Review of The Kingdom of Fungi by Jens H. Petersen. Princeton University Press, 2012.
By Linda Rosewood
When you were a child and hadn’t yet learned to read, did you ever become enraptured by a book like Audubon’s Birds, Grey’s Anatomy, or an Illustrated History of the World? Part of the magic of those experiences is to be introduced to a world of awesome beauty without language to describe what you’re looking at. The Kingdom of Fungi, by Jens H. Petersen, is that sort of book, and as I turn its pages I am delighted in ways I cannot even describe.
And yet, I will try. Because, as C. S. Lewis said, “delight is incomplete until it is expressed.” And clearly Petersen means to express his passion, scholarship, and wonder.
When you hold this book in your hands, begin anywhere and take your time. This may be the best collection of fungi photographs you have ever seen. It is quite possible that Petersen has invented the genre of mycoportraiture, as nearly any page could be torn out and framed.
And then, if you are new to mycology like me, return to the book’s beginning, and be introduced with clear text and precise examples of “spore,” “hyphae,” “mycelium,” “fruiting body.” And because, as we know, the kingdom of fungi is not a clear hierarchy, follow the illustrations of the kinships and form groups of fungi. I hadn’t encountered a clearer description until now. After several pages introducing concepts and illustrations of fruiting bodies and their morphology, and an exploration of parallel evolution, the rest of the book opens up the world of Ascomycota to Zygomycota: microphotographs of asci, sun-lit field photographs, tooth fungi among the sorrel, creepy cordyceps, a polypore with a giant black slug, and lots of photographs of happy children in the forest with mushrooms.
And beyond their beauty, the photographs make clear the lifecycle. A sentence like ” the mazaedioid fungi are Ascomycota where the asci decay, leaving the powdery spores on top of the fruiting body” will be illustrated by four photographs I won’t soon forget.
I expected this book to cost more than $50; it is a large hardback, with glossy pages and well-edited text. So I am grateful to the publishers for making it available for almost half that price, so that I could buy a copy for myself, and another to give to a friend who doesn’t understand why I find mushrooms so delightful.
Linda Rosewood is a writer living in Santa Cruz. “Really? a writer? What do you write?” She seems to be writing email, mostly. In her spare time she’s learning about how mushrooms can save the world, and what contribution she could make to help end the Athropocene age.