Gary Alan Fine. Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998, 324 pp., $US 35.00 cloth.

Gary Fine has been on the scholarly trail of mushroomers since the mid-1980s, and this wonderfully written, immensely informative book contains the fruits of these labors of love, as crafted from portions of six previously-published articles and a great deal of new material created specifically for it. Three years of this period were spent in intermittent sessions in the field, both literally and methodologically, where he observed, talked to, and hunted with members of the Minnesota Mycological Society, an organization of amateurs and hobbyists who embrace mushrooming as their chosen serious leisure. In addition, he conducted in-depth interviews with approximately two dozen active members, analyzed a range of documents, and followed up all this with two surveys. Because the mushroomer’s social world is too large and complex to tackle in its entirety in a single-handed exploration, Fine decided to concentrate on one of the most common types, the hobbyists, or those who enjoy listing or collecting the mushrooms they find. Nevertheless, he also devotes some space to the more scientifically oriented mycological amateurs, particularly in chapter 6 where he treats of the relationship with their professional counterparts. Two other categories of mushroomers are given little coverage, however: the “pothunters,” who gather mushrooms for the table (and pot), and the photographers who regard these fungi artistically.

This book is first and foremost an eminently readable ethnography about the everyday lives of hobbyist mushroomers, the social world framing these lives, and the mentality of these enthusiasts as it springs from their leisure passion. Their routine consists, in the main, of “forays” into the woods to hunt mushrooms; talk afterward about what happened there - no small amount of it being about the problematic process of identification of specimens - and attendance at weekly club meetings. The hobbyist mushroomer’s social world is made up in part of the local club as well as various state, national, and international organizations. It includes the rare but nonetheless esteemed professional who presents a talk at a club meeting or helps with the identification problem. It also includes networks and friendship groups of like-minded hobbyists. The most significant backdrop of this social world is the natural world, the beloved out-of-doors where mushrooms are “met.”

Fine spends considerable time on the mushroomer’s distinctive outlook, which he also links to larger contemporary issues related to nature and the environment, and to culture and how people interpret the first two. For humans nature does not exist separately from culture, he says. Rather nature is interpreted, transformed into a cultural construction through “naturework.” Mushroomers engage in naturework by metaphorically naming their fungi (e.g., slippery jacks, stinkhorns, puffballs), by valuing some mushrooms and depreciating others; and by viewing some as male, others as female. Ideologically, mushroomers seem to adhere to what Fine calls the “humanist” vision of nature: using nature to meet human needs and desires, always with an eye to conserving it, however, protecting what benefits us. Consequently, mushroomers are unlikely to embrace the “protectionist” vision that nature be left untouched or the “organic” vision that, since they are part of nature, humans have no greater need to restrain themselves in exploiting it than any other class of creatures.

Notwithstanding this discussion of nature and the environment, Fine’s ethnography falls more squarely in the sociology of leisure than in environmental sociology. Besides the highly original ethnographic material itself, he contributes to leisure studies in several additional ways. His provisioning theory is a contribution; it explains how leisure groups provide what members strive to get from them. This is accomplished by distributing knowledge of the central activity (e.g., how to identify poisonous mushrooms), arranging for sociability (e.g., club meetings), and giving access to identity symbols (e.g., books, postcards, apparel, stationery, bumper stickers). He makes another contribution in elaborating the concepts of secrecy and trust, conditions central to the successful functioning of certain leisure groups. In mushrooming secrets are held about favorite sites and trust is put in the expertise of club members to determine what is and is not poisonous. Third, Fine reports valuable data on the relationship between amateur and professional mycologists, on the tension between the two, on their mutual support of each other, on the ways the first advance their science, and the like. Finally, this study constitutes a rare contribution to the sociology of science, a field where ethnographic research is rare and the role of amateurs consistently ignored.

Will we hear more from Fine on this subject? I hope so. Yet he has been at it for many years, and could hardly be blamed for deciding to do no more. But there is hope, for he says “I feel the wild urge to traverse the fields once again.” If his desire wins out, I am sure he will gather much more than mushrooms in those fields.

Robert A. Stebbins
University of Calgary

March 1999
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