Summer is finally in full swing on my mountaintop, and we’re squeezing every ray of sunshine from every beautiful day. Fishing and hiking, golfing and gardening fill the calendar as my literary agent shops the first book in my latest mystery series.
And although epic days are normal here this time of year, and this summer—with late snows and heavy rains, without wildfires polluting our air—is magnificent, today I did something extraordinary.
I went mushroom hunting.
Before you yawn and think of a checkout line, I’m not talking about walking supermarket aisles looking for shrink-wrapped boxes of Baby Bellas. I’m talking about driving to the top of the pass—roughly 11,000 feet in altitude—wearing a sun hat, raingear and sturdy, waterproof boots to search for morels, boletus (porcini), hawk wing, and a mysterious little pink mushroom that smells like shrimp. (I looked for other fungi, too, but the names never stick. Maybe next year.)
I have a healthy respect for anything that can hurt me—the bears and cougars living in the valley snaking beneath my office window come to mind—even though I’ve waded out of nearly waist-deep African rivers swollen by the Big Rains and caught piranhas from the Amazon. And I live in the Rockies, where “magic mushrooms” are hallucinogenic, so have observed the “fungi-weird.” So choosing life and lucidity, I harnessed my risk-averse personality and ‘shroomed with a mycologist. That’s your first lesson in mushrooming: Always go with someone who can tell you which fungi are deadly—because several mushrooms will kill you, or make you so sick that you might wish you were dead.
Searching for these gems, some just barely erupting through a pine-and-spruce-needle carpet, was a giant Easter egg hunt for chefs. I had a blast scrambling through the forest, grasping my (sheathed) knife in my gloved hand, looking for disturbances or discrepancies in the dark organic matter covering an earth that thirty feet of snow will blanket in six months.
As the mycologist explained the relationship between spruce trees and porcinis, and all about mycelium—a white webbing that is earth’s biggest living organism and a fungi superhighway—I thought of the tightly entwined and ever-expanding network of relationships in nature, and about the diversity of wildflowers, mushrooms, and birds.
Then I stumbled (yes, literally almost fell on it) across the most beautiful mushroom of the day. The Aminita is a red marvel with white dots—and also deadly. As my late mother would say, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
I guess that her words of Southern wisdom apply to fungi as well as humans, although I do hope that you’re having a beautiful summer and enjoying the great outdoors.
If 2018 was a year marked by change—new literary agent, genre shift—then 2019 is proving to be a year of hitting my stride again. I’ve been working on two series, one a domestic thriller and the other domestic suspense. Our winter seemed to last forever (with snow in late June, the latest on record in ninety years), so it’s been easy to stay glued to the computer instead of gardening, fly-fishing, golfing, hiking or riding my e-bike (named Penelope).
Aside from the editing (I love edits) involved in producing a manuscript, I’m also taking a hard look at my seven-book backlist, preparing to adapt some of the work for general market.
To feed these creative urges, I’ve traveled. My youngest graduated with her masters and law degree, and we spent a couple of weeks in Europe to celebrate. She and I will compete in a fishing tournament in late August, stalking sea-run salmon and halibut between the Kenai Peninsula and the Haida Gwaii Islands. We’ve each won this tournament, and have been planning to return for a decade. Now that she doesn’t have to start classes in August, we’re heading for the smackdown!
In November I’ll be in the Middle East, primarily Israel and Jordan, possibly Egypt. I look forward to returning to the region, climbing in and out of archaeological digs, absorbing the sounds and sights and flavors of one of my favorite parts of the world. The trip is related to my writing, but it’s too soon to share more.
I’ve cut back on blogging because there are so many blogs and so few experts. But readers always seem to enjoy blogs about the seasonal events where I live, hence this post.
As you know (if you’ve followed for a while), summer for me is all about my garden. (And golf and fly-fishing.) I’m waaay up in the Rockies, so the season is brief and sweet. This year we’ve had little rain and the fire danger is extreme. The xeriscape lawn is in God’s hands. Only my berm, plus a few pots and planters, receives irrigation.
When I planted the garden I used currant plants as a natural hedge between the more cultivated, house-side of the big berm, and the wild, grassy side that faces the street. The currants are full of fruit this year—something that the chipmunks and small birds have figured out. I realized that if I was going to harvest currants, I had to do so in a hurry!
I clambered (that’s the most generous term for my movement) on the berm yesterday, staining my fingers with the juice from white (they’re really peach-colored) and black currants. I got three cups, leaving about three times as many fruit on the bushes. After sorting, tipping and tailing, and washing the currants, I baked scones.
There’s nothing like warm currant scones (recipe below) on a crisp morning that reminds me that fall is coming too soon.
FRESH CURRANT SCONES
Preheat oven to 400
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup fresh currants
Demerara sugar for dusting tops of scones
Whisk cream and egg. Mix flour, sugar baking powder, and salt in food processor. Cut the butter chunks into the flour mixture. Gently fold in the currants. Stir in the egg-and-cream. Form the dough into two balls, then flatten into six-inch disks. Cut the disks into six pieces, like a pie. Brush with additional melted butter, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar. Bake about 20 minutes, or until golden. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.
A sow bear in Alaska wants me. Local fishing guides call her Nasty Pants. I call her something much worse.
Our first encounter was five years ago. I was minding my own business while fishing for trophy trout at Brooks Falls in the Katmai Wilderness. Nasty Pants came barreling around a large willow stand, huffing and teeth-clacking and making a spectacle of herself.
Of course, her spectacle was nothing compared to mine as I splashed through chest-deep water at an all-time high. My wading boots were five sizes too large. Clown shoes.
During our little introduction a 27-inch rainbow took my fly. The line went into the backing as I battled fish and current. Nasty Pants did a territorial-bear dance, marking me as her own. I didn’t know whether to watch the bear, work the fish, or drown. I told the guide to cut the line.
“But that’s a 27-inch bow!”
“I don’t care about the bow. The bears, specifically that one—” I nodded toward Nasty Pants, who was grinning “—are flipping me out. Cut the line!”
“But—” he started.
“Cut it or I drop your rig,” I said, giving him the Mom Look of Death.
He cut the line. I breast-stroked (actually, it was more of a spastic, waving sprint) through the river, then crawled through the mucky wetlands while loudly insulting Nasty Pants’ mother. Then I vowed never to return to Brooks River or Falls.
Two weeks ago I returned to . . . wait for it! . . . Brooks River and Falls. My husband, a very adventurous lunatic, was eager to fish it again. I had caught my trophy trout on the Qvichak River so agreed to accompany him. I would bear watch during the morning and read at the lodge that afternoon. He and the guide could do manly things while holding fly rods and running from bears.
From a viewing platform I watched watched bears eat and fight and loll. A trio of anglers—silly men—downriver were triangulated by the animals, pinned in place for thirty minutes armed with bear spray and eau du fear.
Then a big, ill-tempered blonde bear ambled into view. I looked at her. She looked at me. I recognized her. She thought I was dessert.
She wandered around the viewing platform, planning her menu. A group of bears decided that the end of the bridge was a great spot for a nap. Nasty Pants settled down beneath us, and I pondered my exceptional ability to levitate as the bears blocked the bridge. When they awakened and while Nasty Pants was distracted by a silver salmon, we scooted across the bridge. I glanced over my shoulder several times to ensure that Nast Pants wasn’t faster than me, and then walked faster all the way to the lodge.
Once at the lodge I pulled out my iPad, propped my wading boots (that fit this time) on the lip of the fire pit, and settled in with a good suspense novel. Every once in a while I’d see a park ranger scurry past outside, rushing toward someone have a bear moment. Happily, it wasn’t me.
Just after three, our DeHavilland beaver floatplane lifted off from the smooth surface of Brooks Lake. I know that the big blonde bear standing on the bank was sad to see me go.
It’s that time of year. Summer is fading and the mountains are turning daffodil, pumpkin, and scarlet. Our lows are in the 40s and the light is softening.
The changes on this mountaintop warn us (about as subtly as a clanging gong) that winter is coming. Animals have picked clean the berry brambles and the rose hips are bright red, rich with vitamin C. Mushroom season (see this blog) is winding down as hunting season (elk, deer, bighorn sheep) ratchets up. I marvel, as I do each year, at God’s goodness as He cares for humans and animals alike.
My Harbinger of Doom plant, the one that changes colors before everything else, began to evolve two weeks ago. It’s a currant plant, bountiful with fruit. I purchased another bush (I plant one each year), keeping it on the deck to protect the fruit from chipmunks. The critters have the eyes of an eagle and the speed of Mo Farah.
I baked the last batch of currant scones today, and I’m sharing the recipe here. If you’ve never had fresh, wild currants, you don’t know what you’re missing. When I fly-fish our rivers now, I barely restrain myself from asking the guide to pull over so that I can raid the flaming currant brambles along the banks.
FRESH CURRANT SCONES
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Mix in your food processor 4.5 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add i teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg. Gently cut in 2 sticks of cold butter.
Mix 2.25 cups of heavy cream with an egg. Add this to the dry ingredients. The batter has the consistency of half-dry cement, so brace yourself to add the currants. Fold in the currants, noting that some will become smashed fatalities.
Roll the dough onto a floured surface and form into a ball. Flatten the ball to about an inch thick, then cut into eight or ten pieces with a sharp knife.
Arrange on a baking sheet, brush with additional melted butter, and sprinkle with Demerara sugar. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes. These freeze well, which is a good thing if you have a husband who loves fresh scones as much as mine.