We head into the dark centre of the forest, where even the intense sunlight of Southern France can only sometimes penetrate, freckling the ground. The tall, skinny pines wave wildly in the wind. Underfoot is a spongy layer of pines cones, decaying leaves and the bristling shells of last year’s chestnuts. Everything is mud brown, except the swathes of green ferns that fill the clean mountain air with a smell like freshly cut grass.
To find the small, late season Girolle mushrooms, I will have to learn how to really SEE. The more I can see, the better I will write. I clamber over fallen tree trunks. Creepers lasso my feet. The ferns give way under me and I sink into the swamp. The pine branches that I grab for are hollow, and break off in my grazed hands. There’s an area of newly crushed ferns the size of a large pig. The Sanglier (wild boar), have been there.
There is no sun to steer by now and I am disorientated. It’s difficult to scan the ground and stay in touch with my companions at the same time. I lose sight of them, and the sound of them fades away too. Fear spikes me. Then I hear the screeching, the rasping of wild creatures. The fear is terrible for a moment, but there is no-where to run to, so I just stay put. I listen to the sounds, increasingly awe-filled.
After a time something shifts, and I realise I’m doing what I went there to do. The wildness is no longer ‘out there’. I’m no longer pushing it away. And what I’ve experienced I will be able to express later in words. A human call rescues me, reassures me. Apparently the noises are just the stems of trees rubbing against each other in the wind. I’m almost disappointed. Back to the treasure hunt.
Several times in the next three hours I trumpet with joy one minute, only to deflate the next. I find a mushroom whose stem excretes milk. There’s another one that under its fleshy umbrella is flecked with red, like spilt wine. But both of these are dangerous, not to be touched.
Then, at last I spy Girolles, their sandy yellow canopies blossoming out of the moss. And the elation answers all the fears. When I eat one it tastes, surprisingly, of pepper. I take the harvest home with me, and later, the vivid experience of the day works its way through me and out, weaving itself into words.