God is fungi. God is the stuff of the web—the food web, the web of life, call it what you will—and without fungi, we’d be less than dead; we never would have existed - “we” meaning every living thing on the planet. Fungi are everywhere, and everywhere essential, and what is god if not the ultimate mixmaster, the one who breaks it all down so the big bang beat can begin again?
“The process of decay,” Lucy Kavaler writes, “is… essential in making room on this small planet for new living things.” Kavaler wrote that line just a couple years after Carson’s Silent Spring was published. “The development of life on earth is related to the evolution of fungi.”
Originally published in 1965, Lucy Kavaler’s Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles stands as a landmark in popular science writing. There had been field guides to fungi before her, but Kavaler’s book may be the first to broadly and popularly survey those life forms without which Gaia would have no groove.
Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles joins George Hudler’s 1998 Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds as candidate for best 20th-century overview of fungi—and, so far, there’s nothing in the 21st to challenge to challenge either of them. (Although, strictly speaking, Hudler’s book, now in a revised 21st-century edition, competes with itself.) One reason for that is pointed out by Kavaler in the first couple pages: “true mushroom lovers are a breed apart.” Mushrooms are just a few families in the great kingdom of fungi, so what of fungi lovers? One begins to suspect, with Terrence McKenna, extraterrestrial origin.
They’re a rare breed indeed: beyond Kavaler and Hudler there are lots of field guides, textbooks and treatises, while a small host of (mostly stoned) writers have produced a string of (often excellent and smart) books on mushrooms, especially the magical kind.
Although published 35 years apart, Hudler and Kavaler for the most part seem nearly contemporaneous. Hudler, a scientist, is a lively and expert writer, but Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds doesn’t quite catch fire the way Kavaler’s book does. She wrote as an outsider, a luxury that afforded her the passion of the evangelist: she wants to turn us on, while college professor Hudler, as vivacious as he is, has to stay behind the line and merely inform us.
In either case, after reading one, you’ll want more, and either book is the logical next step.
For readers with some background in biology (and especially those who’ve studied biology in the past 15 or so years), Kavaler’s book is a real treat in the history of the science. Where there are major differences between the two books, they can be shocking. For Kavaler, just a few short decades ago, fungi are the exciting possibility of a third kingdom—something other and different, yet intimately related to plants and animals. Today, biologists recognize five, and sometimes even six kingdoms (or “domains”) before breakfast. The twentieth century, it has been said, was the century of physics, but well before its end we were accelerating rapidly into the century of biology. Kavaler was riding the cusp of that wave.
But it’s as the glue that binds life and death together as a Möbius strip that her subject interests Kavaler most. Fungi are essential to much of what we eat, literally: our daily bread depends on it. And if you take your meal in a cup, it takes yeast to make beer and wine, too. Fungi are truly binders, as they’re commonly used as emulsifiers and other agents of stickiness.
Fungi will also take down the food we so assiduously cultivate, with the Irish Potato Famine perhaps being the most famous example. Indeed, the rots that lost the Irish their spuds are still with us—only worse. During the Soviet famine of the 1970s, North American potatoes were shipped in relief, thereby reuniting the Old World and the New World strains of blight. The result was a renewed sexual interest, after years of genetically limiting clonal reproduction, on the part of both parties, and dangerous new strains of blight now roam the planet, just waiting to wipe out a plump monocrop. The reason it hasn’t happened (yet) is thanks to the lethal marriage of biochemistry and petroleum-based fungicides. So far, Big Oil wins, but you can’t hold out against fungus forever.
Another spawn of the aforementioned marriage are plastics and there, in our ingenuity, in our ability to engineer something that lasts thousands of years, that is impervious to the loop of life and death, we may have cut the bacterial and fungal voice right out of the mix. Plastics are miraculous, all right, but then so is the devil, at least according to some. In any case, it’s an interesting way to spend the planetary bank of energy: you can’t eat it, and you can’t take it with you. Better hope the bioengineers come up with a plastic-eating thing-a-ma-jig real soon and, too, that they don’t charge you too much for its services, what with the patents on life and all.
Every step and every breath you take, you’re swimming in fungi, bacteria, nematodes—a whole pantheon of the miraculous. We’re incredibly, perhaps pathetically, anti-bacterial, as that’s an ultimately self-destructive behavior, but we hardly pay attention to fungi at all. A grimace and perhaps a small retch at the gone-to-fuzz carrot in the produce drawer, but never any really concerted effort to wall ourselves off from fungi the way we do with bacteria. (Most people have never even heard of nematodes, but the father of American nematology once said that if everything but the nematodes were to suddenly disappear, you’d still see a perfect life-sized relief map of the world, as nematodes form a thin film over everything.)
There’s a good reason for the absence of a wall between us and fungi: we don’t really know jack about them. There are few treatments against fungal infections: athlete’s foot, jock itch, yeast infections; the shit just keeps coming back. Most fungal infections are not usually fatal. Fungi are a largely unexplored kingdom that seems to have no end.
Kavaler, in her generous way, covers all of this and more in detail. She’s rich in history and conversant and comfortable with science. The result is we get the breadth of fungi without missing the narrative details that make the kingdom come alive.
A sour note for me is Kavaler’s attitude toward magic mushrooms and LSD (acid having been first synthesized from ergot fungus), in particular, and drugs in general. I’m no advocate (except for the legalization of cannabis and the elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences), but Kavaler is judgmental and condescending toward users in a way that blurs addiction with pleasure seeking. Was she misinformed or simply ignorant? Or was she being coy, when in 1965 she wrote her extremely well-informed (ripped from the headlines) chapter, “The Mind Drug Madness,” on burgeoning acid culture (that will-o’-the-wisp)? Kavaler writes on her web site, “My fascination with fungi began when I was invited to join a group of writers going to Mexico to partake of the hallucinogenic mushroom and write while under the influence. I didn’t go – fortunately, because the Mexican government arrested them all.” If in the early Sixties she was willing to take the trip (only worry, getting busted), then why the jive that doesn’t jibe in the book?
But I’ll take a little silliness in exchange for such a wide-ranging tour of a trillion-year-old kingdom, one that is otherwise passionate, generous and smart.