This book’s introduction reveals the author’s interest in human interactions with wild mushrooms as well as fungal roles in the environment, and he signals his belief in the power of stories to explain such phenomena. In the ensuing chapters, Marley’s storytelling skill informs and entertains equally well. The book’s nineteen chapters are clustered in six parts: (I) “Mushrooms and Culture,” (II) “Mushrooms as Food,” (III) “Dangerously Toxic, Deadly Interesting,” (IV) “Mushrooms and the Mind,” (V) “Mushrooms within Ecosystems,” and (VI), “Tools for a New World.” Each section is independent, although reading them in sequence conveys the continuity of the book.
Part I on mushrooms and culture provides the historical setting, detailing how present attitudes about wild mushrooms in America can vary in keeping with cultural traditions. Overcoming mycophobia entails joys and hazards, both well illustrated by Marley’s stories. Part II gets into the uses of fungi as food, including detailed descriptions of “the foolproof four,” four highly esteemed, wild species groups with characteristics so distinctive that a properly trained amateur can confidently identify them (p.31). “Properly trained” are the key words here. Training is readily available in most places by participation in mushroom clubs, attending short courses or going on mushrooms hunts with knowledgeable and experienced mushroom hunters. Each species group includes simple recipes, as exemplified by “the perfect chanterelle omelet” (p.68). With only five ingredients, it makes my mouth water; simplicity does not mean less tasty.
In Part III, Marley vividly describes the symptoms of poisoning from the various species groups and guides the reader in identifying the most dangerous ones. He also deals with some toxic but less dangerous ones. These are less life threatening but still could make one wish to be dead before recovering in full. Part IV on hallucinogenic fungi is well written, but the topic has been rehashed so often that it does not offer much new to the reader. I was reminded of a friend who became exhilarated from eating Amanita muscaria. “Didn’t it make you sick?” I asked; to which the friend replied, “Yes, but I didn’t care.”
Part V summarizes some roles of fungi in ecosystems. A comprehensive review of that topic requires a multivolume set of books, so the forty pages in Chanterrel Dreams can offer only highlights. Most readers new to the topic will be surprised at how these little-noticed organisms drive overall ecosystem health. Even wood rots—anathemas to timber production companies—serve ecosystem needs. For example, by rotting tree trunks these mushrooms provide places for woodpeckers to hammer out cavities for tree-nesting creatures. Marley includes in this section some questionable information for the sake of the story he is telling. For example, he cites local speculation that a flying saucer caused an exceptionally large mushroom fairy ring and then gratuitously adds, “That same summer UFOs were reported from the nearby town” (p.194). However, these occasional lapses do not seriously detract from the overall message.
The book’s final part, “Tools for a New World,” is a brief review of ways to cultivate mushrooms as food. Its primary purpose seems to be to refer readers to more detailed accounts of how to do that.
All in all, Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares is a pleasantly readable tour of fleshy fungi with emphasis on topics of particular interest to the author. Novices to mycology are clearly the central audience. For these readers, the book succeeds in some ways—for example, in its use of stories—but less well in others. Technical terms are defined in the text in some cases but not in others. For example, the term “mycelium” is defined where it first appears but is used later without definition and is not indexed. When encountering the same term many pages later, the novice may not remember its meaning and will have to hunt to find its definition. Mycorrhizae are mentioned on various pages but defined only vaguely as “symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships” (p.38). A glossary would be helpful, and all technical terms should be indexed.
Statements on fruiting seasons of edible mushrooms refer primarily to the northeastern United States, Marley’s home territory. Summer fruiting is the norm there, but other parts of the continent may differ drastically. For example, summer fruiting is infrequent to lacking at low elevations in the Pacific coastal states, where spring and late autumn are the seasons to hunt mushroom; at high elevations, mushrooms fruit beginning with the late spring snowmelt and running through summer and early autumn. Moreover, seasonal weather patterns, and hence mushroom fruiting, differ from year to year. Marley sometimes notes these geographic differences, other times not. The novice, therefore, needs sources that address local circumstances, including more focused books, local mushroom clubs, and experienced mushroomers.
These deficiencies aside, however, the book is eminently readable and informative.