Book Review: Underground Lovers – Encounters with Fungi

by Alison Pouliot, NewSouth Publishing, University of NSW Press Ltd 2023 

Review by NSW NPA Environmental Book Club 

Pouliot is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable writer whose life work is studying fungi. Underground Lovers introduces us to this amazing world. Previously we may have been astonished by unexpected encounters with beautiful or weird fungi in the bush or our gardens. We’re probably aware that fungi do important work in complex ecosystems but may not know much more. She introduces us to the basic facts about the different types and their role in recycling and networking in the ‘subterrain’ of plant communities. She champions the study of this third ‘kingdom’ besides flora and fauna.  

Pouliot is Australian but spends much of her time in the northern hemisphere. Her perspective is global, and she recounts visits to forests from the Pacific Northwest of the US to the Swiss-Italian border as well as many locations in Australia. She meets with many other fungi enthusiasts, voluntary and professional scientists, landowners and First Nations peoples. She gives direct and vivid descriptions of the many environments she finds herself in, the people she meets and the many and varied fascinating fungi she encounters. She situates the knowledge and use of fungi in wider cultures. In English speaking societies fungi are still often seen as potentially poisonous, a threat to agriculture, and not in keeping with manicured lawns and gardens. One section described a council worker who knew that mushrooms were good for the trees in the reserve, but his boss required them removed as they may be dangerous. The catastrophic impact of leaf blowers on fungi was also noted, with some mocking humour. One chapter is headed “there is no such thing as a bad fungus”. Many other cultures are more benign. Mushroom foraging is a popular autumn activity and people eat a wide variety of fungi. 

The book covers a broad range of interesting topics in relation to fungi, including impacts of fire and ice, interaction with and use by animals and insects, bioluminescence, conservation of the “bizarre and beautiful”, restoring fungi in damaged environments and women as keepers of fungal lore. To illustrate, one interesting fact is that more than 30 species of Australian mammals are known to eat fungi, with the group Potoroidae (including bettongs and poteroos) dieting almost exclusively on fungi. Fungi typically have higher concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than plant derived foods.  

The book is very readable, accessible, and enjoyable, including use of humour. It is familiar in style to several other books we’ve read recently, in which the authors are more curious students than experts. They’re constantly on the move, meeting new people and phenomena which they describe in a detailed and engaging way.  This new nature writing genre makes reading books perhaps more like seeing a documentary than reading. This is a good way to reach wider audiences but may not always have the rigour of scientific publications by academics. The book has no colour photos, a shame given the many colours and forms of fungi, but the increase in cost would make the book less accessible. Many of Pouliot’s images are online and a web image search of any particular fungus typically brings up many well photographed examples.

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