January 10, 2012 12:01:00 PM
Last week there was a news item from Australia. Some Asian tourists there had been hospitalized, and some had died, because of mushroom poisoning. They had confused the death cap mushroom with the straw mushroom which is popular in Chinese cooking. It's not an unusual mistake; the lethal potential for confusion is mentioned in Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (Rodale) by Eugenia Bone. I am unlikely to make such a mistake myself, but that's because I eat mushrooms from the supermarket rather than from the wild, not because of anything I learned in Bone's book. This is not, after all, a mushroom hunter's manual, although there are plenty of pages about mushroom hunting (professional and amateur). It is rather a wide-ranging appreciation of the roles fungi play in our world, commercial, social, and ecological, and Bone's enthusiasm for her subject and her ability to pack interesting facts and personal stories into her chapters make this a natural history book of exceeding fun and enlightenment.
The word "mycophilia" is in the OED, but Bone knows that most people don't know what it is: "myco" is fungus and "philia" is loving. Bone herself fits as having the condition, but plenty of others profiled here might be better understood as having a "mycomania." Take, for instance, the avant-garde composer John Cage, who was a devoted mushroom hunter, and got lots of New Yorkers interested in the hobby. At a time when he was a starving artist, he had only the wild mushrooms he gathered as a main foodstuff. It got him a hospitalization, not at all from poisoning, but from malnutrition. Bone (who is a food writer as well as co-president of the New York Mycological Society) tells this story in her chapter on mushrooms as a superfood; while they won't serve any better than any other food in a one-food diet, they do have a surprising amount of nutrition, though the notion of mushrooms being a superfood is faddish. Mushrooms can be very rich in the trendy vitamin D, and for vegetarians, they are a source for the vitamin B12 that is not found in any ordinary plants.
This is partly because they are not plants. Or, at least, they are not chlorophyll-containing plants, and whether they are simply non-green plants depends merely on definitions. They certainly aren't animals, but it is a surprise that they are closer to animals in their genetic heritage: "Both fungi and animals spent more time together on the same branch of the tree of life than either had with plants." We are more similar to fungi than plants are in many ways. Animals and fungi use glycogen to store energy, and plants use starch. Our ribosomes, the intracellular protein factories, are about 80% identical to the ones in fungi. This is one reason that if you get a bad fungal infection, a cure may be hard to find, since what kills the fungus might do you in as well. Although fungi are too different from plants to be considered plants by most biologists, they are intimately connected with plants, and plants cannot do without them. Not only are mushrooms and fungi involved in the breakdown and recycling of dead plants and animals and returning the chemicals to the soil. They are intimately involved in the roots of most plants; 90% of plants have roots with a fungus partner. The fungus gets energy via the root's sugar and the root gets the nutrients broken down by the fungus. If the plant does not have its fungus partner, it will not survive.
There are fungi that really are not good for us, and not just the poisonous ones (although one saying in mycology is "No mushroom is poisonous until you eat it."). Fungal infections like ringworm are just nuisances, unless you are sick anyway with an immune system that isn't working right. You breathe in fungal spores literally with every breath you take; a typical cubic meter of air has maybe 10,000 of them, enough possibly to influence weather because droplets might start formation on them. Our immune systems generally keep them from causing trouble in our lungs. You can't keep from breathing them, but they might invade your home as well. Mold contaminations cost home insurers billions every year, and mold gets blamed for all sorts of illnesses. There has been a boom in damages awarded to owners of mold-infested homes, leading a national legal group to advertise, "If mold or fungus problems are in your home or condo, you need help to make sure you don't allow these issues to get worse. Contact a lawyer today." Presumably he will show up with some Lysol. There is even a company called "Mold Mutts" that has dogs that will sniff out mold, analogous to the more appealing firms that train dogs to detect truffles.
Bone participates in many mushroom hunts all over the country, and documents the eagerness with which she and other oddballs go out in the field to find the best (often simply the most delicious) examples. She reports on the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship. She chats with a man who has fungal hyphae tattooed on his arms, and ear plugs (not the kind for audio), and blue bangs. It is Professor Tom Volk, "the rock star of mycology." She is entranced by his lectures on mycorrhizal root systems. Because the most valuable mushrooms cannot be grown artificially, there is a migrating army of pickers that go to certain areas at certain times of the year to pick the crop, and Bone follows them. She discovers that about a quarter of the mycologists she talks to have tried psychedelic mushrooms, and of course nothing will do but for her to branch into that specialty of her hobby. She does, however, fret about the possibility that it will be a life-changing experience giving "some kind of revelation that would, I didn't know, make me decide to start farming beets or something." She goes for a very sensible magic mushroom ride at the New Age Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado. In the more earthly realm, she goes to see a factory that uses mycelium that can be grown into any molded shape and turns out to be a perfect eco-friendly substitute for Styrofoam.
This is a lovely, funny, and informative grand tour of an underground world of strange fungi and the odd and amiable people who don't find anything in the world more fascinating or delectable or desirable than particular mushroom varieties. It covers a great deal of scientific ground, but is best as an expression of the enthusiasms of its witty and knowledgeable author. There is wisdom here, too. It isn't surprising that Bone has found within her hobby a larger, perhaps even spiritual, realm. She began as someone who just likes to eat mushrooms, and winds up seeing a much bigger and exotic world: "When I started to understand how fungi live, I began to appreciate that every single life, be it an insect or a mushroom or a tree, lives in a web of interdependencies with other creatures, and as a result, each was way more complex and much more beautiful than I had ever imagined. And fungi play a key role in it all." Reading through this book, it seems that mushrooms and their cousins are everywhere, and do everything; and if the book helps them bring about a broader appreciation of the interconnectedness of nature, more power to them.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS