Book of December
I never thought that I would develop a fondness for fungi, but alas, I have. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know them well, but am in the continual process of developing a deeper appreciation for the fruiting bodies I see and the mycelia that probes beneath the surface forever in search of nutrients.
For a beginner like me, Fascinating Fungi of New England by Lawrence Millman is the perfect guide. First of all, it measures 8 x 6 x .25 inches and slips easily into my pack. But what I like even more about this book is that Millman talks about mushrooms in a manner that a layperson like myself can understand. Combined with the artwork of Rick Kollath, whose visual cues aid in my learning, Millman compresses key points in this little book that has become one of my go-to sources in the field.
I think what I admire most is Millman’s voice. I’ve never met the man, but feel as if he’s standing beside me chatting about any particular species and telling the story. My friend and mentor, Kevin Harding, strongly advises that we should spend less time naming and more time sharing the stories of what we see in the woods. And that’s precisely what Millman does, with a splash of humor added to the mix.
To illustrate, in a sidebar about Birch Polypores, he writes the following: “Multi-faceted Fungus — 5,300-year old Tyrolean Ice Man Ötzi, discovered in 1991, had two polypores — the Birch Polypore and the Tinder Polypore among his possessions. He probably made a decoction of the former to rid himself of intestinal worms. Early New Englanders used the Birch Polypore as a razor strop; until recently, entomologists used it for mounting insect specimens; and the present-day Cree of northern Quebec (like Ötzi) make a medicinal tea from it. The Cree don’t like the polypore’s bitter flavor (due to a compound called Betlinic Acid), so they assume their alimentary parasites also won’t like the flavor and will thus vacate the premises upon coming into contact with it.”
And I love this: “Non-Gilled on Other — In this catch-all category, the species are not only parasitic, but most of them would also seem to be emulating Hollywood mad scientists in the way they transform the ‘Other:’ the Hypomyces turns a Russula or Lactarius into an entirely different species called a Lobster; an Entoloma causes a Honey Mushroom to lose its characteristic cap-and-stem shape; Rhizopus stolonifer turns a bowl of strawberries into an inedible, gooey mess; and a Cordyceps eats away at its truffle host until that host completely falls to pieces. You would think a movie producer would approach one or more of these species with a contract, wouldn’t you? Well, it hasn’t happened yet . . .”
The book is divided in an easy-to-use manner. So easy, in fact, that recently an 8-year-old friend began using my copy within minutes to identify species we found on a walk through Pondicherry Park. Sections include Gilled on Ground; Gilled on Wood; Gilled on Other; Non-Gilled on Ground; Non-Gilled on Wood; Non-Gilled on Other; Slime Molds. There are sidebars and measurements, spore prints, details about habitat and season, plus a glossary and other resources for those who want to take the next step in fungi ID.
For me, for now, this is enough.
Fascinating Fungi of New England by Lawrence Millman, foreword by Gary Lincoff, illustrated by Rick Kollath, published 2011, Kollath+Stensaas Publishing.