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River Town Chronicles: Zen and the art of morel hunting

When Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” appeared in 1974, my friends and I all read it. The fact that no one understood it didn’t matter. We instead pretended our lives had been transformed by this novel-length koan.

If you’re unfamiliar with koans, they resemble riddles used by Zen Buddhist monks to help students attain satori, or enlightenment. The koan most familiar to Westerners is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, requiring novitiates to transcend their intellect in favor of intuition.

Students might realize that one hand clapping is impossible, just as enlightenment is impossible when distracted by daily encumbrances, like temptation or anger. One hand clapping might describe their heartbeat. Or, simply, silence.

Reading Pirsig led to “Zen and the Art of Archery,” Eugen Herrigel’s memoir as a Zen student. One night, the Japanese Zen master entered the darkened indoor archery range, strung his bow, shot one arrow, then another, toward the target. Turning on the lights, Herrigel discovered the first arrow dead center, and the second splitting the first.

The secret? “The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye ... .” In other words, give up trying to win, and you succeed. The best tennis backhand comes when not thinking about it.

“So, Rick,” you’re asking, “what does this have to do with mushrooms?”

Ah, yes, my ostensible topic. Well, it’s the season for hunting morel mushrooms, a quest analogous to Arthurian knights searching for the Grail.

“People go to their graves not giving up where they found morels,” my son, Jay, told my wife, Tia, and me, on our way to the woods one recent May afternoon (somewhere in northern Illinois, that’s all I can divulge).

To rout out truffles, people use pigs. No such porcine hound dog smells morels, however, so we branch out. From Internet sources, we’ve gathered morels often grow near downed timber, especially elms. Our eyes scan last fall’s leaf cover for a one- or two-inch tan stem supporting what resembles a cone-shaped brain.

After an hour, morel-less, I give up searching. I’d like to report that in paradoxical Zen fashion, the instant I stop looking, I find what I’m looking for. Rather, I happen on things equally precious: bunches of blue spring beauties; vast carpets of bluebells; several trills of red-winged blackbirds; the knocking of a pileated woodpecker; plate-sized orange mushrooms shelved on an ancient log fallen across a dry, sandy runoff creek.

Back at the car, Jay reveals half a dozen morels, Tia one. For me, perhaps it’s a rationalization, but as on recent fishing trips, the outing has become not about the catch, but about the release – getting out of the house, out of town, out of myself. It’s about sending the arrow into perfect flight because the target no longer matters.

After all, you can’t miss if the only thing you’re aiming for is all of nature.

• Rick Holinger lives in the Fox Valley where he’s taught high school since 1979. His poetry, fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals. He founded and facilitates two local writers groups, and has a Ph.D. in creative writing from UIC. Contact him at

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