Elevating Fungus:‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’

A Review: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, Random House 2020

The northeastern United States is now covered in a blanket of snow. Under the snow is a layer of frozen grass. Under the grass is a layer of dirt and within the dirt is a network of roots supporting the grass and surrounding plants and trees. And intertwined within the vast number of roots is an endless network of gossamer thin fibrils connecting root to root and one tree to the next, built by the true unsung hero of the world’s terrestrial ecosystem: fungus.

Yes, fungus.

Emerging research has shown that our forests are supported by a large underground mycelial entanglement of fungal fibrils that enable trees to communicate with one another, shifting molecular resources from tree to tree as needed and serving as a communication network to help one tree alert another of impending danger.

Merlin Sheldrake in his first book, ‘Entangled Life, How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds & shape our futures’, is an ideal guide to the world of fungi. “For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by fungi and the transformations they provoke,” Sheldrake writes, “A solid log becomes soil, a lump of dough rises into bread, a mushroom erupts overnight-but how?”, he continues. Sheldrake studied plant science as an undergraduate student at Cambridge and received a PhD studying the interaction of fungal filaments (mycorrhizal relationships), going on to study thousands of soil samples to study their DNA among other research projects.

Entangled Life takes readers on a veritable tour round the planet and beyond of the world of fungi, including a description of their ability to survive a round trip to outer space. Sheldrake describes in vivid detail how fungi are “decomposers” whether that be of wood, rock or an organism such as the carpenter ant. The fungus Ophiocordyceps camponoti-nidulantis routinely infects the ants but from the inside out. The picture of the infected ant with white fungus growing out of its body is memorable, trust me. 

The book opens as the author tags along with a professional truffle hunter and his truffle smelling dog in the hill country of Bologna, Italy searching for Tuber magnatum, white truffles . Sheldrake focuses on the truffles, translated in many languages he says as “testicles,” in part because of their rarefied role in the culinary world, partly because of their exorbitant cost and partly because, well, they are just really interesting as a fungus. Researchers have puzzled as to how the truffles communicate their smell from below ground and have suggested it is due at least partly to the odiferous molecule they contain, methyl sulfide. Sheldrake shares scientific detail without overwhelming the reader, sprinkling chemical or latin names as flavoring, like grated truffles, to season the main dish, the story of how intrinsic fungi of all types are to our world.

One chapter focuses on psilocybin, or, what is known in the category of mind bending drugs as a ‘magic mushroom’. In this case, it actually is a mushroom and Sheldrake traces psilocybin’s history from its use in the coronation of the Aztec emperor in 1486 up to 2016 when both Johns Hopkins and New York University separately studied the drug as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Scientists are still not completely sure how mushrooms affect our brain chemistry. As enthusiastic as Sheldrake is for each impressive property of fungi whether it be their ability to create an odor or alter consciousness, he focuses much of his attention explaining how fungi create expansive webs of interactions linking one organism to another and another.

The heart of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter that challenges us to compare the world wide web we know as the internet to the interconnected subterranean network of fungal fibers which shuttle valuable resources from tree root to tree root, a network now referred to by the popular media as the wood wide web. Mycorrhizal networks can shuttle carbon and sugars between the roots of different trees and even serve as “highways for bacteria to migrate around the obstacle course of the soil” Sheldrake writes. The comparisons to the internet are striking and Entangled Life cites research showing the interconnectedness between a stand of Douglas fir trees studied in one small forest plot. The larger trees in the forest plot had more underground fungal connections than younger smaller trees, just as select pages on the web are immensely more connected than other pages. Developing the theme of connectedness further, the author goes on to cite additional research which draws comparisons between fungal networks and neural networks in the human brain.

Not all scientists agree that the wood wide web is crucial to ecological life and in true scientific method Sheldrake is careful to cite dissenting opinions about its actual importance for survival of a forest ecosystem. He steers clear of over simplification of a topic that continues to yield new findings. Yet while it is clear that the author believes the hidden world of fungal filaments has an important story to tell, he remains objective about the questions that remain to be proved. 

“How best to think about mycorrhizal networks then? Are we dealing with a super organism? A metropolis? A living Internet?Nursery School for trees?….All are problematic.”

In additional pages and chapters the author describes the symbiotic world of fungi and bacteria, new research about the multi faceted world of lichens which include at least a fungus and an algae and he dives into the world of fermentation including his experiences making his own mead and other fermented foods. And the book contains amazing color plates of fungi in various forms and magnifications. Each page of Entangled Life shares a cornucopia of information about fungi, almost making the point itself that fungi are indeed dynamic and beckon study and not merely inanimate sessile objects to be only either ignored or eaten. Overall, Sheldrake elucidates the world of not only fungi and their connectedness but indeed awakens the reader to the “polyphonic swarms of plants, fungi and bacteria that make up our homes and our worlds.”

Howard E Friedman

-30-

“Classic story revised: lichens are fungus + algae + yeast (another fungus)”

I have been a fan of the lowly lichens for some time but have found studying them in any detail quite daunting. Now it turns out that even the expert lichenologists have been stumped, according to a new paper just published in Science. The paper, which I read about in the blog Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago, explains the new research in his blog post, including his pictures from Wikipedia, linked below.

Briefly, it turns out that some or possibly many lichens are not just a symbiotic relationship between fungus and an algal species, cyanobacteria, but also include a third partner- yeast. This finding will explain why researchers have not been able to grow lichen in the lab, as they were leaving out a key ingredient.

Dr. Coyne does a good job of summarizing the findings in his blog post below. But, even if you do not read further, hopefully your interest and respect for these quiet members of the great outdoors will only grow.

One of the classic stories of biology, taught to virtually every student, is the fact that what we call “lichens” are actually a combination of two very distantly related species: a species of alga and a species of fungus. (Sometimes the “alga” is really a species of cyanobacteria, formerly called “blue green algae” but not really […]

via Classic story revised: lichens are fungus + algae + yeast (another fungus) — Why Evolution Is True

Off the Trail: California – Paradise Burning – The New Yorker

This is my second re-post from The New Yorker in one month, a practice I hope  not to rely on. But, the following video, by Sky Dylan-Robbins of The New Yorker illustrating a piece written by Dana Goodyear in the current issue, about the effect of the severe drought on California’s food basket farm lands, delivers a real jolt, especially if you live in a verdant part of the world, shielded from dire water scarcity. For United States citizens who consume a lot of food from California, this drought will likely have real implications: food prices going up is the best case scenario. Food scarcity is the other real possible outcome.

It’s interesting to hear the seasoned California sheepherder Martin Etchamendy who is interviewed, an older man with sunburned chiseled facial features, the lines in his face shaded just a bit by his large straw cowboy hat. “Water, we need water. Water, water, water,” he says gesturing emphatically toward the opening of the 7 minute long video. “Sometimes,”, he continues later in the piece, ” it is easy to forget who produces the food”.

As the Jewish people gather to mark the new year this week, may “Who Produces the Food” shower His countenance favorably upon us and the entire world.

California: Paradise Burning – The New Yorker.

Off the trail: A fresh look at dirt.

I have hiked or run on dirt trails for a number of years now so it is odd to look at dirt in a new way. But now, I am careful where I tread on the dirt, lest I stomp on and kill a seedling.

A few weeks ago I was assigned a community garden plot. I did not receive the news until almost the end of June so it was a real race to find seeds to purchase, till the soil and plant my garden. By the middle of July, late one night after work, after dark, my garden was fully planted. I opened the spigot and jiggled my thumb over the end of the hose to create an arcing spray. By the light of my headlamp,  globules of water looked like pearls in the beam of light, disappearing silently into the dirt. With a great deal of good fortune I might just get a crop of corn, lettuce, carrots and zucchini in the early fall.

Now on summer evenings I am drawn to my garden like I used to be drawn to the dirt on the trail. But now I am not interested in how much ground I can cover and what I might see along the way. Rather, I am interested in how much I can grow out of this plot of earth.

Surprising as it might seem, gardening in any organized way, and certainly modern corporate farming, is relatively new to the human race. What with homo sapiens dating back almost 200,000 years ago, anthropologists believe that we humans only began to actually plant seeds to grow food sometime around ten thousand years ago. We gathered plants, fruits and nuts to eat prior to that. But cultivating an understanding of gardening took many, many years.

Indeed, scientists explain that at first human ancestors practiced not agriculture, the planting of seeds in cleared plots of lands, but rather vegeculture, that is planting a seed or two outside of the cave entrance in an available clearing. Only after years of experience with vegeculture did humans develop the ideas and concepts which ultimately led to modern gardening and farming: clearing tracts of land, mass planting of seeds and watering and fertilizing the crops.

When hiking along the dirt trail in the forest I pass through the land. Now I  myself am rooted to the soil, fingers deep into the dirt, like tendrils of a seedling. I tread lightly, checking each step again and again so as not to stray onto the tiny emerging sprouts.  And though I stay by my hundred square foot space, the experience is immersive, expansive, not claustrophobic or limiting. And I leave with a similar sense of calm I get from time spent deep in the woods.

The dirt is common to both the trail and garden.   It is an alluvial silty outwash from rocky sediment, mixed in with composted lichen and forest litter, serving as a home to thousands of microbes, yielding a magic carpet that bedizens our forests and farms and helps nourish a planet. And we should respect this life giving resource. Now well into the summer of 2014 we are inundated with painful news of planes falling from the sky killing all aboard, school girls gone missing, teenage boys abducted and murdered, conflicts around the globe, in Ukraine and Israel and Gaza. Body counts of killed and wounded climb.Mourners’ tears water cemetery grass. One response to ongoing conflict will ultimately come from the soil, which will outlast all combatants and go on in the fullness of time to hide the remnants of the warfare we wage. American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) recognized the power of the soil to hide the horrible in his poem Grass. For Sandburg, the grass hid the memories. Perhaps we the citizens of the earth can learn to till hope from the soil, instead:

Grass

BY CARL SANDBURG

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                          I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                          What place is this?
                                          Where are we now?
                                          I am the grass.
                                          Let me work.
Howard E. Friedman