As a child, Lawrence B. Millman loved to play in the dirt — so much so that his father called him a “dirty little boy.” After taking a ramble around Walden Pond, 12-year-old Millman, like his “god” Henry David Thoreau, came into his own as a young naturalist. Naturally, his father upgraded his nickname to “dirty little Thoreau.” Many decades later, that label still holds true; Millman can often be seen flipping over logs in Harvard Square, pursuing his career in mycology, the study of fungi.
Last Wednesday, though, Millman spoke with us in his unnatural habitat — indoors, in Boylston Hall — clad in a regal purple shirt which declared: “This is my human costume, I’m really a mushroom.” A self-described polymath, Millman is an avid mycologist, writer, and ethnographer. For the last 35 years, he has conducted mycological work around the world and written 18 books documenting his findings and experiences.
Millman began his career as an English professor after earning his Ph.D. in literature at Rutgers University. But the confines of a conference room soon became a frustration to Millman, who much preferred free-range foraging for knowledge to the tedious tilling of one plot of academic land. So, Millman sprung free from the conference-room cage, and headed to the west of Ireland, where he came into bloom as an ethnographer. His first ethnographic book, “Our Like Will Not Be There Again,” explored traditional oral storytelling in Ireland and its extinction at the hands of its apex-predator, television.
It was not until later on, while pursuing research in the Arctic, that Millman became inspired by Indigenous peoples’ relationship with fungi. Some of the people he encountered viewed mushrooms as an integral part of their lore. Many others recognized the beneficial properties of fungi, sprinkling antibacterial spores of specimens like “puffball” on cuts to staunch wounds.
Since then, Millman has spent nearly 40 years identifying hundreds of species across New England, in areas like the Mount Auburn Cemetery, Naushon Island, Fresh Pond, and Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary. He’s published some of his inventory in a guidebook called “Fascinating Fungi of New England.”
Millman estimates that he is now “closing in on” donating 1,000 specimens to the Farlow Herbarium at Harvard, an accomplishment he hopes will help expand people’s knowledge of fungal species world-wide. “This is important because a lot of older specimens have desiccated over winters and are nothing but sand and crumbs,” he says from underneath his mushroom-embroidered baseball cap. His squint seems to bear the mark of one well-practiced in peering through a microscope.
Millman also brings his work directly to the public. He regularly conducts free “Mushroom Walks” open to passerby and regulars, whose ages range from under 30 to over 60. Pushing back against the misconception that fungi are too frail for frigid New England, Millman leads these walks at least twice a month in the fall and winter, focusing primarily on the cold weather adaptations of fungi.
By leading New England folk on these walks, Millman hopes to lead people to a new philosophical destination as well: one which centers around nature conservation and humans’ role within the natural environment. “In a habitat, everything is related to everything else,” he says. “I want people to see fungi as symbolic or indicative of a sort of organism that is helping out nature and has been doing so for a long, long time. Whereas ever since we were birthed from an arboreal primate, we’'ve done just the opposite — destroyed nature.”
Nothing makes Millman happier at the end of a tour than when his audience awakens to this unity with nature. “One of the remarks that makes my heart swell with pride is when people say ‘I now look at the forest in an entirely different way,’’’ he says with a grin.
At the heart of his educational efforts is transmitting information in an understandable and memorable way to his audience. “I do not focus overwhelmingly on Latin binomials,” Millman says. “I mention common names, and especially common names that are memorable.”
To illustrate this philosophy, Millman shared one example about a fungal species with the Latin name of “Dibotryon morbosum” and the common name of “Black Knot.” Rather than referring to the mushroom by its binomial, Millman uses its common name and writes in his guidebook that “Black Knot” is often referred to as “shit on a stick” in certain parts of New England due to its fecal appearance.
Millman’s passion for discovering drives him still. Whether it’s encountering a fungal species that had not been seen since 1909 or learning about the traditions of the cultures he encounters from the Arctic to the archipelagos, the unpredictability of his work never ceases to impress him.
“You don’t know what you’re going to find next,” he says. “I like to lift up logs, and it’s like a Christmas present — who knows?”