When the author of this book about fungi started describing his participation in experiments involving LSD, I wondered if it was going to be a different sort of book than I was expecting.
The author is Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and writer who holds a PhD in tropical ecology from the University of Cambridge. He’s also a “keen fermenter.”
His book is Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures. It’s about the bizarre world of fungi, which, as it turns out, means it’s also about us.
By Merlin Sheldrake
Random House, New York, 2021
My favorite book of 2021 was Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard which I reviewed here. That book is about how trees communicate and share resources with each other through fungal networks buried inside forest soils. So when I learned about Entangled Life, it seemed like a natural follow-up.
Entangled Life is about three things. First, it’s about fungi themselves. Sheldrake tries to cover, or at least touch on, the full range of the fungi kingdom. It’s vast, from single-celled yeasts to slime mold and lichen to truffles and mushrooms – both magical and muggle – to complex mycorrhizal networks that can span forests.
Second, the book is about the role that fungi play in the environment. Sheldrake says that fungi both make and unmake the world. They make the world by connecting all kinds of plants and trees to the soil, helping them extract water and nutrients in exchange for sugars produced by photosynthesis. And there’s compelling evidence from scholars like Suzanne Simard and others that mycorrhizal networks connect trees together into a “wood wide web,” enabling them to share nutrients and possibly even information.
Fungi unmake the world through their critical role in decomposing wood and other plant matter and returning it to the soil.
Finally, Entangled Life is about the role fungi play in our lives. To start with, they’re part of us, inside our guts helping us digest food. Fungi produce medicines like penicillin which help us fight off bacterial infections.
Sheldrake notes that fungi alter our minds too. Humans have used yeast for thousands of years to ferment grains and fruits to make alcohol. We’ve had similar long histories with various types of mushrooms, specifically with a chemical they contain called psilocybin. In this way, fungi have shaped human culture and even religion.
Fungi could do even more for us in future. Sheldrake reviews recent research on “training” fungi to break down toxic waste, including radioactive waste. There are exciting possibilities for engineering fungi to become tiny factories that produce useful chemicals and medicines.
Yet we still know very little about fungi. Time and again Sheldrake tells us that we just don’t know why certain fungi behave in certain ways, or how they “know” certain things. Do the trees in the forest leverage mycorrhizal networks to support each other, or do the fungi “manage” the forest’s resources to ensure their own continued supply of energy? He quotes one researcher who says mycology is a “neglected megascience.”
An overarching theme of Entangled Life is the sheer alienness of fungi. Even though they’re everywhere around us and within us, they are so very different from us, and from other plants and animals we’re familiar with. Their ways of living and reproducing call into question the boundaries between individuals and communities and even between one species and another.
Although many parts of Entangled Life were fascinating, in the end I didn’t love this book. Some of it was quite dry and unengaging despite Sheldrake’s obvious passion for the subject.
I wonder if he set himself too large a task. Maybe fungi are just too varied to be captured in one book. Imagine trying to write a single 225-page book that covers the entire animal kingdom. I suppose the reason Sheldrake can even attempt to pull this off is because we know so little about fungi.
Or maybe I’m just more interested in the products of fermentation than the fungi that produce them.
Thanks for reading.
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Thanks to Brona’s Books for recommending this one.