Twenty-two years ago, Harriette Parker published “Alaska’s Mushrooms: A Practical Guide,” with photos and descriptions of 34 species of mushrooms, many of which she and her husband, Neil McArthur, found and photographed in the Homer area.
“Harriette had an interest in mushrooms when she used to live in New Brunswick in Canada, and she decided she wanted to write a mushroom book and she approached Alaska Northwest Books, who were independent at the time, and got a contract. And then we had to deal with it,” McArthur said, laughing.
“I had a bunch of mushroom photos and I took some more. This was back in film days so it was Fuji Chrome 50 and a Nikon on a tripod, you’d end up carrying it through the hobo jungle that used to live in the woods out here west of town.”
Parker wrote the introduction and entries for the mushrooms, giving advice on where and when to find them, whether they might be edible, and specific features to look for. The back of the book also includes a handful of mushroom recipes for the forager looking to get creative in the kitchen.
“It was a modest effort, and Harriette’s writings are quirky and light-hearted, so that was fun. … I think they sold 25,000 of them. You’d think we’d get rich, but that’s not the case,” McArthur said. “I’ve joked that if you’re going to make money with a mushroom book, it’s going to be called something like, ‘Money, Power, Sex and Mushrooms of the Universe.’ You do it out of interest rather than (money).”
However, shortly after the book was published, Parker was diagnosed with dementia and though she lived until 2009, she was not able to update the book into a larger edition.
So when publisher Graphic Arts Books asked McArthur about the possibility of a expanded, revised version, he recommended a mushroom expert who had helped Parker and him identify some of the mushrooms for the original book.
“It was time for an upgrade, so when they approached me, saying, ‘Who could rewrite this book?’ I named Gary Laursen,” McArthur said. “He knows more than I will ever know about mushrooms and fungi in general.”
McArthur also sent Laursen all his mushroom pictures that he had captured years ago on film with a note saying, “If you find a way to make a lot of money with this, write me a check when you’re part way in to the second million.”
“I’m going to do no more with them and it’s much easier to deal with digital photos,” McArthur said.
Laursen is an adjunct professor of biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the director of the High Latitude Mycological Research Center. He also holds workshops on mushrooms, including classes through Kenai Peninsula College in Homer and Soldotna.
When contacted about revising the book, Laursen was also in the middle of his own literary mission to write about mushrooms found in the six regions — arctic, subarctic, sourthcentral, southeast, southwest and northwest arctic — of Alaska. He published “Common Interior Alaska Cryptograms: Fungi, Lichenicolous Fungi, Lichenized Fungi, Slime Molds, Mosses, and Liverworts” in 2009, and is working on the Southcentral region book now.
Though the regional books are in-depth and specific, working on the “Alaska’s Mushrooms” book was a way for Laursen, who turns 74 in August, to write for the general public.
“I just really felt that at my age, I needed to get a lot of the stuff in my head out,” Laursen said. “The opportunity to revise the Parker book, I used that as an opportunity to share my knowledge base with people who are interested to learn the role of mushrooms. I want the stuff I’ve gleaned out in print for others to use. One of the responsibilities that scientists have is to get their information out for people to use.”
In the new edition of “Alaska’s Mushrooms: A Wide-Ranging Guide,” Laursen describes 114 species, using a more scientific approach than Parker did in the original. When he started the project, the idea was to expand the guide to about 84 species, which would mean adding 50 species to the original 34.
“I said I’d do it and I’d do it in Harriette’s memory, as a tribute to her,” Laursen said. “I got working on it and called them and asked if I could do 70 species and they said they’d be delighted. And then I thought I can’t do this in less than 100 species, so I called them and asked if I could move it to 114 species and they said they’d be delighted if I did that.”
Parts of Harriette’s introduction are included in the “Meet the Mushroom,” portion of the book and 10 of Neil’s photos are used. As far as Neil is concerned, his biggest contribution to the new edition is recommending Laursen to do it, he said.