Life Sketches: Puffball hunting

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Puffball hunting

Yesterday morning I looked out the window and saw that a puffball was emerging from the ground at the edge of a hedgerow bordering our back lawn. It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago. I had taken my son and his friend, Junior, puffball hunting on a farm just outside of Warren off of Route 20. What’s different about a puffball from others in the mushroom family is that they can grow out of the ground overnight. And, if you don’t find and pick them in time when they are still pure white and firm, they dry out and shrink to a paper-like sphere that emits a dusty cloud of spores when squeezed, hence the name puffball.

It was early in the season and I wasn’t sure we’d find anything, but with the cooler weather already upon us I was looking forward to a quiet walk in the woods. Maybe we’d even spot some deer. The boys were about 8 or 9 and were excited to be on an expedition, but they crashed through the woods, talking and laughing and slapping tree trunks with sticks. It wasn’t the calm nature walk that I had hoped for and for sure we weren’t going to see any deer so, to get some peace, I lied and told them that if they made too much noise the puffballs would suck themselves back into the ground. That seemed to quiet the boys, but after an hour of searching we didn’t find anything.

About a week later while driving to town, Junior’s mother spotted a puffball out in her neighbor’s pasture. Knowing how much her husband loved to eat them pan-fried in butter, and being a devoted wife, she jammed on the brakes, flipped open her son’s door and commanded, “Junior, get that puffball!” The kid sat up and zeroed in on the target like a Labrador retriever. Ironically, the puffball was sitting on the land of a neighbor with whom they were having a property-line dispute. For a second, mother grabbed Junior by the back of his shirt, but devotion to her husband won out and she chose to risk the humiliation of being caught by the “enemy.”

Released from his mother’s grip, Junior left the car, slipped through the barbed wire fence like a cat and began to trot out into the forbidden pasture, the puffball glowing like a beacon. “Hurry up!” his mother called from the car, causing Junior to quicken his pace. But, when he was within 30 yards of the quarry and almost out of earshot of his mom, Junior suddenly dropped to the ground and proceeded on all fours. His mother was baffled by his actions but she would now have to scream for her son to hear her and she was worried about arousing the enemy. Junior proceeded at what to her seemed like a snail’s pace. When he neared the snow-white target he gathered himself and pounced on it, tearing it from its anchorage. Then he rose triumphantly and began running back toward the car, his mother holding her head in her hands. When he reached the fence he thrust his prize under the wire to his flustered mother who was waiting with hands open — and a question: “Junior, why were you crawling?”

The boy thought for a moment and then answered. “Terry said that you have to sneak up on a puffball or else it’ll suck itself back into the ground.”

“Wait till I talk to Terry!” his mother said.

That evening I received her phone call and an emotional reprimand about how I almost caused her to have a heart attack. Not to bring further injury to her heart —her name and Junior’s name were left out of this story. I did hint that a helping of the delicacy fried with breadcrumbs would serve to keep me quiet indefinitely.

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