“When people don’t know which saint to invoke, they turn to fungi.” — Maurice Langeron
Contemporary biologists believe the diversity of the fungal world is much greater than earlier generations of scientists could have possibly imagined: today, the total number of species is thought to be as high as 11 million. They live in our guts, our lakes, in cancer tumors, fridges, deserts, and everywhere in between. There are more fungi than plants and mammals combined—only insects give them a run for their money. The natural world, it now appears, is a prominently fungal place.
But what exactly is a fungus? What do fungi do? My next book, The Decomposition Book, tells the story of how our understanding of fungi changed fundamentally from ancient times to the present. It is a comprehensive, global, and character-driven account of centuries of fascinating, unexpected, and at times dangerous findings in natural history and mycological science that transformed how we think about the role and value of decomposition. Unlike some stories about humanity’s endless battle to overcome natural adversaries or yearning to become one with Mother Nature, this is one about the interminable push and pull of our relationship to other organisms, to a world of living things we still only barely understand. It is about how the instrumental use and application of fungi helped make our modern world possible, and how that modern world opened countless avenues for new fungal perils. It is a story about balance, maintained on a knife’s edge.