Aliya Whiteley has always been in love with fungi – from a childhood taking blurry photographs of strange fungal
eruptions on Exmoor to a career as a writer inspired by their surreal and alien beauty. This love for fungi is a love for life,
from single-cell spores to the largest living organism on the planet; a story stretching from Aliya’s lawn into Space and
back again via every continent. Despite their familiar presence, there’s still much for us to learn about the eruption, growth
and decay of fungi’s connected world – one that Aliya lays out before us, linking fungal geography and history with myth;
fiction and culture with science. From fields, feasts and fairy rings to death caps, puffballs and ambrosia beetles, this is an
intoxicating personal journey into the life of these extraordinary organisms, which we have barely begun to understand.
I’ve always been slightly fascinated by fungi. You see them loitering in woodlands when out on a walk, or clinging onto trees. They’re there poking up from the grass in fields, or you hear tales of truffle-hunting pigs in the forests, snuffling up expensive, tasty delicacies. So I jumped at the change to read Aliya Whiteley’s The Secret Life of Fungi and delve deeper into this mysterious world.
It’s a delightful book, told with a lovely sense of awe and a clear love, nay obsession with the subject. Whiteley takes us on a ramble through the world of fungi and it feels like you’re in the company of a knowledgeable friend telling stories along the way. It’s very much not a guide book to help you identify fungi, but more the story of the fungi themselves. Did you know that the British Mycological Society (formed in Yorkshire, yay) holds a UK Fungus Day in October? Or that a frozen body in the alps dating back some 5,000 years (making him Europe’s oldest frozen human) had two different kinds of fungi with him, but neither for eating?
The book is scattered with little gems like this. Whiteley’s writing is lush and lyrical, drawing you into the hundreds of stories as you follow down the tracks through the forests of Europe, across the high peaks of the Himalayas, to the Jotï people of Guayana and the delightfully named Spider Monkey Bile Mushroom, thought to restore the luck and skill to any hunter who eats it. That does remind me a little of the Zelda game Breath of the Wild a little! There are even fungi that can survive in space. A 2009 experiment showed that some fungi, exposed to radiation in space for seven months, showed changes in their melanin which helped them resist that radiation!
It’s a lovely, deeply fascinating book, and one to lose yourself in for a couple of hours. Highly recommended.
About the author
Aliya Whiteley is inspired by how fungi and humanity share the world. She grew up in North Devon where she developed an early passion for walking and observing nature. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and in several anthologies. Previously a magazine editor, she has written about the natural world for Mental Floss and in her fiction. Her novella, The Beauty, was shortlisted for both Shirley Jackson and Sabotage Awards, and depicts a future world in which a fungus interacts with humanity to create a new form of life, leading readers all over the world to send her photographs and articles relating to mushrooms.
She walks with her dog through the woods and fields around her home in West
Sussex every day, taking inspiration from the hidden worlds around her.
The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries From A Hidden World by Aliya Whiteley is published by Elliot & Thompson. Huge thanks to the publisher for an advance copy of the book to review