Long ago, I thought that reaching 72 years of age would be a reasonable accomplishment, as this would bring me into the new millennium. Done, some time ago. I now have no mileposts in mind, just a still horizon. If anything, it’s this blog that counts. So, let me tell you why this has been and continues to be such an exhilarating, if demanding, experience. I will quote from the very last part of my book, In the Company of Mushrooms. I still like the sound of it and hope that it will help explain my interest in mushrooms, as well as microbes. Before doing that, I want to thank my collaborator, Merry, without whom the task would be far more arduous.
I am a microbiologist by profession, now near the completion of my career. When I collect and study mushrooms, however, I do not act as a professional biologist. Most of what I love about mushrooms and how they fit in people’s lives is far remote from my research and teaching. My life in science has been spent at the laboratory bench: I studied how bacteria grow and make their DNA. I am of the generation that witnessed the beginning of molecular biology and its offspring, genetic engineering. It was only after my career was established that I stepped into the world of forests, pastures, and mushrooms.
The distance between these two interests — microbiology and mushrooms — may not appear to be very fundamental to a non-scientist, but it is in fact quite considerable.
It is true that biology is biology, in the sense that the basic question is always the same — What is life? — but at the level at which we participate in the profession of biology there are marked differences in attitude between those who study living things in the field and those who work in laboratories.
This gap is of recent origin — it was unknown until the nineteenth century — and, happily, it gives signs of closing. On the one hand, biologists who study the evolution of living things and their place in the environment are coming into the laboratory to take advantage of modern molecular tools. On the other hand, those who study the functions of living cells have found great opportunities in probing the wondrous diversity of the natural world. The rift between the field worker and the lab worker, in the questions they ask and the attitudes they convey, is narrowing, and we can welcome the fact that biology is reemerging as a unified science. It is worth noting that the “history” in “natural history” is derived from the Greek word for “learning by inquiry,” which today we would name “science.”
For most of my professional life, however, the distinction between “field biology” and “laboratory biology” was quite substantial. My colleagues seemed content to study one or two kinds of bacteria under laboratory conditions and only rarely seemed concerned with the “real world.” The view has been put forth that different personalities are attracted to the two approaches to biology. To overstate the point, the “naturalists” are seen as more caring, more accepting of their role as stewards of living things, whereas the “experimentalists” are thought to be more analytical, interested only in how things work.
That’s the theory, at least. I have always had a hard time with this notion because it seemed, at best, to describe people at the extremes. I feel that I straddled these two worlds. Strange as it may sound, I have developed, if not a love, at least a personal closeness to the bacteria I study. The strains I have worked with are, by and large, harmless to people. To me, they are living things, not just bags of enzymes and DNA. They are, in other words, as alive to me as mushrooms are — and as trees and animals are. So, is the jump from the lab bench to the woodland glade as big as all that? In both places one can find, or make, the opportunity to study nature, to experience life, and it is my hope that this book (and blog) will lead you at least part of the way toward that end.