In William Turner’s “Grete Herbal” (1576), the first popular, English-language guide to the vegetable kingdom, the botanist was blunt on the matter of mushroom taxonomy. There were, he reckoned, just two kinds: “one maner is dedly and sleeth them that eateth of them and be called tode stoles, the other doeth not.” Two centuries on, scientists were no wiser about the lives of these mysterious organisms that haunted the shadows and seemed to appear by spontaneous generation. Otto von Münchhausen (1716-74)—a real scientist, but with the same fervid imagination as his tale-telling namesake—had seen fungal spores but testified that he had witnessed them hatching into small insects. Mushrooms weren’t plants, he concluded, but the dwelling places of small animals.
The irony is that his wishful observation and skewed reasoning were halfway right. As Eugenia Bone notes in her engaging trawl through the labyrinths of mycophilia (“From the Greek, myco = fungus, philos = loving”), fungi are no longer regarded as plants. They’re now allocated to a kingdom of their own, which, in evolutionary terms, is more closely allied to the animal world. Fungal species outnumber plants by a ratio of 6 to 1. They make up a quarter of the Earth’s biomass, occurring on every surface and in, or attached to, every other living organism. The planet’s life-systems would close down without fungis’ ceaseless involvement as digesters, recyclers, biochemical enablers and a kind of exterior immune system for their hosts.
All this is no more a part of popular understanding than it was in Turner’s day. We mostly encounter fungi—beyond a few edible species—as molds and toxins, malign agents of entropy, and view their role in the great scheme of things as being roughly on a par with head-lice. But a fresh chanterelle, gold-shawled and apricot-scented in the leaf litter, is another matter, and it was the sensual, slightly dangerous delights of eating the things that first drew Eugenia Bone into this arcane world.
A food writer from Manhattan with metropolitan habits and tastes, Ms. Bone was taught foraging as a child by her Italian family. She learned early to avoid the pallid veil of the death cap and to appreciate the singed-meat, warm-earth savor—what the Japanese call umami—of porcini. It was what she calls her “basic venality” and desire to eat more decadently that led her through a succession of baroque fungus forays and conferences in search of satisfaction.
America is unique in its contemporary mushroom culture. Throughout Europe and Asia, wild fungi are still harvested as a staple food source. They’re essential and functional. In modern America they’re a hobby and a passion. Mushrooming is cultish, often obsessive, and Ms. Bone the journalist, opting to stalk her subject via its disciples, discovers a world in which the extraordinariness of the hunters matches that of their prey.
She joins in the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship, hoping to learn how to find this most delectable species, “redneck caviar,” and falls in with Al, a member of the subset of ‘shroomers that she tags “the camouflaged outdoorsmen.” Despite the “16-ounce can of Busch beer” in his hand, he points her toward a fundamental shift in perception: Fungi, both literally and metaphorically, are below the radar, inhabiting spaces we don’t customarily pry into. She hangs out with Prof. Tom Volk, “the rock star of mycology . . . heavily tattooed, with earplugs and blue bangs,” and is riveted by his lectures on how visible mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of vast mycorrizal “root systems,” crucial components of subterranean ecology. She comes across Californian Ken Litchfield, the “Johnny Appleseed of the fungal world. . . . He likes to spread spores by chewing mature mushrooms and spitting the mash into cracks in wood or over rotting forest duff.”
Rather predictably, after forays into fungal superfoods and wonder drugs, Ms. Bone feels that she has to try some hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms” (the Psilocybespecies) at the New Age Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado. They don’t seem to have much effect, but her account of her preparations (early night, phone calls out of the way, chocolate for breakfast) underlines the one weakness of “Mycophilia.” Ms. Bone has a compulsion—a journalist’s tic maybe—to elaborate the trivial details of her domestic routine, from airline meals to hairdressing appointments. This would be no more than tiresome if it didn’t suggest the very thing she is arguing against—that the world of mushrooms is, well, eccentric.
Ms. Bone’s strength is as a writer of popular science, and her progress along what one guesses was a steep learning curve has made her explanatory prose both lyrical and precise, particularly in her explanation of the indispensable role of fungi in the biosphere. Without them as decomposers, the whole planet would be submerged in dead organisms. Without them as symbiotic root partners—passing on minerals in return for sugars, chemically repelling predators—most plant species could not survive.
Two stories, especially, highlight the extraordinariness of these ancient organisms. There are fungi growing on the inside walls of the decommissioned nuclear reactor at Chernobyl; they are using radiation to produce biochemical energy in the same way that plants use sunlight. There are also fungi that can degrade the hydrocarbons in oil, and others that can generate them, organically and sustainably. Though she begins by looking for a simple gourmandizing high, Ms. Bone ends her odyssey elegantly, discovering that mushrooms may be the most important—and most hopeful—ingredient of life on Earth.