CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms

By Doug Bierend
2021, Chelsea Green Publishing
ISBN 978-1-60358-979-6
Hardcover; 336 pages;
Dimensions: 6 X 9 inches
$24.95 USD; $34.95 CAD

In Search of Mycotopia is not so much a book about mycology but about mycologists. Make that up and coming mycologists. Author Doug Bierend, a freelance journalist, tells the story of some household names like Tradd Cotter and Sanford Katz, as well as intriguing stories of the next generation of mycologists who may not yet be on anyone’s radar. If you enjoyed Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone, you will probably like this book. Mycophilia came out a decade ago, so there’s a whole new crop of characters who are pushing back the boundaries of mycology. Some may even go on to become the Cathy Cripps, Gary Lincoffs, and Paul Stamets of tomorrow. And like Mycophilia, Bierend’s brand new book also documents some of the “fringy fungus festivals,” as he calls them. Indeed Bierend’s story seems to begin in 2019 at the Telluride Mushroom Festival and his chapters pretty much check off interviews with a who’s who lineup straight from the 2019 Mushroom Fest program, with a few side trips to visit some underground researchers and counterculture labs. It’s obvious he enjoyed his time at the storied Mushroom Fest, and who could blame him. But he also checks in on several of the newer “movements” in mycology … the Radical Mycology Convergence in Oregon, MycoFest on the East Coast, and some stops in between.

At the outset, the author explains that the book is arranged in three parts. “Looking at what fungi are, for starters, and how they’ve been understood (or misunderstood), and regarded (or disregarded) by mainstream science and culture.” Then delving into “offgrid mycology festivals to mountaintop remediation projects, basement cultivation operations, and online communities that have sparked an international community of amateurs …” And thirdly, the book takes us to “fuzzier questions of how engaging with unfamiliar, nonhuman agents can inform the ways we engage with the world and one another.”

You won’t want to purchase this book for the first part. “Looking at what fungi are” is not the author’s strongest suit. The information here is very brief. The author’s discussion of prokaryotes and eukaryotes, fungal evolution, and fungal physiology are overly simplified and at times incorrect. (As one example, Bierend states: “… fungi are eukaryotes and their cells store and transmit genetic information in the form of densely braided nuclei. That’s in contrast to prokaryotes, like bacteria, which carry their DNA in free-floating chromosomes, hence their incredible ability to iterate within their gene pools and evolve at hyper speeds.” To the first part, no that’s not exactly right. To the second part, no, their faster evolution has to do with their shorter lifespans, measured in minutes not years or decades, among other things.)

For those wishing more information about fungi, there are plenty other books out there. For those wanting to hear the stories of the young upstarts, and self-taught mycologists starting to make the headlines, this book is for you. This part of the book is well written and very funky and engaging. I’m not sure how many of these new shining stars will still be around doing anything mushroom related in 10 years, but some of them no doubt will be the next generation of household names. Hearing how they got started and got interested in fungi makes for an enjoyable read. The entire citizen-science movement has been a boon to several fields of research, e.g., astronomy, birding, and mycology (of course) to name a few. The contributions of “amateur” scientists (who, although maybe not professionals, may have tremendous knowledge and expertise) in conjunction with new forms of social media have been game changers to the field of mycology. Brand new and affordable micro-sized tools for genetic analysis are enabling just about anyone the ability to do studies on taxonomy or to make IDs based on DNA sequence analysis. It’s exhilarating to see citizen scientists collaborating with academic scientists to make major advances in our knowledge. The real or perceived barriers separating the two camps seem to be eroding, thankfully. So it’s disappointing to see an author play up this schism (indeed to perpetuate it) to score points with the counter culture crowd. Bierend: “Teaching people how to get genetic information from mushrooms might not sound like the most rebellious activity. But the idea that with a few bucks and the patience to learn new skills, anyone can participate in an area usually reserved for people with advanced degrees or sinecures at elite institutions does seem a little bit revolutionary.” I’m pretty sure anyone with an advanced degree takes that as an insult. The author could not possibly know the amount of work it takes to achieve an advanced degree in science, still more to secure a highly coveted academic job, and ever more work still to keep that job (plus bring in grant money to pay for the “privilege” of having lab space, lab materials, lab technicians and students, etc.). Maybe it wasn’t intentional. Maybe “sinecure” doesn’t mean what the author thinks it means. Or maybe the current “us vs. them” state of the world is now working its way into the realm of mycophiles. I hope not.

Mostly I enjoyed this book. In Search of Mycotopia introduces us to a bunch of folks who have a passion for the kingdom of fungi. The book chronicles the work and research being done by an unforgettable community of mushroommad citizen scientists and microbe devotees. Bierend uncovers a vanguard of mycologists; growers, independent researchers, ecologists, entrepreneurs, and amateur enthusiasts exploring and advocating for fungi’s capacity to improve and heal. From decontaminating landscapes and waterways to achieving food security, In Search of Mycotopia demonstrates how humans can work with fungi to better live with nature—and with one another.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi