Morel of the story? I can’t rule out Dad in this mystery

I was retrieving a hose reel from my backyard shed when I saw something that startled me.

Blending in with my composting leaf pile was the largest wild rabbit I have ever seen. This isn’t a cartoon, so I won’t claim that the rabbit was man-sized. But, stretched and still, she was as long as a newborn baby.

Ken Bradford

Our eyes met. Most of my backyard creatures – opossums, racoons and groundhogs – scoot away when they see me. This one simply stood, lowered her head and strutted toward greater privacy behind a cinder-block vegetable bed.

I followed, expecting to see her with a nest of baby bunnies. Instead, she led me past something that stopped me in my tracks.

There, growing next to that block wall, were two giant morel mushrooms, both easily 5 inches tall.

I quietly said, “Thanks, Dad.”

I have no special knowledge of the spiritual world. After my father passed away in 2001, when I would take walks in his old woods, a butterfly often would follow along. It became something of a joke to me, but it also gave me a sense of comfort.

The same thing happened after my mother-in-law died and I would see a cardinal in our pine tree, and after my mother died, I would see a bluejay lingering atop our fence. Sometimes with others, like my friend Jim, the feelings would come from a certain song on the radio or, with my friend Mike, the sight of a rusty truck.

These things all exist. They aren’t sent just to me, but I appreciate that they remind me and they serve to reconnect me.

With Dad and mushrooms, this reminder seems more personal.

These morels came early in the Bradfords’ yard this year.

Morel mushrooms are legendary in their difficulty to find. Their color and texture allow them to blend in with their habitat, which typically involves crumpled leaves and rotting trees. Five people can be staring at the same spot. One will see the morel. Four others won’t.

My father had the ability to see. Often, if a mushroom was right next to my foot, he would have to touch it with a stick before I would notice it.

On the last walk I had with him, we visited a favorite morel habitat in a shady spot among some mayapple sprouts and elm tree bark. He was unsteady, tripping over a small log, and I had to help him back to his feet. We went home that day with a couple handfuls of morels instead of the usual buckets.

A dozen years after he died, my wife and I moved into this neighborhood closer to Notre Dame. We had a typical city-style backyard. The previous owners had planted some flowers — carefully and appropriately – but mainly left a nice carpet of grass.

At our previous house on Miami Street, I had transplanted some red raspberry canes from Dad’s old garden into a sunny spot outside our bedroom window. I dug up some descendants from those plants to create a small row in my new backyard.

That was the start of a slow transformation. We don’t have grass in our backyard anymore. Instead, in addition to our raspberries, we have three rows of blackberry bushes and four raised beds – one for potatoes, one that has strawberries and rhubarb, and two others that rotate between a variety of salad vegetables.

Every now and then, we’ll be surprised with a couple small pumpkins we didn’t plant or a mysterious vine that produces dozens of cucumbers. To get all this, I’ve raked all our front-yard leaves into a composting pile in the back, and I’ve hauled in truckloads of wood mulch and compost from the free Organic Resources heaps out near the airport.

I tell my neighbors, who don’t always seem totally supportive, that I’m in the 10th year of a three-year plan. If I find a sale on tulip bulbs or rose bushes or wildflower seeds, they become part of the backyard family.

About five years ago, I was walking toward a groundhog hole near our fence when I saw my first homegrown morel. I jumped in surprise, just I would have if I had seen a snake. 

No one I know has morels growing in a yard like mine. I suppose the spores may have come from all those Organic Resources trips. In any case, I ended up with dozens of morels that spring and every year since.

Sometimes, they show up after a cold rain in early May. This year, for reasons only folks like my father would know, the first two giants made themselves known – one standing tall and dark against the white blocks and the other napping among the leaves — on April 6.

I’m enough of a scientist to know that the morels are there because of dozens of factors that have nothing to do with my father. Still, there are enough mysteries way beyond my capability of understanding to rule Dad out of the mix.

Besides, I feel better about thanking him instead of giving credit to a giant rabbit that no one else has seen.