You don't have to be Edward Lear to see the comedy around us. We wish we had room for the replies of all ninety of you who sent factual or imagined definitions of ''the merkle'' in Eugene J. McCarthy's essay of Thursday, July 5. By Monday, July 9, several ''correct'' answers were here, plus one on ''the best merkle of all'' from Natalie Cooper Wallace of Long Beach, Calif., who shared the kind of fun The Home Forum hopes to offer along with its serious essays and poetry:
''Our family doubled over with laughter and joy when we read 'The merkle.' Therefore, we believe a splendid definition of the merkle is joy, a quality of love. One of us fondly remembered a story from Disney television programming which portrayed some young boy campers during their first time at camp. They were sent out on a 'snipe' hunt. This provided an icebreaker and proved to be good honest fun. Another family member, when asked about the elusive merkle, replied with tongue in cheek, 'Certainly a merkle took place when the Lord Jesus walked upon the waters.' Overhearing the discussion, one of the girls thought we were speaking about her high school friend, Paul Merkle, who now is a college water polo player. The best merkle of all is the laughter and joy this article brought to our family this summer afternoon.''
We said we'd publish the first ''correct'' answer received, and it came from Flora M. Stene of South Deerfield, Mass. (followed immediately by Judith Cone of Trumansburg, N.Y., Jennett Beck of Ventura, Calif., and Mrs. James C. Davis Jr. of Carlisle, Mass.):
''Former Senator Eugene McCarthy in his delightful essay 'The merkle' must surely be describing that delectable mushroom known as the morel - Latin name Morchella. Seems to me that Morchella could quite easily be interpreted as merkle. Right?''
Right regarding the mushroom; maybe right regarding the sound of the name. The same day came a more widespread view from R. C. Smaridge of Winter Park, Fla.: ''MERKLE: miracle, with a Southern accent. As in: 'Springtime in Virginia is a merkle.' '' Next day Mark Catlin of Charlottesville, Va., added: ''In Albemarle County they are called merkles because 'it's a merkle if you find one!' '' Or, as Mary G. Jones of Akron, Ohio, put it, ''A merkle is a very wonderful thing that happens in West Virginia.''
Arthur L. McCarty of Medfield, Mass., recalled picking merkles with his grandmother in Indiana: ''Their intriguing, irregular, sponge-like shapes did not appeal to me as something edible then, nor do they now.'' But they are good to draw, he said, enclosing the sketch here.
John Schultz of Washington, Va., explained that ''you could search with little or no success and a few hours later return and fill a peck basket - they appeared 'miraculously,' or 'merkle-ously,' if you prefer.''
''What makes them fun and interesting to find,'' says Roberta D. Matthews of Long Beach, N.Y., ''is that, when plucked from its stem, the merkle makes a small sound. Most people who have picked them claim it says, 'Hello there!' ''
So the mail went right up to the July 23 deadline, with about half the answers right, half imaginative (not only ha-ha), and a few mistaken.
''I'm not surprised it took you a while to find out what a merkle is,'' writes Mary C. Armstrong of Waco, Texas. ''There are probably only four or five of us left who recall Una Merkle (sometimes spelled Merkel), that excellent screen comedienne of the '30s and '40s. Una specialized in the zany, offbeat character. Once, in 'The Bargain,' she said to Charles Butterworth (remember him?), ''My father is an Odd Fellow.' And he replied, 'I can understand that.' So there you are. What would you expect to find under an old apple tree or beside an ancient pine stump?''
One of the four or five who remember is Eugene M. Pollard of Lexington, Mass. , who says the only merkle he ever saw was called Una and doubts ''if it will be seen again except in what is most oddly called 'Repeat.' '' Another moviegoer, Richard Towns of Cambridge, Mass., remembers ''Merkle on 34th Street.''
Susan J. Cobb of Odessa, Texas, looks at another source:
Behold the lowly merkle
Ensconced in the debris.
The only way to find him
Is down on hand and knee.
Eat him fast before he ripens!
Can him by the dozen!
For what's a merkle anyway
But a gizmo's second cousin!
Or, quoth Florence M. Brandt of Santa Barbara, Calif., ''A merkle is a mermaid's uncle.''
From Lorel Branigan of Encinitas, Calif.: ''merkle - noun - as in: S/he has merkle. To wit: an unflagging determination to reach a goal, esp. in light of obstacles and setbacks, whether to give up smoking, listen more openly, get an education, fight discrimination, or, oh, yes, search for merkles.''
In like vein is Marie Kern of San Diego: ''It could be any plant that may against all odds push upward to face the new day.'' And Helen G. Bayfield of the same city: ''The first evidence of new life - the pushing up sometimes through the snow or like asparagus through concrete - anyhow, that's poetic, isn't it?''
Carol P. Fetzer of Rochester, Mich., apologizes to Shakespeare ''and especially Polonius'' but plunges on regardless:
Whist there! What say ye is a merkle?
Why, presently 'tis an inverted
subterfuge,Not itself hidden - Nay! Still a kind of
plant.Yea! Shielding the illicit piquing of inquir-
ing mindWhose hospitality to much querying
Would better hinge itself - oh, marry!
To more wisdom yielding subjects - as its
Without apology to anyone, Isabel Rector Russell sends ''A merkle workle'' from Milford, N.H.:
First, before you seek the merkle,
You must have a healthy turkle:
Fresh, and ready for the pot.
Do not ice it, though, or spice it,
Let it drain there; never slice it
Or you'll spoil the whole concot.
When the turkle's dripping limply
You will need a scammet, simply
For the pungence it imparts.
Do not mash it, though, or hash it,
Gently peel it and souflash it
Till the boiling water starts.
To the tulip poplar hasten,
Fly to stump of hard old pine,
Have your golf club at the ready:
Whack the brush and hack it fine.
Bend you down and pluck the merkle
(Pale and languid in the shade)
Rush it home to grace the turkle,
And you've got your merkle made!
''It resembles an ugly gray sponge - I eat them lightly sauteed in butter each spring and with pleasure,'' writes Katharine Fontaine Heath of Riner, Va.
Anne Thompson of Rocky Ford, Colo., cites sponge mushrooms from an Iowa childhood. ''Dipped in eggs and crackers and fried, they were wonderful. The memory lingers in the happy corners of my mind.''
''Known in my neighborhood of the Brushy Mountains-foothills of the Blue Ridge as DRY LAND FISH,'' says Kathleen Morehouse of Moravian Falls, N.C. ''This served with 'Branch Lettuce' is a GREAT TREAT. The 'fish' is cut in half the long way and batter fried.''
Several readers, horrors, lumped the merkle with the snipe. Betty Barnett of Pomona, Calif., did so in verse:
I've never seen a merkle, now,
But hope to glean a free one
To add to snipe and grunion chow
For tea with elfin wee one.
''The mysterious merkle ... springs up at night in a circle,'' rhymes Marion Wrye of Osterville, Mass., but when the sun comes up ''is gone like a fickle freckle.''
''The former senator could have picked morels in Minnesota,'' writes Eloise H. Brown, now of San Francisco. ''I usually looked for them near the yellow bellwort about the time the Juneberry bloomed.''
From Bette Dodge of Fallon, Nev.: ''The merkle is the transition in thought to see the un-seeable when our heart is ready for it - the good seed always available, waiting to be recognized.''
''Once seen, it becomes part of the person-who-sees-it's fullest appreciation of the 'miracle' that is all around,'' says Gloria W. Heath of Greenwich, Conn.
From Gladys B. Hoplamazian of Redondo Beach, Calif. ''The hunt for the domalon in the ancient Armenian town of Urfa was a great festive occasion. My mother never did fully describe it but did say it was very tasty. Perhaps Senator McCarthy can arrange for a domalon safari (with paper bags) to the outlying wooded area of Urfa and make a comparative study.''
Leona Buchanon Walker of Gravette, Ark., was excited to that read Mr. McCarthy found a merkle: ''I knew immediately that the Raggedy Man's Wunks had appeared again, as well as the Squidicum Squees!'' She refers to James Whitcomb Riley's poem, which she used to teach to fifth-graders. ''Since the Wunks could turn into anything, this time they turned into merkles! The merkles kept disappearing, remember? That was because the Squees had shown them how to swallow themselves.''
The innocence, awe, and simplicity of children are needed in the search for merkles, say both Patsy Forrestal of Homestead, Fla., and Marjorie Jenkins Carlson of Indianapolis. On this page are pictorial versions by two school-age readers themselves: a multicolored mushroom shape by Liz Warner of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., and, at the bottom, a scene to illustrate ''merkles grow by stumps, merkles do not grow in young trees,'' by Midori Okada of Rolling Hills, Calif.
''Actually they are elkrems spelled backwards,'' explains Yelrish Xottam (spelled backward) of Sedona, Ariz. (spelled forward). ''They are part of the moorshum family, which is indigenous to that area. They became famous when some of the larger hotel restaurants nearby used them to substantiate their Raseac salads, as they had a property similar to amacij.''
''The consensus in obscure scientific circles,'' writes Maxine Shore of Carmel, Calif., ''is that the first seeds were strewn on planet Earth in 31571/2 BC by some of those busy little extraterrestrial botanists whose philanthropic activity was first revealed in the carefully documented motion picture 'E.T.' ''
There does seem to be a variation in spelling. ''You'll find four recipes for 'merkel'/ in Foxfire Number Two,'' writes Norman A. Walter of Red House, W.Va. ''They fry, they stuff, make omelet - / in pie they're something new.'' Thanks to Hope Winters of Williams-port, Pa., for tracking down Foxfire, too. Linda Maedell Rice of Columbia, Mo., documents ''merkels'' (used for potpie) as a Pennsylvania term as early as 1899. The Aunt Nellie, age 99, of Theodore N. Goble of Concord, N.H., confirmed Morchella facts in a book given her when she was 20. Ursula F. Werdenhoff, 85, of Sebring, Fla., remembers the ''delicate flavor'' of merkels from the old pear orchard. ''But the greatest thrill was just to be able to find them.''
''There is one strange factor about merkels,'' notes Kathryn J. Baker of Tempe, Ariz. ''No one ever brings you one. You must go out and find it.''
''Asked for advice by aspirants,'' writes Frances Grandt of Phoenix, Ariz., ''successful merkle finders say, 'Expect to find one.' ''
''I tried to funguess the hidentity of Senator McCarthy's merkle. Did he truffle a puffle that glowed like a phleurkel? Sporensically yours,'' Anna R. Maskel, West Hartford, Conn.
Or is it a ''miracle fruit,'' in the words of Catherine Sarnelli of Levittown , N.Y., ''so sweet that everything eaten after it - no matter how sour - tastes sweet''?
From Duane Valentry of El Toro, Calif.:
A merkle is a sparkle through
Not a fungi on the underside
of a lurk -
Hid in the quietude of a
But a diamond perk!
Don H. Coombs, editor of Mushroom magazine, Moscow, Idaho, writes: ''I'm willing to bet that the editors of The Christian Science Monitor have been surprised at just how many of their readers feel right at home with merkles. ...''