Upon hearing I was knee-deep in a book on fungi, most friends offered up a quizzical look. However, there were a select few who would quickly exclaim about the wonder, the ubiquity, the essentialness of fungi.
I certainly didn’t until I had finished Merlin Sheldrake’s magical first book, 2020’s Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures. As his name suggests, this Merlin can conjure up delightful prose and mind-blowing connections that educate, charm, enlighten, and broaden the reader’s understanding of this indispensable part of life on earth. The book reads like a page-turning adventure story right from the beginning, and the wonder underpinning his examinations never ends.
The prologue sets the stage, as we find Sheldrake on his knees in the midst of a jungle, tapping the ground with a stick for snakes. He scares up a tarantula, while a toucan flaps above. He finds a root to a large tree and follows it down into a mass of spongy debris. Working with hands and a trowel, he loosens up the topsoil to follow the tangle of root until it became thinner and intertwined with its neighbors. For hours he holds his head down in the small trench he’s made, sniffing at the spicy resinous smell to make sure he hadn’t lost the thread. A few rootlets that have branched off are followed until they end burrowed into fragments of rotting leaves or twigs. Their surface is covered with a filmy layer that appeared fresh and sticky.
From these roots, the fungal network laced out into the soil and around the roots of nearby trees. Without this fungal web my tree would not exist. Without similar fungal webs no plant would exist anywhere. All life on land, including my own, depended on these networks. I tugged lightly on my root and felt the ground move.
Entangled Life is a vibrant and vision-changing book. I stopped to marvel at, and then mark, sentence after sentence throughout its short 200-plus pages as I considered the basic question of why we should care about fungi.
As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for more than a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Fungi provide a key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways that we think, feel, and behave. Yet they live their lives largely hidden from view, and over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented. The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them.
On the rare times I thought of fungi before reading Sheldrake’s book, mushrooms were what came to mind. I suspect many come to this work with the same knowledge base. Sheldrake doesn’t diminish this lack of scientific proficiency; he builds upon it. Mushrooms and truffles feature prominently in the early chapters. He is also fascinated by symbiosis: the close relationships that form between unrelated organisms. The history of life, in Sheldrake’s telling, turns out to be full of intimate collaborations.
There is a lesson in there for humans, if only we’ll learn it.
Science — and writing about scientific topics — is at its best when imbued with a sense of wonder. Sheldrake is full of wonder. He doesn’t pretend to know all the answers, but he has a great many questions asked in intriguing ways to a range of fascinating friends. Like David Abrams, the philosopher and former house magician at Alice’s Restaurant in Massachusetts (made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song). Abrams tells the story of how patrons who came to see his magic act returned to report that the sky outside had appeared shockingly blue with large and vivid clouds. Had he spiked their drinks?
No, the magic tricks were changing the way people experienced the world. As explained by Abrams through Sheldrake, our perceptions work in large part by expectation, because it takes less cognitive effort. It is in those preconceptions that magicians do their work. As they loosen our grip on our expectations, then we begin to see other things around us differently. “Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses.”
Fungi, too, trick us out of our preconceptions with lives and behaviors that are startling. This is where Sheldrake — who is an enthusiastic student, listener, and guide — takes over. Along the way the reader learns about the living labyrinths of mycelium, and how slime mold helps planners design efficient transportation networks. We find out why lichens are stabilized networks that never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns. Queer theory for lichens helps us get past our binary view of life. Sheldrake’s own experiences with mind-altering fungi in clinical drug-testing labs lead us through a fascinating look at magical mushrooms — beginning with the 15th-century writings of Spanish friars in Mexico about the “flesh of the gods” and the changes in perceptions that they bring. The reader learns about yeast, the fungi that share the most intimate history with humans, and why we should begin to think of organisms (which grow) and not machines (which have to be maintained) when considering solutions to a variety of challenges.
I chose Entangled Life on a whim while on a recent visit to Asheville. It was recommended by the staff at Malaprop’s Bookstore, and it turned out to be the appropriate antidote to the books on politics that had overtaken my bookshelves.
This is a wondrous book, in every sense of that word. Merlin Sheldrake has managed to inject a sense of wonder — and more importantly, a wonder-filled joy — into his study. We are all the richer for it.
If you found this piece to be of interest, you may want to check out these earlier posts on More to Come:
- The importance of roots, a 2013 review (reposted in 2016) of one of the best natural history/science books I’ve read in years: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. Both very modern and very old fashioned in its outlook, Haskell’s work is a meditation of a year’s worth of observation on a small patch of old growth forest near Sewanee, Tennessee.
- Eleven ways of smelling a tree references another work by Haskell, an article of the same name at Emergence Magazine which is a collaborative effort, with musician Katherine Lehman and art by Studio Airport.
- Perspective is a 2017 post that touches on Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander von Humboldt, an oft-forgotten German naturalist who changed the way we all see the natural world. His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.
More to come…
The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.