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BOOK REVIEW

Fun with Fungus

Gary Fine

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds: The Remarkable Story of the Fungus Kingdom and Its Impact on Human Affairs. George W. Hudler. 244 pp. Princeton University Press, 1998. $29.95.

To imagine that a scientific volume explaining molds, rusts, yeasts and other microscopic fungi could be beach reading boggles one's mind. That such a book could be a suitable Christmas present for a spouse or child might seem incredible. Yet George W. Hudler, an award-winning teacher of plant pathology at Cornell University, has written an exposition on these microorganisms that can best be described as charming.

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Although the title emphasizes "magical mushrooms," Hudler's heart is with the molds: the smaller the better. Other popular books, such as Sara Ann Friedman's Celebrating the Wild Mushroom, better treat the "fleshy fungi," such as gourmet morels, deadly amanitas and hallucinogenic psilocybes. The accounts of these noticeable objects seem like an afterthought. However, as a popular raconteur of the nuances of plant pathology, Hudler has no peer. Stories about the effects of fungi on ecology and human culture are liberally salted with detailed and clear scientific accounts of these organisms.

Given the absence of thought typically given to microscopic fungi, their effect on history and contemporary life is dramatic. Without these organisms, we would lack wine, bread, cheese and penicillin. Simultaneously, without fungi there would have been no Irish potato famine, Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight. Most who succumb to AIDS are actually killed by its associated fungal infections. Singer Bob Dylan was almost killed by histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal fungal disease. Hudler suggests that the witch trials in Salem and elsewhere were the consequence of hallucinations and psychotic behavior resulting from rye ergotism: all that uproar over the effects of a microorganism. Indeed, it becomes all too easy to complete this volume with one's paranoia about invisible and invincible threats fully reinforced. Through each page of this lively volume comes a message and a warning: Fungus matters! Respect! Beware!

The account of "yellow rain," a controversy surrounding possible Soviet germ warfare in Southeast Asia, is particularly instructive. Although government officials pushed the belief that the Russians were attempting to introduce "mycotoxins" during the war in Vietnam, the truth was less malicious if equally fascinating. Most scientists today believe that Hmong villagers in Laos and Kampuchea were the "victims" of bee feces, dropped by a particular species that swarmed and defecated en masse. Not everything is caused by fungi, after all.

Several of the more engaging accounts in Handler's volume detail how the international migration of organisms can have dramatic consequences. The chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and other plant diseases were the consequences of the transportation of a common and controlled fungus in a new ecosystem. As a result, one often hears ecological patriots or chauvinists proclaim the value of our native species. Although the nation-state is clearly an artificial concept, constructed by human beings for human beings, nations are used as the boundaries for legitimate environmental diffusion. The image of a native species carries weight even if within a nation several distinct ecological regions exist.

When the migration of species is from "Third World" nations to "First World" nations, the themes resonate with other forms of nativism and prejudice, as in the introduction of the English sparrow (now house sparrow) to the North American continent and the linkage of these hapless yet highly adaptive birds to the worst traits of the human immigrants of the 1870s. In most accounts, the public images are that danger streams from exotic lands to our homeland, although as Hudler notes accurately, such need not always be the case. Ultimately the line is that plants need to remain just where they are. Whatever we might think today about Mexican or Korean workers, their fungi have no place on these shores.

If this volume is not a deeply scientific tome, it does do what popular science does best. We leave knowing far more than when we started, we realize that mycology matters, we conclude that mycologists are justified in their strange enthusiasms and we recognize that our world is a magical and mischievous place.—Gary Alan Fine, Sociology, Northwestern University

 

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