The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi: Exploring the microscopic world in our forests, homes, and bodies, Keith Seifert, 2022. Greystone Books.
Why are fungi like “large vehicles in which people are driven from one place to another”, i.e. buses? Because you wait for one book about them for ages and then two come along at once*. And those two are Keith Seifert’s The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi [which is appraised here], and The Magic of Mushrooms by Sandra Lawrence [appraised here].**
The book begins with a Foreword by Rob Dunn [author of Never Home Alone], and a short section entitled “A note about names” [“a necessary evil that you can’t avoid when talking about fungi” (p. xiii)]. Its main text (of approx. 218 pages) consists of an Introduction [with general scene-setting for the rest of the book, and the author’s personal reflections on fungi], and 9 numbered chapters. The chapters are arranged into 3 sections, namely: The hidden kingdom [a really good overview of fungal biology], The fungal planet [which underlines the point that fungi really are everywhere on earth, and all living things are interconnected], and The mycelial revolution [with a look at the future of human-fungus interactions].
The book concludes with an Appendix on fungal classification of approx. 11 pages [which certainly marks the book out as being one with a serious science message], Notes, Literature Cited, and an Index. The 14 pages of Notes expand on some of the information in the text [notes are indicated in-text by superscripted numbers], and provide sources for statements made, which latter are grouped together alphabetically by author in the Literature Cited section. The approx. 17 pages of cited literature [of which items approx. 150 are dated post-2010] is a rich and varied collection of books, scientific articles, TED talks, YouTube videos, and popular science publications. The Index is quite extensive, with approx. 16 pages of 2-columned entries ranging from “acetaldehyde” to “Zygosaccharomyces rouxii”, by way of “camembert”, “dinosaurs”, “ergot”, “fumonisins” (David G. Schmale III & Gary P. Munkvold; Madhu Kamle et al. (Toxins 2019, 11, 328; doi:10.3390/toxins11060328), “iNaturalist”, “mycoses”, “Quorn”, “skin”, “third-generation DNA sequencing”, and “vomitoxin”.
The author’s line drawings adorn each chapter’s title page, page 28, and some pages of the Appendix, otherwise the book is illustration-free. Scale bars would be useful to indicate to the readers how small structures of members of the hidden kingdom actually are, particularly since it’s the microscopic aspects of the Kingdom Fungi that the book concentrates upon. Although uninterrupted by graphics, the book’s continuous text is broken into smaller sections by emboldened sub-headings, which injects some variety to the prose and helps to maintain the reader’s interest (as does the quality of the writing). And, specifically regarding technical terms, e.g. enzymes, and biodegradation, they are largely explained when and where first mentioned, which avoids the need for a Glossary (and helps to maintain narrative flow).
Appraiser’s view of the book…
This book was not one that I had requested for review from the publisher. It was sent to me by the publisher’s publicist ‘on spec’, and seemed destined to remain on my bookshelf unappraised (and probably unread) by me. But, having recently read The Magic of Mushrooms – and been reminded of the wonders of that kingdom – I thought I’d give it a go. And I’m glad that I did.
I really liked The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi. It is written with great humour (e.g. p. 6: “shiitake (it’s important to remember the double i)”) and nice phrasing (e.g. see his account of the origins of Roquefort and Gorgonzola cheeses), which makes it engaging and highly-readable. As envisaged by the author, “This book is a journey through the hidden world of fungi and their relationships with humans, other living things, and our environment. We will look at how we use fungi, and how they use us, as we strive for a sustainable future” (p. 2). The book’s focus is upon “the microscopic fungi that we rarely notice and understand so poorly. They are commonly called moulds, a casual term that covers thousands of distantly related fungi…” (p. 6). Seifert’s singularly authoritative, science-backed debut [I’m here citing statements from both the book’s dust jacket and the related Media Release] is a great introduction to fungi, and in particular their interaction with people. The hidden kingdom of fungi is ideal for both the interested general reader and as an academic text for a plants-and-people course [because fungi are honorary plants].
The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi is a great story that is told well, and elevates Seifert to the exalted ranks of other great fungal tale-tellers such as Moore (in his book Slayers, Saviors, Servants and Sex: An Exposé of Kingdom Fungi), Money (in books such as The rise of yeast, and Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History), and Merlin*** (in Entangled Life).
Seifert makes a very good case for fungi being as versatile and important to humanity as are – or maybe even more so than..? – plants proper – and this acknowledgment comes from a confirmed plant-lover. All-in-all, The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi is a most satisfying read.
References in-text are indicated by a super-scripted number (that relates to a Note, that usually relates to a Cited source), generally placed at the end of a paragraph when it presumably relates to all of the paragraph’s text. Although this is an approach often used by students as they take their first tentative steps at grappling with the intricacies of scientific citation of sources, it’s not the best way of indicating sources [if you must use this sort of approach, I think it’s far better to put the Note at the beginning of the relevant section]. However, when one has worked out that that is what Seifert appears to be doing citation-wise it can be tolerated. But! This does leave many paragraphs with no indication of source(s), e.g. the text re fungal biology/classification between Note 2 (p. 14) and Note 3 on page 18 in Chapter 1.
Whilst, in some cases, one can be generous and assume that information covered on those un-Noted paragraphs relates to the next nearest Note (and stated source), it’s not always clear. And in some cases the stated source doesn’t provide the evidence for some of the statements made. For example, on p. 50, in relation to late blight of potato, Seifert states that “Politicians were certain that newfangled electrical wires passing over potato fields were the problem”. The Note at the end of the paragraph in which that statement occurs cites as its sources an article by the author – Keith Seifert (“Memorials to the Great Famine”, IMA Fungus 4(2): A50–A54, 2013; doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03449313) – and Ernest Charles Large’s book The Advance of the Fungi. Having found only a passing mention of electricity in the first paragraph of Seifert’s article, it was clear that was not the source for the statement. Searching for “electricity” in Large’s book I found two instances. First: “It was suggested that the rot might be caused by static electricity generated in the atmosphere by the issuing puffs of smoke and steam from the hundreds of railway locomotives that had recently come into use…” (p. 20). Which has nothing about “newfangled electrical wires”. The second mention in Large – “Electricity was much discussed. … This phenomenon was about equally suggestive of a silent discharge of electricity or a personal appearance of the Evil One” (p. 31) – is also silent on the subject of electrical wires. We are therefore left to wonder if Seifert got the electrical wires information from another – unstated – source, or if his statement was a flawed remembrance of what he read in Large. Still, in terms of stating sources, Seifert fares much better than does Lawrence, and is comparable with the approach to referencing in Gibson’s Planting Clues.
Seifert versus Sheldrake…
It is a truth – which should surely be universally-acknowledged – that all new “science-backed books” [quoting from my advance reader’s copy of The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi] about fungi will be compared to Merlin Sheldrake’s book about fungi entitled Entangled Life. So, how does Seifert’s factual fungal foray stack up against Merlin’s mushroom masterpiece? Very well indeed; it is comparable in that it contains a good deal of science, and similar Notes/statements of sources, style, and personal anecdotes and reflection. If I had to categorise The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi I’d be inclined to describe is as Entangled Life‘s little brother [‘Sheldrake-lite’ if you like]. By which no offence is meant to either author; the two tomes complement each other well and serve different purposes, if not audiences. For example, Seifert’s tome has only a brief mention of the wood-wide web (Josh Gabbatis), whereas Sheldrake has many pages devoted to the science and philosophy of this mycorrhizal phenomenon. Generally, Entangled Life provides much more depth for the topics covered, Seifert presents more of a broad overview of fungal biology and fungi-human interactions. But both encourage the human reader to view life from the fungal perspective. As Seifert explicitly states: “Imagining our world from the point of view of a fungus is a challenge, but because this book is about fungi I will be unapologetically fungopomorphic (or, if you prefer, mycopomorphic”) (p. 10).
Seifert is a most engaging teacher, and takes care to use examples that should be understandable by his readers. For example, in discussing a clone of the honey fungus Armillaria gallica near Crystal Falls (Michigan, USA) – “The original humongous fungus“ (p. 71) – he tells us that it tips the scales at 21,000 pounds (“a bit less than a school bus” (p. 71) [which weighs 10,000 to 25,000 pounds when empty]); we are told that Pando, the nickname of a trembling aspen clone in Utah, covers about 100 acres (“about the same size as Vatican City” (p. 72) [which is widely stated to be 110 acres/0.44 km2 [e.g. here, and here]),**** and weighs 6,615 tons (“or almost 30 blue whales’ worth” (p. 72) [each of which can weigh as much as 220 tons]). [And, continuing our ‘bus theme’, blue whales can be more than 100 feet long, which is about as long as three school buses lined up end-to-end]. [The obvious flaw in using these particular comparisons is if the reader knows nothing of blue whales, buses or the Vatican City. Nevertheless, it’s good to see examples being used – even if they’re might not be understandable to all possible readers of the book without a bit of ‘Googling’…]
Although it’s good to see that Seifert notes that Phytophthora (Jean Ristaino et al.; Kentaro Yoshida et al. (eLife 2013;2:e00731; doi: 10.7554/eLife.00731 1) is not a fungus but fungus-like (p. 50) [and therefore a legitimate organism for inclusion in the book…], I was surprised to read that “the evolutionary history traced by its DNA classifies P. infestans as a non-photosynthetic alga” (p. 50). I couldn’t find the source for that statement in Seifert’s cited 2013 article (IMA Fungus 4(2): A50–A54 (OA); doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03449313), one of two sources cited for that information. The other reference for that section – EC Large’s iconic text The advance of the fungi – states: “Phytophthora, Pythium, Saprolegnia –they were three of a kind – three genera of the algal-fungi which loved the wet…” (p. 173). Which supports Seifert’s statement of an ‘algal status’ of Phytophthora. However, it is silent on the matter of photosynthesis, and the book’s 1940 publication date rather predates any taxonomic categorisation based on DNA analysis – which wasn’t ‘a thing’ until the late 1970s. We are therefore left to wonder where Seifert got this particular fact from.
Whilst it was interesting to learn the etymology of the term ‘thrush’ for Candida infection, I couldn’t find the stated explanation in the source cited for that paragraph by Seifert – Rebecca Hall & Mairi Noverr (Current Opinion in Microbiology 40: 58-64, 2017; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mib.2017.10.020). This is another instance where a specific reference is necessary, but missing. I also learnt that the word for yeast in Latin is fermentum, which is kind of a cool fact given yeast’s association with the process of fermentation (Sergi Maicas, Microorganisms. 2020 Aug; 8(8): 1142; doi: 10.3390/microorganisms8081142).
Something I was completely unaware of, but which is related to the mind-altering properties of fungi, was the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Appearing in-text with no explanation led me to think it may be something that North American readers of the book might be familiar with, but it meant nothing to this British reader. However, research led to the discovery that it relates to a book of the same title by American journalist and author Tom Wolfe. If you want to know more about this, you’ll have to read elsewhere, although something of Wolfe’s book’s status and influence may be gleaned from Jarvis Cocker’s newspaper item.
Is it error-free?
I’m not a fungal specialist – so probably would have missed more subtle issues that may exist in the book – but, I did notice a major error on p. 237 [Note 7] where Seifert credits David Moore with creating the term “wood wide web”. The correct mycological David associated with this phrase should be David Read [as discussed on p. 169 in Sheldrake’s Entangled Life].******
I thought I’d spotted another error where Seifert had written “anaerobic fecal [not an error – American English spelling is used in the book (although somewhat curioulsy, moulds is spelt moulds)…] bacterium Clostridioides difficile (usually known as C. diff )” (p. 166). As far as I recalled the bacterium whose scientific name is shortened to C. diff. was more fully known as Clostridium difficile. Knowing how important it is to get names correct (as discussed by Seifert in “A note about names” at the front of the book), and wishing to clarify this point, I duly did some Googling. There I discovered not an error, but the fact that Siefert had alerted me to an important name change. Clostridium difficile is a former name of the bacterium now called Clostridioides difficile (Benoit Guery et al., BMJ 2019;366:l4609). Fortuitously, that name change has no effect on the infamously antibiotic-resistant microbe’s ‘common name’ of C. diff.. Any book that educates its readers is a good book.
Finally, not necessarily an error, but an inconsistency that invites explanation. Seifert usually takes care to provide years of birth and death for deceased historical individuals he mentions. But on page 88, in connection with the Haber-Bosch process (Jim Clark; Amanda Briney) [which surely is the process intended as that invented in the early part of the 20th century used “to scrub nitrogen from the air so that it could be combined into fertilisers” (p. 88), but wasn’t mentioned by name – why not?], he merely states that the process was invented by “German chemists”. Why were their names – Fritz Haber [1868-1934] and Carl Bosch [1874-1940] – not stated?
The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi is a great little book that’s well written and engaging. Author Keith Seifert is a charming guide as he introduces us to a fungal world many of us are largely unaware of. If you don’t look at fungi differently after reading this book, then I’ll be very surprised (and disappointed).
* I‘m beginning to regret using that as an opener to this review – having realised that not everybody outside the UK or North America may know what a bus is, and after now discovering that bus also means a “subsystem that is used to connect computer components and transfer data between them”…
** For purposes of comparison – in terms of subject matter – Lawrence’s book has a focus on mushrooms and toadstools, i.e. the largely seen face of the fungal world, Seifert concentrates on the mainly unseen, in exploring the microscopic world of fungi in our forests, homes, and bodies (as the book’s sub-title states).
*** Although using the latter’s family name – Sheldrake – here would have been consistent with the way the names of the other authors are listed, his given name has better alliterative aesthetics…
**** And all’s well – as far as it goes. But, one of the sources I unearthed in trying to pin down this comparison convinced me that all may not be as well as one would like. Whilst the Wikipedia entry for Vatican City repeats the well-published ‘fact’ that it has an area of 44 hectares (and provides a source for that statement), it also acknowledges – and provides details of a published source for – the revelation that the Papal state is probably larger, at 0.49 km2 [49 hectares] or approx. 121 acres. Two different sources, each supporting two different areas for the same entity, rather makes the point that you can probably find a source that supports any statement you are making – or one that contradicts it – if you look long, carefully, or hard enough. Although that’s the well-known danger when one doesn’t provide sources to back-up one’s statements, it’s annoying to know that it can also be an issue when a source is stated. Even though, as the TV series The X Files tells us, “the truth is out there”,***** you may still have to decide between competing ‘truths’ to find the truest truth.
***** On this matter, perhaps the last words should go to Dana Scully, a character in The X Files, “The truth is out there. But so are lies”…
****** Note I don’t say here that David Read actually came up with the phrase, because I’m still unclear who did. Sheldrake (in Entangled life, p. 169) states that this triplet was coined by Read – in discussion with the editor of the journal Nature – in connection with Read’s News and Views item entitled “The ties that bind” (Nature 388: 517–518,1997; https://doi.org/10.1038/41426), which was a commentary upon Suzanne Simard et al‘s scientific article (“Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field”, Nature 388: 579–582, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1038/41557). Elsewhere, Robin Sen gives the credit solely to Nature (New Phytologist 145: 161-163, 2000; https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1469-8137.2000.00585.x). Richard Mabey attributed the phrase to a “smart sub-editor on the journal Nature”, whereas Sarah Boon gives the naming honours to the journal more generally. Muddying the waters further, Tyasning Kroemer credits Suzanne Simard with coming up with the term. However, that view is not corroborated by Simard’s Mother Tree Project web-site; text alongside the cover of the August 1997 issue of Nature merely notes that is “where the term “wood-wide web” was coined in reference to the paper “Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field” by Simard et al””. Perhaps we’ll never know who first articulated the term. However, importantly, the phrase was used neither in Read’s piece nor Simard et al’s article, but was boldly printed on the front cover of the relevant issue of Nature in which their items appeared [see image above]. Since when ‘wood-wide web’ (or its incorrect version of ‘wood wide web’) has had a life of its own and the term has been enthusiastically embraced by many articles that have something to say about the widespread mycorrhizal network that links trees together (e.g. Robert Macfarlane, Hasan Chowdhury, and Claire Marshall).