We bought forty acres of land, about the smallest amount of land available then by way of rural subdivision. Our forty acres were a quarter part of the one hundred sixty acres that had once belonged to a family named Deja. In the early decades of the 20th century the place was the headquarters for a local logging crew, and then, the timber gone and the land valueless to the company that owned it, the land passed as a second-generation homestead to Deja. Our place contained Dejas house, a log cabin about 20 by 30 feet with green cardboard interior walls and two antiquated but functioning wood stoves, a ruinous and older cabin which had been built in 1915 as a bunk house for a crew of loggers, and a lovely and graceful barn with the top half of its roof missing. Around the house were two, maybe three acres of meadow and pasture dotted with huge stumps left from the first time that particular piece of land had ever lost trees to human hands. Most of them were burned black, evidence of someones vain attempt to turn cut-over timberland into pasture. The rest of our place, officially 37.5 acres according to the tax records, was woodland.
Forty acres is a big place to someone used to measuring his horizons in terms of city blocks, although I soon understood that a square of land one-quarter mile on a side was much too insignificant to register against the immensity of the American West. Translated into its legal description, our forty acres seemed downright puny: we owned merely the northeast quarter of the northeast quarter of section 32, Township 45 north, Range 3 West, Boise meridian. That legal description reflects the surveyors grid that was laid down over the entire western half of the country when it was opened for development. Homesteads were designated as one quarter of a section, or one hundred sixty acresmore than large enough to make a living if the land were fertile and the growing season long, but in northern Idaho too small to do much other than to cut the timber and sell out. The real winners in the development of much of the American West were not the homesteaders but the railroads, who, in exchange for their efforts and expenses at laying track, were granted alternating sections of land along their rights of way. A mile of track, 640 acres of land: it made for estates the size of which would have put a dukedom to shame, and it made the railroads rich. Even in the seventies, when the railroads nationally were losing money by carloads, the Burlington Northern compensated for its losses by selling timber from its vast holdings.
Before Deja owned it our place had been the site of a logging camp. The original bunkhouse was situated by the road, and we found rusty sections of rail and rail spikes in the grass by the barn, the remnants of a small logging railroad that had been built down the draw of our creek to where it debouched into the main fork of Alder Creek. To the north across the road lay two of the three remaining forties from the Deja place, owned then by absentees, and about a mile to the east was the Brede ranch house, unoccupied except during the summer grazing season and fall roundup. Beyond us toward the south was a large lightly timbered meadow, almost a savannah, and beyond that lay a mile or more of dense forest that ended at the Alder Creek Loop Road. Our closest neighbors lived along that road, Ed and Jean Strobel, Jim Yearout, Bud and Bertha Yearout, and Cotton and Peggy Stanridge. With the exception of the Strobels, they had all lived on Alder Creek for decades.
The first days on our farm were full of emptiness; I had never known such quiet, and with the stillness came many unexpected discoveries. Sitting high atop the barn roof one afternoon I heard for the first time the rush of air over a crows wings as it flew by overhead. Mornings in the cold still air you could sometimes pick up traces of conversation spoken nearly half a mile away at the Brede ranch, and later in the winter I often stood on the porch simply to listen to the falling snow. It fell with a hiss, the lightness of which buoyed the spirits like a sleeping childs breath.
Our place hardly resembled Laura Ingalls Wilders little house in the big woods. Around our forty acres on three sides lay the open rangeland of the Brede ranch, and on the remaining northern side meandered the county road. So we could not think of ourselves as living on the edge of a forest, much less a wilderness. But still it gave us pleasure to contemplate owning a woods big enough to get lost in for a short time, if only you remembered not to walk too long in a straight line, and big enough too to support its own wildlife population. We had our own resident deer, coyotes, grouse, and beavers. In season in the meadows wildflowers grew in great profusion, dandelions and lupine and wild roses in May, Ox-eye daisies and Indian paintbrush and mustard in summer, Canada thistles in late August on those days when you felt the first chill of fall in the morning air.
And we had mushrooms. One of our entertainments in April and early May was to hunt wild mushrooms, mainly morels. One day not long after we were living in our cabin Nancy came across several women with baskets tramping through the woods. They were members of the Spokane Mushroom Club, they said, and they had hunted morels on this land for years. Despite her assurances that they were still welcome to hunt our land, we never saw them again. But their visit was the inspiration for our own interest in hunting mushrooms, and each year during the early spring there was nothing more important to us than gathering morels.
Part of the reason we hunted mushrooms was economic; we were always looking for ways to stretch our budget. But the economic value of twenty pounds of morel mushroomsa good annual harvest was insignificant in relation to the social value of the hunt. Hunting mushrooms and talking about hunting mushrooms were communal enterprises for us and for our neighbors, almost a cult; the sociability of the activity increased its satisfaction. Nancy became the expert, and she recruited our daughter, Elaine, as soon as she could walk; together they endured cold, rain, snow, and gloom as they made the rounds of their favorite, often secret glades.
Some of the appeal of foraging in the woods was the experience, new for us, of being in tune with the natural world. Hunting mushrooms, you focused inevitably on the smallest of environmental details, the texture and color of scales on a fallen cone (these closely resembled young morels) or the contours of the forest duff (small mushrooms, especially young boletes, often lay partly hidden under a carpet of needles). And part of the attraction was distinctly sensual. Sure, the morel itself vaguely resembles a phallus, but this erotic shape wasnt really part of their emotional and intellectual appeal. Mushrooms have always been symbols of potent unconscious forces, forces as potentially dangerous as they are liberating, and so one of their charms comes from the knowledge that unlike, say, corn or asparagus, wild mushrooms are not entirely under human control. At times, hunting mushrooms became a mystical experience; as the author of one field guide puts it, hunting mushrooms is not simply a matter of traipsing through the woods in winter. It is an art, a skill, a meditation, and a process.