Book Review

Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms

By Greg A. Marley
2010 / ISBN 978-1-60358-214-8
$17.95 (softcover)
Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Greg Marley is fascinated by the interconnectedness of life and the ways in which fungi fit into the scheme of things. I first heard about Chanterelle Dreams while at the Girdwood (Alaska) Fungus Festival. A pilot who works out of Anchorage, but lives in Maine (how’s that for a commute?), told me about two books written by back-home friends of his, suggested that they were good candidates for reviews, and put me in touch with the authors so that I could request review copies. After the Girdwood festival, I went to Petersburg (also Alaska) for the Tongass Rainforest Festival. While out collecting specimens for my identification workshop, we came upon some very nice Elaphocordyceps ophioglossoides growing from Elaphomyces truffles in one of the local old-growth spruce-hemlock forests. It proved to be a perfect prop and discussion-starter for a field trip I led the following day for the Petersburg High School advanced biology class, which happened to be studying connectedness in ecosystems. The cordyceps is a parasite on the truffle, the truffle is an ectomycorrhizal partner of the forest trees and provides food for a variety of small mammals such as the northern flying squirrel. In other parts of the Pacific Northwest, the squirrel is a major source of food for the northern spotted owl, and the spotted owl’s habitat requires large old nest-trees that rely on mycorrhizal fungi such as Elaphomyces for their livelihood (the squirrels also nest in trees). Connections. Now, back to the book. Chanterelle Dreams arrived in the mail after I returned home from my Alaska adventures. As I was making my inaugural read, I was amazed to find, near the end of the introduction, a story about (Elapho)Cordyceps ophioglossoides, Elaphomyces, symbiotic connections to hemlock trees, and northern flying squirrels. Connections.

Chanterelle Dreams is organized in six parts, with one to five chapters per part: I-Mushrooms and Culture (a comparison of mycophilic and mycophobic societies); II-Mushrooms as Food (taxonomy, description, look-alikes, caveats, habitat, preparation, recipes, and preservation of Clyde Christensen’s “foolproof four” [morels, puffballs, sulfur shelf, and shaggy mane], chanterelles, king bolete, and the genus Agaricus); III-Dangerously Toxic, Deadly Interesting (mushroom poisoning overview, deadly amanitas, false morels, angel wings, and poison pax); IV-Mushrooms and the Mind: The Origin of Religion and the Pathway to Enlightenment (fly agaric, plus psilocybes and the CIA); V-Mushrooms within Living Ecosystems (humongous honey fungi, fairy rings, fungi that glow in the dark, truffle-eating creatures, and wood-peckers and forest health); and VI-Tools for a New World (mushroom-gardening). Illustrations consist of 16 good-quality, color photographs, depicting various species, that are presented together in one glossy-paper section.

A number of other authors have produced generally similar books aimed at making fungi accessible to the general population, including Clyde Christensen (Molds, Mushrooms, and Mycotoxins; The Molds and Man), Sara Ann Friedman (Celebrating the Wild Mushroom: A Passionate Quest), Nik Money (Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard), R.T. and F.W. Rolfe (The Romance of the Fungus World), Elio Schaechter (In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale), and George Hudler (Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds). As you might expect, there is a fair amount of overlap in the stories the authors relate. But, also as you might expect, no two of them are quite the same, either in coverage or style and tone. Thus, some of Marley’s stories will be familiar to many readers while others likely will be new to most, particularly the more recent ones. But, even in the cases where the content is familiar, Marley’s take often differs from those that have covered the same ground before. The following passages give a sense of his perspective.

“Our relationship with the world of fungi is defined by a vast gulf of ignorance and lack of awareness. We don’t see what lies before us, and we know little about what we do see.”

“This kind of story (the cordyceps tale) -- and the natural connections it illustrates -- brings mushrooms to life for me. Stories make the abstract real, build familiarity, and transform understanding from a vague recognition of separate elements seen on the forest floor to an inkling of the dynamic and intricate web of relationships that move in choreographed dance steps in a natural world we rarely glimpse.”

(In the 1970’s,) “I bought my first mushroom field guide ... and began in earnest to untangle the stories of these fascinating and mysterious forest dwellers. More than 35 years later, I find several lifetimes of untangling still ahead.”

“Always keep your hunger for knowledge ahead of your hunger for mushrooms.”

“Cultivate a patient attitude and be comfortable with failure in the pursuit of knowledge.” (Although he is talking about growing mushrooms here, he could just as well have been referring to mushroom identification.)

The text is approachably written and mushroom-people are likely to find the material quite engaging and informative. Unfortunately, some bits of misinformation found their way into the book. Although most of these are relatively minor things that might not be noticeable or matter to most readers, a few examples seem worth mentioning.

Our understandings of mushrooms invariably are colored by where we live and where we hunt them. Thus, it should be noted that some of the information, while true for Maine and other parts of the Northeast, isn’t equally valid in other areas. For instance, in discussing angel wings, Marley cites their occurrence on conifer wood as the most critical feature distinguishing them from oyster mushrooms. However, oyster mushrooms (principally Pleurotus pulmonarius) do occur commonly on conifer wood, at least in the Rockies and points west.

In describing amanitas, it is stated that all of them have white or whitish gills and (in one place, but not in another) a ring on the stipe. In fact, there are amanitas with orange, yellow, pink, and green gills, although most of these do not occur in North America (Amanita jacksonii does though), and many amanitas lack rings. Lignin is incorrectly described as a carbohydrate and polymer of sugars. The decline, in northern Europe, of mushrooms produced by ectomycorrhizal fungi apparently as a consequence of human-increased levels of mineral nitrogen in the environment is suggested to be due to the trees no longer needing the fungi. It is far more likely to be the result of physiological effects on the fungi themselves.

But, as I said, such concerns are relatively minor things and I suspect that not many readers will be bothered by them. Thus, I recommend Chanterelle Dreams to anyone with an interest in mushrooms or as a gift for a friend who might develop the interest. It is an enjoyable and informative read.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Mycophile