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In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist's Tale by Elio Schaechter

1997; 280 pp. $24.95. Harvard University Press.

I run into so many people who know so much about nature?how to tell birds by their songs and wildflowers by their smells?that I am always saddened by how little they know about mushrooms, a kingdom they could hardly live without. Elio writes about how mushrooms work their magic, how they secure their living, and how we benefit from having them as our planet-mates. For people who want to want something other than a field guide or a textbook, this is the book?well organized and well written. And the author has a congenial way of inviting you to join him on his excursions through the world of mushrooms. He is positively lyrical about mushroom hunting and the pleasures awaiting you on your next walk in the woods. He writes with the passion of a gourmand about edible mushrooms, and with that of a Sherlock Holmes about poisonous and hallucinogenic ones. Hard to resist.

I use this book in my classes. Elio has the ability to discuss something difficult, like fungal sex, without getting lost in minutiae or jargon. There's an excellent annotated bibliography, as well as contact information for mushroom clubs around the country. You can also contact the North American Mycological Association:

"Counterintuitive as it seems, extensive fungal colonization may be helpful to a host tree. Fungi do not usually invade the living sapwood, where the growth of the tree takes place; for the most part, they confine their spread to the dead heartwood, the central portion of the tree. Fungal growth leads to decay of the heartwood and, in time, to the hollowing out of the tree, turning it into an empty cylinder. A hollowed-out tree may actually become more resistant to high winds than a solid one, which is more unbending and heavier....Ancient oaks, gnarled and hewn out inside, have been known to survive for 500 years or more, and some damaged-looking sequoias and redwoods are even older.

"'In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. This name is justified for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty's greatest invention: armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and then poke his putrid carcass into her basket....The catch was brought back and burnt in deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with all the doors locked, because of the morals of the maids! ' [Gwen Raverat, a niece of Charles Darwin]'."


ISBN: 0674445554

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