October 27th, 2016 by Derek Markham
In a world which, quite simply, couldn’t exist in its current form without fungi, it’s incredible how incredibly little we know about the fungal queendom (as author Peter McCoy puts it) that is intricately linked with life on Earth, from pole to pole and from peak to crevasse. Fungi are found in a vast array of habitats around the world, and are essential, if not at the center of, many key ecological processes, yet most of us are probably hard pressed to name an example of fungi in our everyday lives, except for perhaps edible mushrooms, or maybe athletes foot. But a closer look at the role of fungi in modern life reveals that we get a variety of products from them, ranging from pharmaceuticals (from antibiotics to statin drugs) to baking and brewing yeasts, as well as citric acid, detergents, and a number of fermented foods.
And yet, most of us are rather ignorant of the basics of fungi, which are said to be responsible for more than 90% of all decomposition on the planet, as well as quite possibly being the most resilient life form here. Of an estimated 6 million species of fungi on Earth, only about 75,000 have been classified (about 1.5%), less than 100 species have been integrated into regular human activities, and of the two dozen or so mushroom species that are commonly cultivated, just seven of them are done so on a large scale. In essence, mycology is still in its youth, and breakthroughs in fungal materials, medicine, and environmental mitigation may offer a sustainable solutions to a number of resource and waste issues in the years to come.
All of that is a long way of saying that Peter McCoy’s Radical Mycology really ought to be on the bookshelves of everyone from fermented foodies to foragers, from ecologists to chemists, to permaculturists and orchardists and environmental engineers and doctors. I received a review copy of it from the author, and was, quite frankly, equal parts blown away and inspired by the book, both because of what I’ve learned so far, and because of what the study and practice of mycology has to offer for a more sustainable and ecologically sound economy.
But first, just what exactly is radical mycology?
“Radical Mycology is a grassroots movement and social philosophy based on accessibly teaching the importance of working with mushrooms and other fungi for personal, societal, and ecological resilience. Radical Mycology differs from classical mycology in that classical mycology generally focuses on taxonomy, identification, mycophagy (eating mushrooms), and the more personal benefits of working with fungi while Radical Mycology works to build relationships amongst humans and fungi for the benefit of larger communities and the world.
As a concept, Radical Mycology is based on the belief that the highly resilient lifecycles of fungi and their interactions in nature serve as powerful learning tools for how humans can best relate to each other and steward the world they live in.” – Radical Mycology
This remarkable book (a tome, really, at 670+ pages) is one part fungal science and biology, one part fungi history, one part instruction manual and guide, and one part fungal philosophy, sprinkled liberally with anecdotes and factoids, all of which are referenced in the footnotes. It’s truly got something for everyone, from the layman to the prospective mushroom grower, and while it can be read cover to cover, it also has an extensive set of informative tables and images for reference purposes.
Although I knew a fair amount about fungi before I read Radical Mycology: A Treatise On Seeing & Working With Fungi, and own a couple of books about mushroom cultivation, I wasn’t prepared to learn how little mycology I actually understood once I began. The book was kind of intimidating for me at first, just the size of it alone, as it resembles a very thick textbook, but once I began reading it, I was so in thrall of the magic of fungi, as explained by McCoy, that I found myself taking notes and putting little bookmarks in places I knew I wanted to re-read. Every other page or so, I kept asking myself, “How come I didn’t know about this?” or resolving to learn more about one aspect or another of mycology. McCoy manages to weave threads of personal anecdotes, hard science, folklore, history, humor, and a sense of wonder into the flow of the book, making it not only readable, but memorable as well.
The format of the book allows for readers to easily dip into the sections that most interest them, and while a serious study of mycology requires a full understanding of the details and concepts within the earlier chapters, the book is well referenced and indexed and has a glossary for navigating new terms. One section has a detailed, soup-to-nuts breakdown of mushroom cultivation, another has info on mycoremediation (using fungi to degrade and remove contaminants from the environment), one section is all about the psychedelic nature of some fungi, and another gets into the medicinal side of fungi, while still other chapters offer recipes, identification guides, community building insights, and even a fungi game and jokes. It’s packed with black and white illustrations, charts, and photos, and has a center section with full color photos as well.
The book, which was launched via an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, is an outgrowth of Peter McCoy’s passion for mycology and his decade of education and awareness-raising work with his Radical Mycology organization (and an earlier ‘zine’), and is available for purchase for $49.95 from the website or from Amazon. Yes, it’s a $50 book. And yes, it’s totally worth it, as it’s an extensive textbook and reference book that deserves a home right next to the (also costly) Permaculture: A Design Manual book and Paul Stamets’ Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.
McCoy continues to lead workshops and webinars on mycology and mushroom cultivation and to work toward a greater understanding of mycology in people and communities, and with the nonprofit organization Radical Mycology Collective, organizes the Radical Mycology Convergences.
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