Death and the Midden

Front cover of The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools by David N. PeglerThe Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools, David N. Pegler (1982)

A little gem of a book in a consistently excellent natural history series. Rather like its subject, it’s an example of something very rich and rewarding that’s growing quietly in a neglected niche. Representational art, banished from the academies and galleries over the past century, has survived in natural history illustration. When I think of contemporary art that’s moved or delighted me I often think of men like Richard Lewington, illustrator of Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe, and Ralph Thompson, who illustrated Gerald Durrell’s books about animal-collecting in Africa and South America. David N. Pegler’s art is more realistic and detailed than Thompson’s and he may be an even better draughtsman. But if you think he has less scope for quirkiness and humor, with non-animal, let alone non-mammalian, subjects, you’d be wrong. Each of the fungi illustrated here is a finely detailed, delicately tinted portrait in miniature and in situ, often accompanied by the dried leaves or bark or pine-needles of the spot in which Pegler presumably found it. And one of the pleasures of looking through the book is uncovering the unique and often witty touches Pelger has added to some of the portraits. For example, there’s the beetle crawling towards two specimens of Tricholoma portenosum – ‘so good to eat the French call it “Marvellous Tricholoma” (Tricholome merveilleux)’ – and the crumpled sweet-wrapper lying near three Agaricus xanthodermus, the Yellow-staining mushroom found in or on “Parks, roadsides and wasteland”.

But Pegler usually lets the fungi speak for themselves in their bewildering variety of voices from their startlingly wide range of habitats: there are fungi that specialize in sand, marsh, burnt ground, and dung, as well as the more familiar dead wood and leaf-litter. As so often, the English-speaking world still has a lot to learn from the French: where many Brits or Americans are familiar with two or three edible species, the French are familiar with dozens. The Italians, on the other hand, knew a lot about another kind of mushroom during the Renaissance: the poisonous varieties whose symbols – black-skull-on-white-background for “dangerous” and white-skull-on-black-background for “deadly” – add a regular macabre frisson to Pegler’s drawings.

Inner pages of Mushrooms and Toadstools

One of the deadliest fungi, the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), is one of the most beautiful too, like an evil young witch out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: it’s pure white, slender-stemmed, and with lacy clinging veils, but it reveals its true nature by its “heavy soporific smell”. “Do not mistake for Agaricus silvicola”, Pegler warns (the Latin adjective silvicola, meaning “wood-dwelling”, only exists in the feminine form). One of the ways to avoid mistaking the two is that A. silvicola, the Wood mushroom, “smells of aniseed”. Fungi can delight, or revolt, the nose as well as the eye: there’s the Coconut-scented milk-cap (Lactarius glyciosmus) and the Geranium-scented russula (Russula fellea) on the delightful side, and the Nitrous mycena (Mycena leptocephala), “often smell[ing] of nitric acid”, and the Stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata), with its “unpleasant rubbery smell”, on the revolting.

Unless it can assist identification like that, Pegler doesn’t usually say much about any particular fungus, because he’s writing mainly for identification and has to cram hundreds of species into a pocket-sized space. But each species must have its own unique ecological story and Pegler has managed to make his drawings portraits from the wild and not just mycological mug-shots. And each is accompanied by an illustration of its spores, as a further aid to identification and further invitation for the browsing eye. Spores, like fungi themselves, come in many different shapes and sizes. All of which makes this book my favorite in the Mitchell Beazley series. Every book is worth owning or looking at, but the Pocket Guide to Butterflies, for example, has no artistic charm or whimsy. The butterflies are drawn strictly and severely for identification, with nothing accompanying them: no plants, no landscapes, and no jeux d’esprit. And European butterflies don’t come in many varieties or colors: although they often have hidden charms, most of them are frumpish and dowdy when set beside their glittering, gleaming, multi-spectacular cousins from the tropics.

That isn’t true of European fungi, as Pegler demonstrates: both they and their spores come in all shapes, sizes, and patterns. And all colors too. The Hygrocybe genus gleams with reds, yellows, and lilacs, and the species there look much more like magic mushrooms than the genuine article: the unassuming little Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata, which can open the doors of perception to a world of wonder. Fungi can drive you mad, kill you, or delight your palate, eye, and intellect, and this book captures their richness and variety better than any other I’ve come across. Art, natural history, and culinary guide: it’s all here and The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools is, in its quiet way, a much greater example of European high culture than anything the modern Turner Prize has produced.

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