When Hamlet admonished Horatio by saying “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, fungi could well have been one of them, as Merlin Sheldrake’s scintillating book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures makes abundantly clear. The adjectives ‘odd’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘extraordinary’ don’t cover even the half of it and this first book from Sheldrake provides a fascinating glimpse into the subject.
My first encounter with the author, Merlin Sheldrake, was in Robert Macfarlane’s book Underland (separate post on this site) where they appear together in Epping Forest (chapter three) with this introduction:
Merlin Sheldrake, as the oldest joke in mycology goes, is a fun guy to be around. During the days in which he conjures open the underland of Epping Forest for me, I ask more questions than I have of anyone for what feels like years. What he tells and shows me in that modest peri-urban forest reshapes my sense of the world in ways I am still processing. (Underland by Robert Macfarlane p. 93)
Sheldrake is not just a raconteur. He is a plant scientist with a PhD in tropical ecology from Cambridge. His speciality is mycorrhizal fungi, the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a plant and I can guarantee that some of the reshaping that Robert Macfarlane mentions will happen for you if you were to read Entangled Life.
This is a learned tome of some 360 pages, but 39 of those are devoted to a bibliography, 17 to an index and a further 43 to footnotes which, thankfully, is mapped with page headers that say “Notes to pages x - y” which makes finding the one you’re tracking down a snip. Yet this learning is worn lightly by dint of a writing style that is keen on story-telling. Fungi nerds are constantly referred on to denser academic materials should they feel the need, but for us mere mortals who are curious outsiders looking in on a mysterious world, the writing style is elegant and clear and the frame of reference is balanced and engaging.
In eight short chapters Sheldrake hand-holds us through the mysteries and peculiarities of truffles, fungal hyphae and mycelial networks, lichens, psychedelic psilocybin, mycorrhizal exchanges with plants, whether plants compete or collaborate using fungi, ‘applied mycology’ and finally what all this might mean to us, whose world is surrounded by and threaded through with fungi.
This particular Horatio learned that in the Devonian period a mycorrhizal exchange with plants may have caused a plant bloom which, in turn, may have caused a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide, and that this may have precipitated a period of global cooling; that Pleurotus mycelium “can grow happily on a diet of used” nappies, resulting in edible oyster mushrooms; that the matsutake mushroom was the first living thing to emerge from the devastation of Hiroshima caused by the atomic bomb; that there is a radiotrophic fungi that flourishes in the ruins of Chernobyl; that two fungal species have been able to ‘learn’ to consume dimethyl methylphosphonate (one of the deadly components of the VX gas made and used by Sadam Hussein’s regime in the late 1980s) as their primary nutrient source; that there’s a company in New York that grows building materials out of mycelium, using it for packaging for Dell computer servers; that Stella McCartney is working with fungal leather using the same company’s methods; that this is also being applied to growing a mycelial alternative to IKEA’s polystyrene packaging; that the America DARPA agency is seeking to build temporary “barracks out of mycelium that repair themselves when damaged and decompose when their job is done”; and that extracts of certain white rot fungi can be used to reduce bee mortality resulting from colony collapse disorder. As ever, truth proves to be stranger than fiction.
Entangled Life is not simply a litany of factoids. Far from it. Sheldrake is very good at widening debate beyond the particular, making for engrossing reading. One example is in his chapter on the mind-altering properties of fungi, one that embraces ergot fungi, psilocybin, Amanita muscaria, LSD, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and the philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna. The zombie fungus Ophiocordyceps is apparently well known as having manipulated animal minds for millions of years. The book includes photographs of carpenter ants, transfixed in death, whose heads sprout tiny, fruiting mushroom stalks, their bodies appearing frosted with white, mycoparasitic spines. The author contrasts this harm that fungi are capable of doing to their host with documented uses, notably for patients with terminal cancer, that alleviate what he calls existential stress, and goes on to pose the question: “Do psilocybin mushrooms wear our minds, as Ophiocordyceps and Massospora wear insect bodies?” Appropriately, the author chooses some Prince lyrics as epigraph for one of his chapters: “Who’s pimping who?”
This is far from preposterous and occupies the same territory as Michael Pollan’s claims in his The Botany of Desire when he poses the question of “who is really domesticating whom?” Although the answer to this is partly given by the fact that fungi on our planet pre-date mankind by many millions of years, there is philosophical mileage to be extracted. McKenna thought that fungi “could wear our minds” and “impart knowledge about the world out there”. It “could use psilocybin to influence humans in an attempt to deflect our destructive habits as a species”. If this sounds like pseudo-science, just remember that the author did time in the tropical forests of Panama doing real research. He references Richard Dawkins who reminds us that “how far we are willing to go depends on how far we’re willing to speculate”. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that his student Bertrand Russell thought that “the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day”, whereas he “thought what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep”. Sheldrake offers the observation that Dawkins has Russell’s perspective, ‘disciplined’ and ‘tightly limited’, whereas McKenna’s “requirements are less stringent, his explanations less tightly limited. Between the two poles lies a continent of possible opinion”. For this section of Merlin Sheldrake’s glorious book alone, Entangled Life is well worth reading.
I had thought that the outer limits of the fungal world might be typified by two specimens I recently photographed in a neighbouring cemetery. Both The Candlesnuff Fungus and the Meadow Coral Fungus have an other-worldly form that seems to occupy Horation territory. Having read Entangled Life, I now know a bit better and have been greatly entertained.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast Entangled Life as their Book of the Week in November 2020. Although the recordings are not available at the time of writing, the web page that lists it is still worth a visit. It shows the author holding a copy of the book which he magically describes in his closing paragraphs:
Now that this book is made, I can hand it over to fungi to unmake. I’ll dampen a copy and seed it with Pleurotus mycelium. When it has eaten its way through the words and pages and endpapers and sprouted oyster mushrooms from the covers, I’ll eat them. From another copy I will remove the pages, mash them up and using a weak acid break the cellulose of the paper into sugars. To the sugar solution I’ll add a yeast. Once it’s fermentd into a beer, I’ll drink it and close the circuit. (Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake p. 251)
Search for an uncropped version of the photo on the BBC website and you’ll see a bone-handled knife waiting to be used.
[Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]