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