Entangled Life: Zombie ants, psychedelic trips, even a Star Trek connection

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin SheldrakeEntangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin SheldrakeEntangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures (2020), by Merlin Sheldrake, is an always informative and often fascinating look at the (mostly) hidden world of fungi. There’s a lot more to them than those shitakes you’re adding to your stir-fry and Sheldrake makes for an enthusiastic tour guide to all that lies beyond the edible mushroom (though he touches on those too).

Sheldrake begins with truffles (he goes on a truffle hunt with a couple of dogs and their trainer) and uses this early part to introduce us to the basics of fungal life and their development on Earth. Like the entirety of the book, this section is filled with choice details (a 2 to 8000-yr-old fungus in Oregon taking up ten square kilometers and weighing in at hundreds of tons, the fungi growing on the remains at Chernobyl, the amount of fungal spores in the air, etc.).

You’re bound to find something that astonishes or fascinates or simply surprises you (like the connection to Star Trek), every few pages but Sheldrake doesn’t simply offer up nuggets of neat trivia. He moves from these fine details into bigger concepts, much as the fungi form networks of mycelia. Everything is connected is perhaps the biggest theme, and Sheldrake does a masterful job of painstakingly illustrating that concept.

So, we get the connections between fungi and trees, cutely but not inaccurately labeled the “Wood Wide Web.” The ways fungi manipulate other creatures, such as zombie suicide ants — the things of nightmares and horror films (and if you think we’re immune, think of how our love of altered experiences has gotten us to make more fermenting yeasts or “magic mushrooms”). The way fungi scorn our categorizing minds’ attempts to label everything and neatly put things in their place by blurring the idea of boundaries, between sexes, between species, between organisms. As Sheldrake muses as one point:

Can we think about a plant without also thinking about the mycorrhizal networks that lace outward — extravagantly — from its roots into the soil. If we follow the tangled sprawl of mycelium that emanates from its roots, then where do we stop? … Do we think about the neighboring fungal networks that fuse with those of our plant? … The other plants whose roots share the very same fungal network?

Sheldrake also offers up some more grounded, pragmatic explorations. The use of fungi in health care for instance (a history dating back thousands of years). Or on a larger scale, its use in healing the world of the scars we have inflicted on it by using fungi’s unmatched ability to filter and/or break things down, such as pesticides or toxic metals and chemicals (“mycofiltration”). Or the new field of “mycofabrication” which uses the properties of mycelium to replace other materials, such as Styrofoam packaging or even brick and concrete. Mycelium, after all, is “lightweight, flame resistant, fire retardant, stronger than concrete when subjected to bending forces… better insulating than polystyrene and can be grown in a matter of days into an unlimited number of forms.”

But don’t just take Sheldrake’s word for it. Nasa is looking into “Mycotecture” as a means of building moon structures and DARPA has funded a company called Ecovative to look into “growing” temporary housing for soldiers or natural disaster victims. And in a nice touch of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is with regards to fungi’s practical uses, the illustrations in the book are drawn with the ink of the coprinus mushroom.

Despite his enthusiasm for all the above, Sheldrake is meticulous about adding any necessary caveats, always a big marker for me when evaluating the quality of a non-fiction work. In discussing the “network” concept of the Wood Wide Web, for instance, he also quotes those who dismiss the concept as a bit of scientific hyperbole and he offers the same counterpoints to the claim that plants warn other plants of distress, say from attacking insects. While detailing the many possible uses of fungi in the medical, agricultural, or industrial worlds, he doesn’t shy away from the huge difficulties in scaling up lab results to real world application. It would have been natural, in his enthusiasm, to omit or downplay these points of view, but Sheldrake always plays fair with the reader.

Besides the willingness to fully and respectfully share various viewpoints, another test for me of a good non-fiction book is whether I read the notes sections and, if I do, how fully. I read all of them. And then used some of their references to keep reading. And if making the reader want to learn more about a topic isn’t the mark of a good non-fiction work, I don’t know what is. Sheldrake does that and everything else right here. Fascinating, engaging, surprising, engrossing, thought-provoking. An excellent example of showing us how the hidden and/or mundane is never truly either.

Published in May 2020. When we think of fungi, we likely think of mushrooms. But mushrooms are only fruiting bodies, analogous to apples on a tree. Most fungi live out of sight, yet make up a massively diverse kingdom of organisms that supports and sustains nearly all living systems. Fungi provide a key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways we think, feel, and behave. In Entangled Life, the brilliant young biologist Merlin Sheldrake shows us the world from a fungal point of view, providing an exhilarating change of perspective. Sheldrake’s vivid exploration takes us from yeast to psychedelics, to the fungi that range for miles underground and are the largest organisms on the planet, to those that link plants together in complex networks known as the “Wood Wide Web,” to those that infiltrate and manipulate insect bodies with devastating precision. Fungi throw our concepts of individuality and even intelligence into question. They are metabolic masters, earth makers, and key players in most of life’s processes. They can change our minds, heal our bodies, and even help us remediate environmental disaster. By examining fungi on their own terms, Sheldrake reveals how these extraordinary organisms — and our relationships with them — are changing our understanding of how life works.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve downloaded the audiobook.

  2. think you’ll like it (there’s even a brief neuroscience reference!)

  3. Paul Connelly /

    It sounds like Farmer Maggot from The Fellowship of the Ring would quite approve of this book. Not to mention Frodo the mushroom stealer!

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