“Despite their promise and central role in many ancient human fascinations,” writes biologist Merlin Sheldrake, “fungi have received a tiny fraction of the attention given to animals and plants.” Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures is his contribution to giving fungi their dues, and it’s an extraordinary book.
Fungi are not well understood. For centuries they were considered to be plants, but they lack all the core features of plants. They’re doing their own thing, and they’re everywhere. Mycelial networks run through the soil, decompose waste, float their spores on the air. They have played a critical role in the evolution of life on the planet, and we humans rely on them for a vast range of foods, medicines and industrial processes. Our own civilization is entangled with the story of fungi.
One of the reasons fungi are so complicated is that they are invisible – we know about mushrooms because they spring from the surface. But the larger organism from which they grow is hidden, incorporated into the soil or the wood. It’s harder to pick it apart and study it. As Sheldrake puts it in one of his many pithy summaries, “the difference between animals and fungi is simple: animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.”
Fungi are also complicated because they break all our categories. Not just between plant or animal or ‘other’, but by rejecting the whole idea of categories. Lichens, for example, are a combination of fungi and algae. The first scientists to discover this were not believed – nature is always one thing or another. The idea of a non-binary organism didn’t fit with our understanding of the world. And it got even more complicated once it became possible to analyse the genes of lichens, and it emerged that there are bacteria involved too, and sometimes a lichen can be three or four different things at once. Lichens are a collaborating community. So are almost all plants, which depend on soil fungi to provide nutrients.
There are wonders on every page of Entangled Life, from the ‘wood wide webs’ that allow trees to communicate, to the lichens that survive being fired into space, the mushrooms that can push through concrete, or the mould that found the most direct route out of a model Ikea. There are all kinds of intriguing ideas for circular economy uses too, such as mycofabrication – see Ecovative’s mycellium packaging or MycoWorks’ fungal leather that I’ve written about before. Mycoremediation is another, where fungi are used to consume toxic waste, oil spills, or plastic pollution.
All of this, and much more, is explored through Sheldrake’s hands-on research and clear enthusiasm for his subject. The book is full of other scientists, inventors and ‘radical mycologists’. Sheldrake accompanies French truffle hunters on an expedition, volunteers for psychedelics research, and experiments with brewing. He has a playful and adventurous curiosity, which concludes with the promise that when the book comes out, he’ll seed a copy with spores and grow mushrooms on it. Since fungi inspired the book, the book will give back to the fungi and complete the circle. “When it has eaten its way through the words and pages and endpapers and sprouted oyster mushrooms from the covers, I’ll eat them.”
I loved Entangled Life. I liked its attempts to wriggle out of human perspectives and take a different point of view, and its willingness to hold questions open and appreciate things as a mystery. This is a book that complicates far more than it explains. It does so with imagination and eloquence, and by opening up a vast unseen world that surrounds each one of us, it’s a deeply enriching read.