Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).
Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square kilometers and weighing in at hundreds of tons, the fungi growing on the remains at Chernobyl, the amount of fungal spores in the air, etc.).
You’re bound to find something that astonishes or fascinates or simply surprises you (like the connection to Star Trek), every few pages but Sheldrake doesn’t simply offer up nuggets of neat trivia. He moves from these fine details into bigger concepts, much as the fungi form networks of mycelia. Everything is connected is perhaps the biggest theme, and Sheldrake does a masterful job of painstakingly illustrating that concept.
So, we get the connections between fungi and trees, cutely but not inaccurately labeled the “Wood Wide Web.” The ways fungi manipulate other creatures, such as zombie suicide ants — the things of nightmares and horror films (and if you think we’re immune, think of how our love of altered experiences has gotten us to make more fermenting yeasts or “magic mushrooms”). The way fungi scorn our categorizing minds’ attempts to label everything and neatly put things in their place by blurring the idea of boundaries, between sexes, between species, between organisms. As Sheldrake muses as one point:
Can we think about a plant without also thinking about the mycorrhizal networks that lace outward — extravagantly — from its roots into the soil. If we follow the tangled sprawl of mycelium that emanates from its roots, then where do we stop? … Do we think about the neighboring fungal networks that fuse with those of our plant? … The other plants whose roots share the very same fungal network?
Sheldrake also offers up some more grounded, pragmatic explorations. The use of fungi in health care for instance (a history dating back thousands of years). Or on a larger scale, its use in healing the world of the scars we have inflicted on it by using fungi’s unmatched ability to filter and/or break things down, such as pesticides or toxic metals and chemicals (“mycofiltration”). Or the new field of “mycofabrication” which uses the properties of mycelium to replace other materials, such as Styrofoam packaging or even brick and concrete. Mycelium, after all, is “lightweight, flame resistant, fire retardant, stronger than concrete when subjected to bending forces… better insulating than polystyrene and can be grown in a matter of days into an unlimited number of forms.”
But don’t just take Sheldrake’s word for it. Nasa is looking into “Mycotecture” as a means of building moon structures and DARPA has funded a company called Ecovative to look into “growing” temporary housing for soldiers or natural disaster victims. And in a nice touch of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is with regards to fungi’s practical uses, the illustrations in the book are drawn with the ink of the coprinus mushroom.
Despite his enthusiasm for all the above, Sheldrake is meticulous about adding any necessary caveats, always a big marker for me when evaluating the quality of a non-fiction work. In discussing the “network” concept of the Wood Wide Web, for instance, he also quotes those who dismiss the concept as a bit of scientific hyperbole and he offers the same counterpoints to the claim that plants warn other plants of distress, say from attacking insects. While detailing the many possible uses of fungi in the medical, agricultural, or industrial worlds, he doesn’t shy away from the huge difficulties in scaling up lab results to real world application. It would have been natural, in his enthusiasm, to omit or downplay these points of view, but Sheldrake always plays fair with the reader.
Besides the willingness to fully and respectfully share various viewpoints, another test for me of a good non-fiction book is whether I read the notes sections and, if I do, how fully. I read all of them. And then used some of their references to keep reading. And if making the reader want to learn more about a topic isn’t the mark of a good non-fiction work, I don’t know what is. Sheldrake does that and everything else right here. Fascinating, engaging, surprising, engrossing, thought-provoking. An excellent example of showing us how the hidden and/or mundane is never truly either.
One criterion for a 5-star book for me is that it makes me think about the world differently. By that measure alone, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape our Futures, is a 5-star book, because I spent the whole week I was reading it thinking about things — life, systems — in a different way. As a bonus, though, Sheldrake’s book is easy to read, filled with scientific information about a world we don’t even see, and liberally sprinkled with Sheldrake’s anecdotes and adventures.
In broad terms, the book begins with mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi; progresses to lichen; takes a trippy detour to psilocybin mushrooms and how they’ve interacted with insects, mammals and humans; spends some time with yeast and fermentation; and ends with a brief passage about decomposition and compost. Along the way, Sheldrake interviews biologists, mycologists, mushroom champions like Paul Stamets and Terence McKenna, and innovators like the founder of Ecovation, which is using mycelium to make packing material, faux leather and even furniture. We meet truffle hunters, a truffle hound, and the founder of a group called Radical Mycology. Sheldrake shares his own experience in the jungle in Panama, studying plants, and how that led him to an interest in mycology.
Early in the book, we get some facts about fungus and lichen. Mycellium are the long questing fibers of a fungus, the fungus’s mouth. The hypha (plural: hyphae) is the growing tip of a mycelium. Mycellia grow in networks. Mushrooms, as we know, are the fruits of fungus, designed to spread the spores mycelia grow out from. Lichen, which can break down rock, are a hybrid species. Once scientists accepted that an alga and a bacteria could merge to form a third organism, they believed until recently that lichen were a composite of two organisms. It’s now been shown that lichen are often made of more than two organisms. Experiments have shown that lichen can survive, in a dormant state, in space.
I spent most of the first half of Entangled Life saying, “Oh, wow!” Sometimes out loud. Hyphae merge, and mycelium redirect themselves toward a food source — fungus can solve mazes, and yet they have no brains or nervous systems. Electrical charges directed to one part of a fungus will incite a response in a separate, unthreatened area. Adam Adamatzky theorizes that it should be possible to interface with the mycelial impulses and create a “fungal computer,” not for our own computing purposes, but as a system providing us information on the well-being of a given ecology.
Sheldrake interviews champions and prophets, but he is quick to caution us not to apply a mammal-centric (or even plant-centric) model to what we are learning. At the fungal level, it’s difficult to study at all, because a fungus is both very small and very large. Humans succumb to the temptation to discuss new discoveries in terms of systems they already know. In discussing the recent discoveries of how trees in a forest interact with fungus, Sheldrake points out that many people anthropomorphize, seeing the trees as a socialist system, or a “family” where nurturing parent trees share information and food with younger forest members. Sheldrake points out that all the transference of food and information is carried out not by the trees themselves, but the fungus. He suggests taking a “fungal-centric” approach to the model.
Scale is also a challenge for studying fungus. One of the biologists who conducted an experiment with fungus says this: what happens in a pot in a greenhouse is different from what happens in the world. Sheldrake is similarly cautious when he interviews the people who think Mushrooms Will Save the World. He presents their words and ideas in a fair manner, letting the reader decide for herself.
If I were to find a flaw, I would say one or two of Sheldrake’s personal anecdotes could have been deleted without damaging the book. Mostly, he adeptly wove them into his narrative, but I truly felt that his passage about the fermented cedar-chip enzyme in a Northern California day spa added little to his story.
We use a star rating here, but a better barometer for how much I enjoyed this book is this: I bought two additional copies to give Entangled Life to friends, and it isn’t even either person’s birthday.
At the very least, Entangled Life gives you a pocketful of fun facts with which to amaze friends, now that some of us are socializing again. At the very most, it will give you a whole new lens, and a new way to look at the world.