The best field guides are informative, casual, and written by a proud geek of the subject matter at hand. One book that makes that list is the Curtis Creek Manifesto: A Fully Illustrated Guide to the Strategy, Finesse, Tactics, and Paraphernalia of Fly Fishing by Sheridan Anderson. Written in 1978, it’s a practical and delightful fly fishing guide for beginners to experts. This book made fly fishing tangible for me, and I read it every spring. Anderson is hilarious, and the advice is still relevant decades later.
I’m always on the hunt for mushroom books that match that playful tone and are full of valuable hacks that stand the test of time. David Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified is an always-recommended guidebook for cottage life bloggers to hardcore mycologists. I got my hands on a copy, and I’m so glad I did.
Written by David Arora in 1979 and republished in October 1986 by Ten Speed Press, Mushrooms Demystified changed mycology literature. It was the most extensive print overview of North American mushrooms and introduced generations of mushroom hunters to the art and craft. When I finished reading it for the first time, it was easy to see why it’s known as the indispensable companion of foragers.
Mushrooms Demystified has descriptions and identifiers of over 2,000 species of mushrooms. Over 900 photos accompany the species, making it a snap for beginners to fall head over heels in love with Arora’s field guide. Chapters cover mushroom cookery, mushroom and spore terminology, wild mushroom toxins, and in-depth mushroom identification field guides and habitats of North America.
He diagnoses each family with the pertinent information in a section called “Key to” that introduces each species. The handy guide provides a snapshot of mushroom identification for that species. Each mushroom species description has the following sections:
The Beginner’s Checklist lists the 70 most distinctive, common mushrooms for the novel forager to find. It includes the Scientific Name and Edibility, making it a convenient quick reference when foraging. I love this list because it makes foraging feel attainable and not so vast. There are over 2,000 species inside so it’s a thoughtful way Arora included to help beginners feel less lost.
This book soars above and beyond traditional reference books, like the Audubon Society Field Guide, even with its full-color plates. No shade to Audubon and Gary Lincoff, but David Arora’s pure passion for mushroom cultivation and environmental science is front and center. It’s full of witty quips and hidden gems of knowledge that aren’t even on the internet.
His matter-of-fact tone feels like a zine you’d get every week but held together with one giant spine. The best guides are enthusiastic and overjoyed at sharing their knowledge, and Arora fits squarely in this category. For example, he writes that the odor of the matsutake mushroom is a “provocative compromise between Red Hots and smelly sock.” It’s worth the weight in your mushroom hunting pack or camping trip if only to read around the fire.
David Arora is precisely the type of guide you want: an expert mycologist with decades of experience identifying species. He breaks the complex science of fungi down into bite-size parts that are easy to understand. He’s also a joy to read. His prose is confident and colloquial, like having a conversation with an old friend.
His online presence is minimal, so unlike his books’ comical tone. His online introduction simply reads:
“An American mycologist, naturalist, and writer, David Arora is also the author of two popular mushroom field guides, Mushrooms Demystified and All the Rain Promises and More.
In addition to his field guides, he has written several articles on amateur and commercial mushroom hunting, its role in the economic development of rural communities, and about conflicts related to conservation issues related to mushroom hunting.”
Thanks to Wikipedia and a handful of interviews he’s done over the last few years, however, we know a little more. He collected wild plants and mushrooms as a boy growing up in Pasadena, California. “He kept his down on rainy days to keep water off his glasses,” Aleta George notes in a profile, and thus a love of exploring the earth was born.
In the early 1970s, he started teaching about wild mushrooms in Santa Cruz, California, where he continued to live until 2004. As of this 2009 profile by the SFGATE, Arora had moved to “a ridge outside Gualala” in California’s Mendocino County.
In 1991, David Arora published All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by Ten Speed Press in Berekely, California. This comprehensive book feels homier than Mushrooms Demystified, with instructions on how to dye hair or play games with mushrooms. It’s a guide to embracing mushrooms in everyday life, while this text is more aligned with a scientific field guide.
The cover alone, of Arora in a suit with a brass instrument, gives way to the delightful non-fiction guide inside. Listed alongside Mushrooms Demystified as a classic must-read, Arora expands on his definitions of the meanings of scientific mushrooms. It’s a comprehensive guide to living with mushrooms, exploring their unique adaptations and purposes in depth. Check back soon for the full review and what the best book is for your needs!