March 7, 2014 | 3
When I took Mycology 101 in grad school, the textbook situation was so bad that the one we used came on a CD-ROM. Not came with a CD-ROM. It was one.
My professor grumbled that printed mycology texts all had their flaws and none was great. The illustrations were usually fair to poor. The drawings would often give you a vague idea of the majesty of fungi, but more often than not you had to use your imagination — and spend many hours in the company of a microscope — to bring them to life. Even on the CD-ROM, the images, though in color, were mostly small thumbnails.
Then last year, along came Jens Petersen’s The Kingdom of Fungi. And thanks to him, now we have this:
This is the asexual spore-making structure (sporangium) of a fungus called Rhizopus stolonifer. The spores are all the little dark things clustered at the head of the fungal filment. In the inset, you can see that the shiny transparent protective wrapper visible on the upper two sporangia has popped off the bottom one, though the spores have remained in place, giving it the matte appearance of a foam microphone cover.
And this, an assortment of cup fungi
And this, about a group of fungi called “Mazaedioid” that I didn’t even knew existed,
And this, about the charming and common bird’s nest fungi, which sit quietly on mulch piles right under people’s noses all around the world. The “eggs” are the fungus’s spore packets, designed to be launched by a wayward raindrop falling into the splash cup “nest”.
And there is page after page after page of these stunning images, many of which show perspectives and types of fungi that I have never before seen. There are close-ups of asci and basidia (the characteristic sexual cells of two important groups of fungi) that show them up close in their natural state in stunning and mind-blowing detail. There are amazing real-life close-ups of the Laboulbeniomycetes, a fascinating group of fungi often called “beetle hangers” that make a living harmlessly freeloading on insects. I have never seen anything like this collection of images before. Turning every page is like opening a new Christmas present.
It’s not just a coffee-table book, either, although it could easily serve that purpose. The photographs are embedded in a framework designed to teach you the basics of fungal biology and diversity. Though the book is a treat for mycologists, it’s even better, perhaps, for those of you who have had the interest, but never the time or ability, to learn about fungi . The book is also a gem for anyone interested in science and art; nearly every page has multiple sources of inspiration for those of you with a creative itch. And it would probably be a treat for curious kids, too.
Though there seem to be plans to offer the work as an ebook, paper is still the original and best for displaying and savoring high-resolution photos. As a bonus, the dead tree version comes in sturdy, well-bound hardback without that annoying dust jacket that only seems to exist to get beat up and fade with time.
All this is not to say the book is not without its limitations. Although the photographs are beyond-your-wildest-dreams spectacular, the graphic design is only about one step up from your average Power Point presentation. I would love to see what a professional designer could have done with this material, although as Petersen did the layout himself, the perhaps cost of a professional was simply beyond reach. Getting the book published was the far greater good.
The text is also utilitarian. Though the passages are appropriately succinct and illuminating, they are also often dry and clinical (“The fruiting bodies themselves display huge variation: from flat (resupinate) or oblique caps to large, fasciculate or stipitate structures.) and suffer slightly at times from an awkwardness that may be the product of translation from Danish, author Jens Petersen’s native tongue. Similar short descriptions in livelier language would make the book more enticing to non-experts.
One other small criticism is the relative prominence of large fungi. The many molds and microfungi that produce nothing more complex than their spores are not represented in proportion to their importance. But this is a small quibble. As beautiful and diverse as the spores of microfungi are, people are most likely to be curious about the things they could easily bump into and recognize on a walk through the woods. And what little people know even about the large fungi easily justifies a book that features them.
The world has been waiting for this book. If you are a connoisseur of life, it’s a don’t-miss. Get yourself a copy, curl up next to a fire with a cat and a cup of hot cocoa, and lose yourself in a visual candy box while learning about a fantastic — but all too real — parallel universe.
Thanks to the blog post at Cornell Mushroom Blog that alerted me to this book.
On March 7, 2009, I sat on the futon in my condo, laptop on lap, and composed my very first blog post. It felt like a bit of a lark. I’d long wanted to write a book, but that didn’t seem to be happening given my day job, and a friend had suggested blogging as an alternative. Today, 5 years later, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. Now I blog standing at my kitchen counter.
I want to thank you all for reading my ramblings, and Scientific American for giving me the soapbox on which to make them. You’ve all made me a better writer, and I hope I’ve enriched your world a bit with some entertaining stories and lifeforms you might not have otherwise encountered. Here’s to another five years of fun.
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX