In my last blog, I shared some content from The Shark’s Paintbrush about fungi—now let me introduce you to the remarkable mycologist who shared his knowledge of these underappreciated organisms.

Paul Stamets is a colorful, bearded, man of the forest. The first time I met him he was wearing a dapper felt hat—that turned out to be made from mushroom fiber. This deeply knowledgeable, passionate force of nature gets standing ovations for his speeches on mycelium at international forums. His talk on the six ways that mushrooms can save the world has been voted “best TED talk of all time” by the online community that has grown up around the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference.

Several key moments in life drove Paul to his career as a mycologist.“I was a rebellious kid in a small Ohio town, when I became fascinated by people’s fear of mushrooms,” Paul told me in a recent conversation. “Mostly, it seemed to me to be fear of the unknown—so I wanted to know everything about them. Puffball spores were supposed to make you blind if you got them in your eyes, but my twin brother’s sight seemed just fine after I pelted him with puffballs.”

His teenage curiosity about magic mushrooms led him to wonder if there were edible mushrooms in the woods near his home. The delight of finding things to eat in the wild launched him into the study of taxonomy, or the critical art of identifying which mushrooms are which. Paul discovered that, although they’re hidden in plain sight in the landscape all around us, there was very little written about fungi and how to recognize them. The difference between look-alikes is major in the mushroom world—they can be delicious or deadly. He went on to study fungi at university and to write field guides; and he is now recognized as one of the world’s leading mycologists. In a thirty-five-year career, he has authored six books and many scientific papers on the subject, including two authoritative works on psychedelic mushrooms.

Paul is happy to name some of his favorite mushrooms, reeling off their Latin names and qualities as easily as a parent describes his own children. He breaks them into categories: edible cultivated, edible noncultivated, 2006-10-25_Amanita_muscaria_croppoisonous, and psychoactive. Paul was looking forward to collecting one of his favorites from the deep forest that afternoon—Lactarius fragilis, or candy caps. They taste so much like maple syrup that he makes cookies with them. Another favorite, though not to eat, is Amanita muscaria, the classic red-capped mushroom with white spots that’s often seen in cartoons and fairy tales. As Paul described, “It’s not likely to kill you if you eat one, but you will drool a whole lot, be completely convinced you’re dying, lose your sense of time, and fall into a deep, comalike sleep.” Paul doesn’t advocate trying it, although he has, but such a specialized effect merits research. One of his favorite deadly mushrooms is Galerina autumnalis. It grows in wood chips, is a pretty orange and brown, and as Paul says, “It’s so poisonous that it’s like handling an unexploded stick of dynamite. It’s fun to know that something so small can be so deadly—I like that a lot.”

Paul is not a boring guy.

(Excerpted from The Shark’s Paintbrush, copyright Jay Harman. All rights reserved.)

More about Paul and the amazing mushroom in the next blog …