Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, prepare yourselves for a world you have scarcely seen before! A world of punishing hardship and unimaginable beauty. A world as dangerous as your nightmares and as nurturing as a mother’s breast. A world that will haunt your dreams long after it is gone.
Yeah. I’m talking about the outdoors.
A month ago I quit my job as a carpenter and went forth into the hills in search of wild morel mushrooms (Morchella conica) to gather and sell. Conicas grow best in last year’s forest fires, so I spent three weeks dragging myself up and down a mountain in northern Oregon, climbing over and falling on burned out fir trees. I slept in a small tent hidden in an unburned section of forest (the Forest Service might have some things to say about these activities), drank stream water, and ate out of a cooler I hauled in with me every week. I carried mushrooms in buckets and backpacks, stored them on tarps and window screens (to aid the drying process), and eventually ran them all through a dehydrator when I returned to town.
Why would anyone volunteer to do this instead a good ol’ honest job, you ask? Consider this: In three days of work I could make half again as much as I was making in five days as a carpenter; I had no boss, no schedule, and virtually no expenses; at night I could listen to coyotes howling, and find deer, elk, and bobcat tracks every morning. Here’s the kicker: there are thousands of people doing this right now.
I was working a small fire. No more than a couple hundred acres. The mushroom-buying companies (mostly high-quality, natural food wholesalers) hadn’t really bothered to track this fire, which means that they hadn’t been telling any pickers to go there, nor did they send buyers. The only way people were finding this fire was by seeing it from the road (a two-lane state highway) or by word of mouth. And there were still dozens of people showing up to pick. A big fire, say, three thousand acres, might have three to five thousand pickers on it when the morels really start coming up.
If you go to the grocery store and buy dried morels (you can almost never find them fresh), you’ll pay something in the neighborhood of twelve dollars an ounce. Odds are good that those were wild morels, picked either in the American Northwest or somewhere around the Himalayas. Companies dealing in morels send buyers to the firesites where the morels are currently growing. Buyers will buy from whoever shows up, paying a fluctuating market price that is likely to be six to eight dollars per fresh pound, cash. On a good fire, a buyer might buy more than a thousand pounds in a day, which then has to be trucked back to whatever city their company is located in for processing, to be then sold either fresh or dry.
Some pickers may be locals who just happen to have some time off, but most are pros. They travel from fire to fire as each comes into season, gradually moving further north and further up in elevation as the season progresses. Many are immigrants, both legal and illegal, but there are plenty who aren’t. Some can’t get normal jobs, but most just like hiking the hills and camping out better. When the morel season is done, there are always other mushroom varieties or other crops to pick. Sort of like migrant workers, but less organized and better paid.
Something to think about the next time you’re banging your forehead off your computer monitor at work.