Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.
Mushroom picking was always a big time in our family. In Austria it is surprising and gratifying to see how many people still take foraging seriously. And here in Australia, as it happens, there are a few European species that allowed us to forage successfully as a family as well. It has always been a calendar highlight for me, and the last time I had done it had been with Dad, some 5 years previously. We had found an amazing area of state forest, and the yield was staggering. There were literally millions of mushrooms everywhere. We called the place the Dark Forest, and it featured in more conversations than would seem ‘normal’ for those unacquainted with the joys of mushroom hunting.
This year I went back to the Dark Forest, alone. It was the first time I had gone mushroom hunting since Dad’s death. I knew that it would be an emotional time, it had probably been the most consistent shared activity of our lives. My earliest memories are of mushroom picking at around 18 months of age, so I knew this would be more than simply a nice day in the forest.
The entrance to the forest from the road is a quite old section – preserved since the early 1900’s, and had often been the base for camping for our family. It looked pristine too. I pulled up and the familiar pine smell dragged a thousand emotions out of me. It seemed perfect. I quickly picked my first mushroom right there, perhaps 10 metres from where we had camped so many times. It felt good, and I remember thanking Dad’s spirit for giving me the ability to enjoy such an experience, to be able to find food beyond a supermarket, to feel at home away from buildings, electricity and masses of people.
Driving toward the dark forest I saw, with dismay huge amounts of rubbish, literally a pile of hundreds of beer cans, and realised with a pang, that our little sanctum had changed, had been exposed. Worse was to follow as I crested the hill. The once familiar landscape had all changed. Most of the forest had been cleared as far as I could see. I stopped and got out and tried to orient myself. The little dam was still there, but the bumpy track to the left which was a great place to find Butterpilz was barren and gray. The copse of old rotted pines was gone – it had been a great place to escape the wind. And what I had always called ‘The Driveway’ was stripped bare of the pines, the grass and the bracken. That maybe hurt the most. It was a place where we had parked our van, spread out a few blankets and in the spring sunshine had a picnic of ham, rye bread and acha sent by my African grandmother. I would have been around 7 at the time, and we only sat there that once, yet it stuck with me as a place of true happiness, where the family were together, content and all the world was a big, safe home. It really was tough to see it so changed.
I saw some of the Dark Forest to the right (it is a huge area) was still standing, so I drove down and started picking. And eventually I found a place me and Dad had dubbed, on that last trip together, the Green Corners. It had become our rendezvous point, a crossroads from the logging trucks that had been disused and the grass had grown over it, and the mushrooms always grew strongest in those places. When you pick mushrooms you often lose track of your surroundings and each other, so we would try and meet back there regularly.
I picked mushrooms for a few hours, and there was a moment, where I looked up and fully expected to see Dad, coming down the hill, about to excitedly show off his amazing haul of mushrooms. I looked up and for at least a second, I was convinced this was going to happen. I had forgotten all the intervening years – his getting too ill to leave Austria, losing first one, and then the second leg. The conversations about his imminent death, the quiet tears and panics, the dullness of hearing that he had died, the numbness of picking one’s way through those months after. It all vanished, and I was certain he would emerge.
Then the weight of reality collapsed that beautiful, unaware moment of hope and ignorance, and I remembered everything, and I felt all that emotion of years crush me. And I fell onto the forest floor and I cried. I cried hard tears, the tears that had been held in through the preceding months and years, the tears I had considered myself to busy to cry. And when I was done, something beautiful happened. The sun streamed through the forest into the space where I sat, on the soft grass. It shimmered for a few seconds then the clouds that had obscured the sun all day, covered it again, and all was still.
A Christian may have seen it as a sign from Dad, in Heaven, a way of letting me know he was watching me, and cared still for me. But I am not a Christian. It was a moment of beauty that made me appreciate that despite all the loss and change we experience the world is still a wonderful place to be. Crying in a forest is not the way I’d envision the first ‘real’ external expression of my grief to manifest. But looking back, I can’t think of a better time or place.