If you’re reading this darn thing, please do me a favor and open this link and listen along as you read.
The academic study of mycology is handsomely supported by the curiosity of amateurs. People who are friends with mushrooms hear the pitter-pat of rain and feel the same tempo echo in their hearts.
This is not to say that there aren’t legions of great mycologists out there who run ace labs at universities worldwide. However, given the academic compartmentalization of disciplines, the fungi tend to get lost in a web of interdepartmental nonsense (somewhere between Plant Pathology and Microbio), the consequence of which is that few universities in the U.S. boast mycology programs of any sort. However, the rate at which folks are discovering new mushroom species, understanding their evolutionary roots, and perceiving their roles in unique ecosystems is astonishing. A month off the forums is devastating to one’s body of hip, up to the second accurate info about mycology. Tune out for just a few minutes, and you might miss out on the naming of the Malaysian Spongiforma squarepantsii, a orangy mass of awesome that SFSU Mycologist Dennis Desjardin had one hell of a good time picking a Latin binomial for.
“Mycologist” is one of the few scientific names that one can claim (or be assigned) without a degree that makes it so. Many groundbreakers are doing important research because they are passionately inquisitive about the fungi, despite the fact that their lives require other things of them. Take Dimitar Bojantchev, an affable Bulgarian computer scientist who defected from the USSR as a teen. Dimitar took up mushrooming 5 years ago when his son had to complete a school project about local mushrooms. For some reason, helping his kiddo was totally engrossing and he decided to look into why certain mushrooms look alike. Flash forward a few years, and Dimitar is one of the foremost experts on fungal phylogeny— the sequencing of fungal genes to determine where they stand in evolutionary history. He also chose a most ambitious dragon to slay, from a phylogenetic perspective: Dimitar is ruthless in his pursuit of knowledge about the genus Cortinarius: a convoluted, varied, and deliciously vague genera to assign your passion to.
Another person I think of when I consider mycological autodidacts calls himself Alan Rockefeller. When I met Alan at a mushroom festival, I took him for a degreed microbiologist, perhaps shepherded through Berkeley, Stanford or even Out East Somewhere (Where the Loan-Takin’ Don’t Quit). When I interviewed him at the identification table, Latin binomials spewed from his face like a snow-swollen river, and he simply couldn’t stop touching the mushrooms on the table; he’d pick one up, brandish it at me feverishly and utter some clipped, arcane name and then proceed to tell me every single thing about the specimen: this one grew with ghost pine, that one smells like cedar because it has the same essential oil, the blue staining chemical in this one is so strong it almost burns your eyes when you observe it under the microscope…
I finally got him to slow down and talk about how he got into mushrooms.
“Well, I’ve been hunting mushrooms for 6 or 7 years. I got into it because it’s different from computers and electronics, which is what I usually do. And so I decided that mushrooms were fun to study, because they’re mysterious.”
Needless to say, I was impressed by Alan’s mycological knowledge, even more so when I learned that he took it upon himself to become familiar with the unknown, Other, the Weird Fun Stuff That We Don’t Get Paid For. I also concluded that my initial impression was totally incorrect; he was not handed his knowledge through a formal list of courses. He was a seeker with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge— an autodidact.
Subsequently, I had a chance to visit Alan’s home (a Semi Permanent Autonomous Zone called 5lowershop, a warehouse community populated by 20 odd life-students, 7 odd buses, a welding studio, urban farm, beer vending machine and countless bikes and kitties). I also got to see his workshop (a Hopefully Permanent Hackerspace in the Mission that’s cluttered with microscopes— including the sacred electron scanning microscope—, a laser cutter, RPG books, soldering irons and radical thoughts). We also hunted mushrooms all over San Francisco, overturning brush and landscaping to uncover lovely blooms of Psilocybe cyannescens, the iconic wavy caps so many of us have seen rendered on one tapestry or black light poster or another. I am being 100% honest when I say that he only took pictures of them— the psychoactive properties of these urban lovelies were no longer a temptation to Alan. He just seemed to delight in a chance to take their pictures, revel in the rain’s bounty, and come home to discover that someone had welded a whiskey bottle to the ceiling.
It did not surprise me to learn two other facts about Alan: Dr. Desjardin (of S. squarepantsii) is a close friend and mentor. Second, Mr. Rockefeller used to work for NASA, hacking into their systems and exposing vulnerabilities.
Watch out for the autodidacts, the amateurs. They’re all set to turn the world inside out.