Out There: Guidebooks for a Warming Planet

Wildflower: Snowball Sand-Verbena Photo by Amy Washut

Wildflower: Snowball Sand-Verbena (Photo by Amy Washut)

When the National Audubon Society published its first field guide to mushrooms in 1981, fungi weren’t even considered a separate kingdom — they were essentially thought of as plants. Climate change wasn’t on most people’s radar, either. 

But a lot has changed in 42 years, and to reflect those changes the Audubon Society is rolling out an updated series of guides that demonstrate how our knowledge of the natural world has evolved over the past four decades, and how the climate crisis demands that we reconsider our own role in nature. 

Mushroom bookIn 2021, the society published new versions of its iconic field guides to the trees and birds of North America. On April 11, new guides to mushrooms and wildflowers will follow.

“With the recent proliferation of interest in mushrooms and fungi, and in light of the overarching surge in interest in nature and the natural sciences, we felt it was imperative to create a new, wholly updated guide as part of the larger reimagined Audubon series,” said Shyla Stewart, president and CEO of Fieldstone Publishing. 

The hefty tomes — these are backpack guides, not pocket guides — feature all the usual things you’d want in a guidebook: multiple photos of each flower and fungi at different angles and stages in its life cycle, maps of their known growing ranges, details as to which ’shrooms will thrill you and which ones will kill you. There’s also a surprising amount of information about DNA sequencing, something that most of us aren’t thinking about when we’re in a meadow. 

Well, not yet, anyway. Roo Vandergrift, a mycologist who wrote several of the introductory essays in the mushroom guide, predicted that at some point in our lifetimes we’ll be carrying pocket-sized DNA sequencers into the field with us.

“We’re in an exciting era for DNA sequencing,” he said. “It didn’t become accessible on an academic scale until the ’90s.” When we spoke over the phone, Vandergrift was in Miami, serving as the plant pathologist at the federal plant inspection station there.


The proliferation of DNA sequencing has led to a surge in how much we know about the kingdom of fungi, but also a humbling realization of how much we still don’t know. The golden chanterelles of the Mediterranean and the identical-looking golden chanterelles of the Pacific Northwest, for example, were assumed to be the same fungus, until DNA sequencing revealed them to be two species. That led to further examination and the discovery that they interact with their environments in different ways. 

Wildflower book“What enzymes are they producing?” asked Vandergrift. “How are they interacting with their host trees? What are the host trees that they’re interacting with? Those things that are fundamental to their ecological function in the systems that they’re embedded in — those things turned out to be completely different. There are doors being opened with DNA sequencing and I don’t think we really know what’s on the other side.” 

A greater understanding of how individual fungus species interact with their environment could unlock access to new tools for dealing with climate change. It wouldn’t be the first time fungi have changed Earth’s atmosphere. Around 300 million years ago, in what’s known as the Carboniferous Period, an explosive increase in the amount of plant life on Earth led to a global cooling period, as the flourishing tree populations sucked more and more carbon out of the atmosphere. Fungi responded by evolving the ability to more efficiently break down dead trees, returning the carbon that the trees had captured back into the atmosphere, “fixing” the global temperature. 

With global temperatures increasing as a result of human activities instead of vigorous plant growth, there are theories and hopes that more robust fungal networks could boost trees’ ability to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

Mushroom: Orange Peel (Aleuria aurantia) (Photo by Holger Krisp)

Mushroom: Orange Peel (Aleuria aurantia) (Photo by Holger Krisp)

As tantalizing as the prospect is, Vandergrift offered an important caveat: Any carbon that trees sequester is only temporary. When the trees die and are broken down by fungi, that carbon returns to the atmosphere. Vandergrift said it’s therefore more important to focus on keeping the carbon that’s permanently sequestered underground in the form of fossil fuels right where they are, instead of inserting them into plant and atmospheric cycles. 

Recasting fungi and wildflowers as organisms that dynamically affect their environments as opposed to just scenery is one of the emphases of the new books. Vandergrift said that the editors urged the contributors to think of the fungi and flowers as wildlife, a term that’s usually reserved for the animal kingdom. “They’re not passive things in your environment,” said Vandergrift. “They’re active participants in the ecosystem around you, in which you are also an active participant. That increasing emphasis on citizen science came not just from the publisher but also from the scientists that they solicited.”

Wildflower: Asiatic DayflowerPhoto by Reinhold Möller

Wildflower: Asiatic Dayflower (Photo by Reinhold Möller)

It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of fungi species have been identified and cataloged, and as the new guides make clear, that number isn’t going to increase much unless the public gets involved. The guides help readers see themselves less as consumers of nature than stewards of it whose help is desperately needed to protect it and further our understanding of it. 

“There is an economic incentive to not having strong conservation initiatives that come from a few people,” said Vandergrift. “The way to combat that is not with a few people with specialized knowledge, trying to fight the few people with power. It’s with the vast collective that is humanity, coming together and saying: ‘We will not tolerate such destruction, because we know that conserving this is important to not only us, but to all other life out there that we have responsibility for, because of our actions.’ ”

Stewart added: “The better we understand the plants, animals and fungi that co-inhabit this planet with us, the far greater likelihood we will find a sustainable, or even regenerative, path forward.”

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