A man may have a relationship with animals, but may a man – or a woman for that matter – have a relationship with mushrooms? Just framing the thought makes me imagine in my mind’s eye a play by Samuel Beckett, perhaps entitled Fungus, where the stage is bare save for a giant, 10ft-high mushroom and a man, probably named Otto, who spends three hours squatting cross-legged and talking to it. The Theatre of The Absurd beckons. Yet maybe the idea is not as absurd as all that.
That was my thought this week, anyway, after reading a new book on our native fungi by the naturalist and author Peter Marren. I have half a shelf of books on mushrooms and toadstools, including a couple of the glossy magazine-style guides that appear in French newsagents every September, so that the wild-mushroom-mad Froggies can hoover up their cepes and their chanterelles from the autumnal woods without being fatally poisoned by the odd mistakenly-gathered death cap. And what these books are unfailingly about, all of them, is information.
They impart knowledge. They enable you to recognise species, and tell one species from another. Theirs is a mission to inform. It is by no means a mission to entertain. Yet I came away from Peter Marren’s book, which is entitled with blunt simplicity Mushrooms (British Wildlife Publishing, £24.95), better-informed than ever, but also hugely entertained.
For Marren not only has knowledge, quite staggering knowledge of the precise differences between all the British boletes and the brittlegills, all the waxcaps and the blewits – he also has enormous affection for them, for their beauty, for the odd corners in which they turn up, for their links to the landscape, and most of all for the roles they have played in human lives with their curious names (stinkhorn, candlesnuff, earthstar, dapperling) their intriguing smells (marzipan, aniseed, After Eight mints, rotting crabmeat) and their potential to be culinary delights on the one hand, and psychedelic mindbenders and killers, on the other.
His book is the first of a new series conceived by Andrew Branson, publisher of the estimable journal British Wildlife. It is No 1 in the new British Wildlife Collection, which is something of a publishing event. Mushrooms is profusely and exquisitely illustrated, and a real bonus is its vibrant dust jacket by the artist Carry Ackroyd. (She will be designing all future jackets; volumes 2 and 3 will be Meadows in 2013 and Rivers the year afterwards).
But the biggest attraction of all is Marren’s writing: quirky, trenchantly observant, sometimes hilarious, full of engaging anecdotes and as far from the soulless impersonal tone of a fungi field guide as it is possible to get. Implausible as it may seem, here indeed is a man’s relationship with mushrooms, in fact, his extravagant love affair with them. It is the single best book on the natural world I have read this year.
Boids of a feather flock together
That’s not to say there haven’t been other exceptional books on nature published recently. One of the most singular has been Extinct Boids (Bloomsbury, £35), a collection of flamboyant paintings of birds we have driven from the face of the earth, done by the celebrated caricaturist Ralph Steadman – so some of these are birds, Jim, but not as we know them.
While Steadman gives us paintings of the dodo, the great auk and other familiar lost species in burning, unforgettable colours, we also find the nasty tern, the wizened twit, the dickie bird, the jail bird, and the lesser Peruvian blue-beaked blotswerve. The film-maker and conservationist Ceri Levy anchors it all in sanity with an appealing running commentary.
In complete contrast, Otter Country by Miriam Darlington (Granta, £20) records a woman’s hunt for the wild otter in a style that is truly lyrical. Christmas presents, anyone?