Peter Katsaros; Amateur Mycologist extraordinaire: 1926 – 2007

A personal remembrance by Bill Bakaitis

First published in Mushroom The Journal of Wild Mushrooming Spring 2007

Peter Katsaros died on May 8 2007 having suffered a sudden collapse following a long illness.  He will be remembered as a gifted photographer, meticulous mycologist, naturalist and wordsmith. But for me, above all else, Peter was a good friend; quiet, patient, understanding, compassionate and cultured.

Peter counted among his many friends publishers and photographers, museum curators and researchers, lexographers, lawyers, editors, and the politically connected. Yet he was completely at home with the everymen of his life; his neighbors, the farmers from down the road, laborers and craftsmen that he met. He put people at ease and formed fast friendships.   It was impossible not to like him. He was cultivated, but thoroughly unpretentious; facile with word and idea, yet able to listen, reflect and empathize.

I first met Peter years ago after seeing an article about mushrooms he had written for The New York State Conservationist. In the Authors Credits I saw that he lived but a few miles from my house. I thought I would give him a call but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a telephone listing for him. So, I wrote a letter, obtained a reply and arranged for a visit to his house and a tour of his studio.  It was the beginning of a very rich relationship.

His house was in an out of the way corner of the county, off a small road, down a steep driveway, not quite a cliff, but treacherous enough so that everyone was encouraged to park in a small carved out space near the top of the drive. (Beware to those who did not follow this advice as Harley Barnhart and Kit Scates realized when they decided to “drop in” on Peter with their Mobile Home, and came close to staying!)

Below his house down a meandering path was his studio, the “shack” as he called it.  The house was surrounded by nature: songbirds, plants, deer, turtles, turkeys and mushrooms.  Next to his shack were stacks of firewood in various stated of decay, a laboratory for the myxomycetes that he came to study.

I came to learn that Peter did not have a telephone. Nor did he have a car. He lived there quietly, intently, almost like Thoreau at Walden Pond. One could call him a hermit but the Zen-like purity and intensity of his life there spoke to a deep relationship with nature. He had retired from his life as a court stenographer for the Navy, “Colonel Peter Katsaros” as some of his friends from Govenours Island called him, and retreated from the noise of the city, but it was more that he was moving into his true nature rather than fleeing from the strife of a previous life.  He was, as Joseph Campbell would come to say, following his bliss.

Peter didn’t drive, a conscious decision, made much like an objector to war might decide not to register for the draft, and so, I entered his life not only because of my interest in mushrooms, but also because I had a car.

He once asked me to drive him to an electronics store so that he could purchase a small transistor radio that he might place under his pillow at night. He wanted to be able to listen to the opera without disturbing his family members.  They were never the wiser, but I was. He was like that, considerate almost to a fault.  It was his constant habit to avoid needless confrontation. 

For over a quarter century he was my collecting partner. We drove through the Catskills and nearby Hudson Valley of New York, sometime venturing into the hills of western Massachusetts, the Gold Coast of Connecticut, and south to the Jersey Shore. As I steered the car, he rode shotgun, whistling and humming operatic arias, commenting on the magic carpet ride that autos afforded. The smallest things thrilled him.

And as the world whizzed by we would talk: sometime of politics, sometime of women, but mostly of words, ideas, mushrooms, the cycles and processes of nature.  His eye for detail was sharp, his mind precise.

There were times driving down a country road when the sight of a barberry hedge would be enough fill the car with observations of short and long stage infestation of the rust fungi Puccinia graminis. The commentary would come complete with descriptions of the Pyncnium, Aecium, Uredinium, Telium, and Basidium of five different stages of this heteroeceous parasite - including stage zero!  Up close he would squat down, turn over the barberry branch, pull the loupe from around his neck, press it to his eye, the thorny branch scratching itself against his cheek, and point out the structures of the first two stages. Satisfied with his observation, the branch would be released and plant itself would not be harmed. Peter never spoke of it, but The Buddha himself would have been proud.

His collection technique reflected this respect for nature.  In his pack was always a small red mirror from a ladies compact. When he came upon a mushroom that excited his interest he would place the mirror on the ground under the cap so as to better view the details of the gills or pores. Unless it was absolutely necessary, or unless someone had passed him the mushroom, he would not pick the fruiting body just to observe it. It didn’t seem to matter that there were troops of the same mushroom nearby. Needless destruction was needless destruction, and besides, the trail of plucked and discarded mushrooms was sure to ruin the experience of the next person who came down the path. Peter would take his photographs without leaving any footprints.

When he came to a specimen he wanted to photograph he would carefully set down his pack, and think about the image he wished to capture.  In the old days he would light up a small Italian cigar, and smoke it to the end, studying the angles, composition, background and lighting before setting up his tripod and camera. He respected the photographic standards set by his publishers and would usually search out a companion specimen to strategically place next to the prime, manipulating it to best show off the diagnostic field characteristics of the species.

He worked only with an old Exacta, Kodachrome and natural light  Since money was tight and film precious, he would carefully calibrate the shutter and aperture and, if necessary, use a sheet of waxed paper to diffuse strong sunlight, or a piece of tinfoil covered cardboard to reflect light onto the mushroom. Here is where a partner came in handy and we would often take turns holding back branches or catching pieces of sunlight with the reflective card.   I took my best pictures when I was with Peter. 

If he had two or three photo opportunities a day, he considered himself lucky. Each shot might take 45 minutes to an hour of aching back and shaking knees, straining for the best angle and moment of transient light and shading. When everything was right and the moment approached transcendence, the click of the shutter pronounced perfection, or as near to it as mortals might come.  But to be safe and sure, the ritual was repeated several times over bracketing the exposure, capturing and filtering the light and depth of field.

Once every season or so something would remind him of the time when the greeting of a small boy would come to ruin a prized photograph he was taking.  He had happened upon a small delicate specimen, the fruiting body of a Cordyceps rising from an insect it had colonized within a rotting log. Peter carefully pared away the overlay of soft wood.  It was a rare and exquisite sight and he was very intent on getting the image just right.  The cigar was smoked, the tripod set up, macro rings added, aperture opening and length of exposure set, branches tied back. Twenty-five or thirty minutes into the venture, he was intently focused upon the shot, and just as the cable release was about to be tripped, a small voice from behind him called out “Hey Mister, Watcha doin?” Perfect timing! Peter startled and jerked the cable still in his hand. Over went the tripod and camera right onto the mushroom! Complete disaster and the shot of the year gone forever.

Peter would laugh till tears came to his eyes when he recounted the tale.  He imagined the boy as a troll, or some creature from a nether world, coming to deliver a message, or punishment. And what could the message have been? What sin committed? Mythical permutations and combinations would add to the tale with each mirthful retelling. These were the things Peter loved, Nature, Myth, Literature. He was swain to their thrall and under that spell laughter and awe could split him to the core.

After photography would inevitably come the task of collecting the mushrooms and bringing them back home for identification. Although he could call out the binomials of nearly everything we saw, and even though he might recognize a mushroom in the field, that did not relieve him of the duty to finish the identification at home, with keys and under the microscope.

His studio was a small unheated outbuilding, perhaps eight feet square. Book shelves ran from floor to ceiling along every wall, framing the two windows and door. His desk was in a corner of the small room.  Above it the shelving continued. Built into the shelves was a small cubby for his microscope.  It was here that he commenced the identification of mushrooms and slime molds that he collected. He loved the small, the delicate and difficult. Among his favorite challenges were Russulas, Inocybes, and the Myxomycetes.

He seemed to find the same joy in working through the keys and descriptions as he did in walking through the forest. His collection of Mycological literature, built up over five decades, included most, if not all, of the popular field guides and Standard Monographs. In addition there were scores of primary sources, numerous journals, reprints and photocopies, all neatly bound and carefully stored in boxes on the shelves - complete with an accompanying card catalogue. And as he did with mushrooms so too with Birds, Insects, Trees, Snakes, Butterflies, Cuneiform Cylinders and the Messier Objects of the Heavens.  For visitors to his studio, there was standing room only.

Many of the mycological references in his library came with inscriptions from the authors.  He kept up a rich dialogue with many of them as he sent off mushrooms for ID confirmation, voucher specimens to be deposited in various appropriate herbaria, or comments upon copy within their texts.  Without being intrusive or demeaning he would frequently send off comments or a list of typographical, grammatical and other errata to the authors. They frequently responded by sending him their drafts prior to publication.  It was a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship between the amateur and professional.

Over the years Peter developed a continuing relationship with several prominent mycologists, but it was with Sam Ristich that a real bond developed.  They were kindred spirits, interested in the richness of nature in general, and mushrooms in particular. And for both, fungi growing on insects, or slime molds, or the tiny fuzz that colonized ungulate dung -- now that was something special indeed!  The two of them kept up a correspondence for years. Peter would often show me Sam’s letters or postcards and ask for help in deciphering the excitement of  a message that would begin left to right, top to bottom, but would take sudden detours and circuitous meanderings often impinging upon  previous sentences.  Peter treasured those cards, musing over them for hours, intent on plumbing the deeper meaning of the twists and turns of Sam’s mind.  They were Yin to each other’s Yang. Upon hearing of Peter’s death, Sam reflected that with that passing, he had lost his brother.

For the past few years Peter suffered from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disorder. He found it difficult to keep up with the nomenclatural changes in Mycology and concentrated more on Birds and Insects.  His photography tapered off. The quiver in his voice and shake of his script embarrassed him for their lack of precision. He closed up his studio and sold off most of his books.  Thanks to the quiet but persistent prodding of Sam Ristich, Peter gathered together some of his best slides which were sent to Sandy and Jerry Sheine for preservation in a digital format. Dianna Smith has been able to post these on the web. (see below)

During his final years Peter moved back to New York City and was lovingly cared for by his sister Rita Villa, and his nephew, Chris Hartmann.

Peter’s ashes have come to rest on a mountainside in Pennsylvania, in a place where he would often look for warblers in the spring and wait for the fall migration of hawks.