Our history

The present New York Mycological Society was founded in 1962 by the composer John Cage and a small group of other mushroom lovers and students, including illustrator Lois Long and noted botanist Guy Nearing. It was the culmination of a popular class on mushroom identification John had been teaching at The New School from 1959 onward.

John Cage and friends at the first Chanterelle Weekend in 1962

John Cage was committed to the principles of anarchy and his rules for the Society were simple: there are no rules.

The other guidance he gave to the club was “All that is necessary is an annual program of lectures and walks and a banquet. Hopefully we will all more or less reap the benefits which include more experience and knowledge of mushrooms, pleasant hours and days in the woods and fields away from concrete and metropolitan air and the society of people who spend their working hours in a great variety of ways. (I get, for instance, to be with people who aren’t composers of experimental music, and this is refreshing.)” Learning, and the enjoyment of nature with a community of people from all walks of life continue to be at the center of the club’s activities today.

Gary Lincoff

Gary Lincoff doing a "show -and-tell" at Stony Brook in Harriman Park

Gary Lincoff doing a “show -and-tell” at Stony Brook in Harriman Park

Gary Lincoff (October 3, 1942 – March 16, 2018) was a well-known mushroom expert, author of the bestselling Audubon Guide to mushrooms as well as many other books, a teacher at the New York Botanical Gardens, a leader of mushroom expeditions and forays all over the world, a popular speaker and many things besides.

He was also a guiding star to the New York Mycological Society, leading many of our walks, summer or winter, rain or shine. His contagious enthusiasm and generously shared knowledge made our walks special and inspired many of our members to become passionate experts themselves. We were lucky to have him, and he is very much missed.

Gary is buried in Wood-Lawn Cemetery. His books continue to be available, his Audubon field guide to North American mushrooms remains a go-to guide for anyone interested in identifying fungi and his website contains a wealth of useful content. An inspiring interview with Gary can be found here.

The following is an extract from The New York Times’ obituary of Gary:

Gary Lincoff, a self-taught mycologist whose contagious enthusiasm turned him into a pied piper of mushrooms, died on March 16 in Manhattan. He was 75.

Mr. Lincoff, a philosophy major and law-school dropout, wrote a field guide to North American mushrooms that sold more than a half-million copies. He led mushroom hunts as far afield as Siberia, India and the Amazon and as near to his home as Central Park, two blocks away, where over the course of decades he counted more than 400 species.

Mr. Lincoff taught for more than 40 years at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and instructed Martha Stewart on dredging puffballs in panko bread crumbs to bring out their flavor. He wrote peer-reviewed journal articles and poems and songs about mushrooms, and helped found the countercultural science and fun fair in Colorado known as the Telluride Mushroom Festival.

He was a fungus fanatic who championed the mushroom as food, medicine, soil decontaminator, psychotropic portal and essential link in the eternal cycle of decay and rebirth.

“Just to name mushrooms — after a while it gets sort of boring,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “To know what these mushrooms are doing, that drives me. That keeps me thinking. Every plant I see, every tree I see, I know that there are mushrooms totally involved in the health of those trees.”

Mr. Lincoff loved exotic fantastical-looking mushrooms with names like violet-branched coral and eyelash cup and bearded tooth and wolf’s-milk slime, and he loved nondescript little brown blots that sprouted on dead sticks. He was often asked which mushroom was his favorite, and he invariably replied, “The one that’s in front of me right now.”

“He inspired literally thousands of people to overcome their fear of fungi,” said Paul Stamets, another member of the tiny cohort of celebrity mycologists. “No matter how dumb your question was, he never humiliated you, he never put you down. He never believed there was such a thing as a stupid question.”

Gary Henry Lincoff was born on Oct. 3, 1942, in Pittsburgh to Leonard Lincoff, an optometrist, and the former Bette Forman. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963 with a bachelor’s in philosophy, a passion for Thoreau and an unfulfilled sense of purpose.

He left law school at George Washington University because “he didn’t admire his professors,” his wife, Irene Liberman, said. She met him in 1967, when he was doing graduate work in English literature in Pittsburgh.

The couple moved to New York in 1968, and Mr. Lincoff set out to write a novel about a draft dodger who waits out the Vietnam War living in Central Park. In his research he got hung up on a question: What would the protagonist eat?

“I took six months off to learn everything there was to know about survival in the city — wild foodwise,” Mr. Lincoff told The New York Times in 1978. “I began to see that every tree, every weed, wasn’t alike. I got into minutiae.”

He and Ms. Liberman led forays to gather edible plants for suppers of acorn burgers, pokeweed shoots and Juneberry pies. In 1971, the couple went on their first walk with the New York Mycological Society. “I said, ‘Let’s promise not to eat anything,’ and we ate nine wild mushrooms that day,” Ms. Liberman recalled. Mr. Lincoff had found his calling.

He steeped himself in mushroom studies and eventually persuaded the New York Botanical Garden to let him teach despite his lack of formal credentials. In 1978, he published a book on toxic and hallucinogenic mushroom poisoning and was soon recruited to write the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, which was published in 1981 and is in its 31st printing. He served for nine years as president of the North American Mycological Association.

Mr. Lincoff helped found the Telluride Mushroom Festival in 1981. It was conceived by a Denver radiologist and mushroom-lover, Emanuel Salzman, as an alternative to stuffier mycological conferences.

Mr. Lincoff was in demand as a tour leader and headed expeditions to more than 30 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. When he was back in New York, he served as lecture coordinator and animating presence of the New York Mycological Society.