An Extract from The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley

Today, 8th October 2022, is UK Fungus Day so when better to share an extract from The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley? My huge thanks to Alison Menzies for affording me the opportunity to do so.

The Secret Life of Fungi is published by Elliott & Thompson and is available for purchase through the links here.

The Secret Life of Fungi

Fungi can appear anywhere, from desert dunes to frozen tundra. They can invade our bodies and thoughts; live between our toes or our floorboards; they are unwelcome intruders or vastly expensive treats; symbols of both death and eternal life. But despite their familiar presence, there’s still much to learn about the eruption, growth and decay of their interconnected world.

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 orbit and back again via every continent.

From fields, feasts and fairy rings to death caps, puffballs and ambrosia beetles, this is an intoxicating journey into the life of extraordinary organism, one that we have barely begun to understand.

An Extract from The Secret Life of Fungi

From: To Name, To Know

The Field Guide to Mushrooms of Britain and Europe, written by H. and R. Grünert, contained wonderfully vivid, intense photographs that revealed how different mushrooms could be. They ranged from the morels, with their scrunched, spongy textures, to the domed, comforting pillows of the boletes. There were puffballs: fleshy, swollen lumps as big as a cow’s head in one picture, and their apparent opposites, growing outwards in firm yet delicate flat discs: the brackets. Gill fungi looked fanned and velvety, rich ruffled material beneath their caps, and who could fail to be intrigued by the phalloids, tall and sticky, or curling over into strange, almost floral growths? And yet these photographs came with a warning in the introduction: never become complacent about identification. No number of pictures, illustrated or photographed, can capture every aspect of a mushroom. Even the most experienced foragers need to double-check, to be certain. The book told me not to rely on the visual, but to read the descriptions carefully and take my time.

Even the most standardised description of a mushroom contains an element of stylistic evocation that’s difficult to describe. They are such potent, sarcous objects that bringing them into sharp focus with words takes skill. Along with the descriptions came the English language names, beyond the drier, scientific Latin. They had a resonance of their own, from Bog Bell to Fairy Sparkler, passing through Rubber Ear and Dead Man’s Fingers along the way.

Who gave mushrooms these wonderful titles? Many come from traditional British folk names, which means some mushrooms have had many different ones over the years. Identification guides published over the last three centuries or so have added their own, often without much success in getting them to stick. The process of streamlining to one accepted name has yet to end. My 1992 edition of the field guide had many as-yet-unnamed entries. But there has been a more recent push to give each Latin name an English counterpart. The British Mycological Society formed a working party in 2005 to give us more common names for fungi; their website lists them, as currently agreed on, and also includes a list of protocols to follow to suggest new ones. Could all mushrooms get their own names? That seems unlikely – there are over 15,000 species of wild mushrooms in the UK alone. But it would be good to have more words, if only to keep up with the more generously named wild flowers of Britain.

The word ‘toadstool’ came to me when I looked at that large flat mushroom, but my instinct that it was not a good fit was both correct and incorrect. The words ‘mushroom’ and ‘toadstool’ are pretty much interchangeable, although some of us tend to think of toadstools as the poisonous varieties of mushroom. It’s a great word, though, conjuring images of a warty toad squatting atop a slimy, dank growth. Perhaps the venomous nature of toads led to the association – there’s no evidence to suggest toads do like hopping about in highly fungal areas, although both like the damp, I suppose. The word dates back to the Middle Ages.


I’m so looking forward to reading The Secret Life of Fungi – not least because the book is dedicated ‘For my father’ and one of my most precious memories is going mushrooming with my own much missed Dad in the field across the brook from where we lived.

About Aliya Whiteley

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.

For more information, visit Aliya’s blog.

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