...

Hello. I stumbled on your story trough google, I was Morel picking this weekend in Eastern Ohio and we found a box turtle right in the middle of a huge patch or morels just munching away. I tought it was odd but i guess im not the only one to see this.

9:49 AM  

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