Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Review by Peter Reason

Entangled Life Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Lives by Merlin Sheldrake has been greeted with much enthusiasm, not least by Robert Macfarlane in the New Yorker. I am sure I am not alone in regarding such reviews, and in particular the prepublication puffs on the cover of a book, with a degree of scepticism. I often wonder with some astonishment that these eminent folks have found so much to praise about a book. But when I had turned the final page of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, experiencing that peculiar tristesse one can feel at the end of a really good read, I turned to look at the page of puffs.  I found I could not really do better than quote Ian Henderson of the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University: ‘A remarkable book that manages at once to be scholarly, visionary and a deeply entertaining and enjoyable read.’ Anyone interested in finding new understanding the living world in which we humans are embedded will enjoy and learn from this book.

Merlin Sheldrake is a research biologist with a PhD from Cambridge University who has worked with fungi since early fascination as a teenager. For his doctorate he studied underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, and his writing draws on collegial links with other scientists round the world. Sheldrake has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the world of fungi. He doesn’t just study them as a scientist, he uses them as a brewer and a bread maker, he explores their hallucinatory effects and imagines life from their point of view. It is this sense of total engagement with the field that makes the book so enjoyable. The book is informed, first-hand, scholarly, and delightful to read.

In his introductory chapter, he shows us that fungi are everywhere—indeed, the whole living world depends on them—but are easy to miss. Many of the most dramatic events in this history of Earth are the result of fungal activity; they provide a key to understanding the planet, yet they have been strangely under-researched and undocumented. The lay person, thinking fungi, may think of mushrooms, but their most significant form is hyphae, ‘fine tubular structures that branch, fuse, and tangle into the anarchic filigree of mycelium’ through which flow water and nutrients, and some electrical impulses, analogous to the impulses in animal nerve cells. Plants, animals, and humans all are intertwined with fungi: they both make life possible and also cause diseases the wreak havoc on ecosystems and human economies.

In the chapters that follow, Sheldrake invites us deeper into this world. We follow the lure of scent give off by truffles to learn about the complex chemical signals through which fungi communicate with other creatures and other fungi, friend and foe, in their network. This leads him to consider how we should we think about fungi: are they pre-programmed robots or in some sense intentional beings. He carefully points out that our fear of anthropomorphic projection may lead us to pass over qualities in the more than human world, and quotes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s discussion of a ‘language of animacy’ (see my Shiny Review here). We must beware of the easy dualism of categorizing the world either as intentional subject or mindless object.

After truffles and fungi communication we are invited to learn more about mycelium—the mass of branching, thread-like hypha—as ‘ecological connective tissue’ stitching the living world together, the ‘sticky living seam that holds soil together’. They form such networks in order to feed—while animals put food inside their bodies, fungi envelop it, putting their bodies into the food. These networks develop in intimate partnership with plants, ‘Out of this intimate partnership – complete with co-operation, conflict and competition—plants and mycorrhizal fungi enact a collective flourishing that underpins our past, present and future’. We learn how study of the ways fungi form networks can teach us about traffic and communication patterns that have no centre of control.

The US cover (Random House)

We are taken into the world of lichen—fungi and algae that live in symbiosis, a word that was itself invented in order to describe them. ‘Lichens are places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism… queer beings that present ways for humans to think beyond a rigid binary framework’. This leads us on to a chapter on Mycelial Minds, the many ways in which fungi manipulate the behaviour of other creatures: not only their hallucinatory effect on humans, but the ways fungi change the behaviour of ants so that they assist in the spreading of fungi spores. In effect, the ants become ‘fungi in ant’s clothing’—the extension of the fungi into the world is what scientists call an ‘extended phenotype.’ Sheldrake considers at some length whether the hallucinogenic impact of psilocybin on the human can be seen as such an extension of the fungus into the human mind: ‘Fungi have no hands to manipulate the world but with psilocybin as a chemical messenger, they could borrow the human body and use its brain and senses to think through’ in a symbiotic partnership that might have profound effects on the world.

These considerations are part of the whole thrust of the book to invite us to stop seeing the world in terms of separate parts, to stop dividing this from that, and begin to think in terms of intimate partnerships ‘complete with co-operation, conflict and competition’. Sheldrake asks, ‘Can we think about a plant without also thinking about the mycorrhizal networks that lace outward—extravagantly—from its roots into the soil?’ The notion of the ‘Wood Wide Web’ through which trees are said to communicate through mycelia has become popular in recent years, but Sheldrake says it isn’t always helpful: ‘It is a metaphor that tugs us into plant-centrism.’ Sheldrake wants us to switch perspectives and see the world from the point of view of fungi, to see how the intimacy with plants is of benefit to them.

Amid all the detailed and fascinating information about fungi in this book—and there is so much I have not touched on in this review—this is maybe its most important—visionary—contribution. A view from the perspective of fungi will radically change our understanding of our world. As we learn to see mycelial networks as ongoing happenings rather than things, we may learn to be wary of hard boundaries between entities in the world, and the ideas we hold about them. The lesson is that ‘Ambiguity isn’t as itchy as it was; it’s easier for me to resist the temptation to remedy uncertainty with certainty’.

Toward the end of the book, Sheldrake takes us into the world of ‘Radical Mycology’. The study of fungi is a ‘neglected megascience’: animals and plants have their own university departments, but the study of fungi has not formally been recognized as a distinct field. This has led to the emergency of a grassroots scientific movement, a world of citizen scientists, a ‘people’s mycology movement’, intending to spread information about fungi and reshape human-fungi relationships.  For fungi have enormous potential to clean up the mess modern humans tend to leave behind them, they are ‘some of the best-qualified organisms for environmental remediation’. One citizen scientist has trained the fungus Pleurotus onto a diet of used cigarette butts and is attempting to do the same with the herbicide glyphosate. Sheldrake owns his skepticism about this informal and at times intentionally anarchic movement, thinking that proper research will require large investments. However, institutional research remains rare, and he discovers that ‘amateur fungal cultivation is in a state of wild proliferation.’ The radical mycology movement organizes itself in ways similar to fungi in decentralized networks that come together in informal conferences as ‘fruiting bodies’.

More formally, he reports from a business in upstate New York that is growing innovative building products out of mycelium—boards, bricks, acoustic tiles, fungal leather. Mycelium weaves its way into a dense fabric through feedstock—re-routed from agricultural waste—packed into moulds of the shape required.

Entangled Life is scholarly and visionary; it is also beautifully written. When we read in his account of digging in the Panamanian jungle, following a tree root in search of the mycelial network; when we follow him in search of truffles; or wriggle with him into a pile of autumn leaves, we are drawn into his infectious enthusiasm and begin to see the world from the perspective of fungi. This is a world that can change the metaphors we habitually employ: is nature fundamentally competitive or co-operative? Are there hard boundaries between entities in the world? The dominant narrative since the development of evolutionary theory has been one of conflict and competition so that discussions of symbiosis and mutualism can be loaded with political charge. Changing metaphors changes our perspective: ‘fungi have the power to change the way we think and imagine’.

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Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures (The Bodley Head, 2020). 978-1847925190, 352 pp., hardback..

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