Review: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

All most of us see of fungi are mushrooms, those weird things that “overnight, very/whitely, discreetly… acquire the air“. I have to admit to being slightly disturbed by fungi, perhaps even a bit frightened of them, even as I am drawn to them. Fungi inhabit a halfway-house between animals and plants. Like animals they eat other organisms, like plants they sprawl and root (technically they closer to animals than plants). Fungi are aliens, but they are also uncanny. Merlin Sheldrake might describe this attitude as “mycophobic”, and locate it in historical divide between the mushroom lovers and fearers. 

Sheldrake, a biologist and writer, was awarded his Phd for studying the relationships between fungi and plants in tropical forests. Entangled Life, his first book, is a mind-expanding journey into the world of fungi. Despite their astonishing abundance, importance and diversity (2.2-3.8 million species), less than 10% have been described. Our view of nature has a vast, fungus-shaped labyrinth in it that we’ve barely begun to explore. 

Mushrooms are actually an unusual state of being for a fungus. The majority of fungi don’t produce mushrooms, and those that do spend the vast majority of their lives as something much stranger, a mycelium. Mycelia are like roots, or webs, or a city rail network, or the internet, or a brain (these are just some of the metaphors Sheldrake uses). They are networked bodies, and, as Sheldrake so compellingly argues, they an opportunity to overhaul our ideas about self and other, about the boundaries between individuals, ourselves and the rest of nature. If only we could comprehend them.

Entangled Life begins with truffles, those fungi that “speak a language so piercing and simple that even we can understand it”. It is an eye-opening introduction. Truffles are the fruiting bodies of a mycorrhizal fungus, fungi that form codependent relationships with plants. They only form after the fungus mates (truffles have two sexes, positive and negative. Either can make a truffle, but sexual reproduction requires a fungus from each sex). The prized scent of a truffle, enough to drive humans and animals wild, is a product of its microbiome, the ecosystem of other bacteria and fungi that live with it. “Truffles’ affairs,” Sheldrake write, “Quickly unspool into entire ecosystems. Scientific understanding hasn’t yet caught up.” 

In following chapters Sheldrake investigates the behaviour of mycelia, the split personalities of the organisms we think of as lichens (the product of a dynamic relationship between fungi and algae), the psychedelic compounds some fungi make, and the Wood Wide Web, the much-celebrated network of fungi that binds together forests, made infamous through those scenes in James Cameron’s Avatar in which the extraterrestrial Na’vi people literally plug their minds into the forest. He considers whether the decompositional powers of fungi might help solve some of our greatest ecological challenges, particularly waste. 

Sheldrake writes that he set out to create a “portrait of this neglected branch of the tree of life”. Even at its least speculative, it succeeds in nearly every sentence. It is a book that overwhelms with its sheer density of astonishing information. Did you know that 400 million years ago, a time when plants had yet to colonise the land, there were two-storey mushrooms? That 60% of industrial enzymes are made by fungi? That, if unspooled, the mycelia in a gram of soil might reach for 10 kilometres? 

But Sheldrake wants to go further, he wants to “loosen some of your certainties”, find new ways to imagine the lives of other organisms. Western science, he writes, sees it as “a mistake to imagine that there is anything deliberate about most non-human interactions.” While there are dangers in anthropomorphism, Sheldrake suggests that it is not a stretch to say that fungi can smell (by detecting chemicals in the soil), see (they can detect and orientate themselves toward light), and maybe, just maybe, “think” (fungal mycelia certainly behave in “brain-like” ways, possibly even using electrical impulses to transmit information). 

It sounds like someone has been hitting the ‘shrooms, and Sheldrake admits early on to enrolling in a clinical LSD trial to pursue different ways of understanding the lives of fungi (“I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another”). Much of  the little we know about fungi is the product of the amateurs, many of those pursuing the heightened experiences psilocybin induces. This chemical, Sheldrake writes, probably evolved to control the minds of other organisms in order to aide the fungus’ reproduction, as in the infamous “zombie” fungi that take over insect minds and then erupt from their bodies, a bad trip for sure. But psilocybin and other psychedelic compounds also offer remarkable potential as a therapy for mental illness, and after falling afoul of regulators are now back in the labs as object of serious scientific investigation. 

Sheldrake’s chapters on mycorrhizae (literally “fungal roots”) are emblematic of his approach throughout. Mycorrhizal relationships have recently captured our imaginations, not just through Hollywood, but the work of German forester Peter Wohlleben, and more recently still, Richard Power’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory. These works often describe forests in utopian terms, trees that nurture their sick and dying, and even prop up their competitors. Sheldrake rigorously applies science to these ideas, and although he doesn’t dismiss them, he argues that the picture is still more complicated. While it is true that trees appear to pass nutrients between them via fungi, it’s not yet clear how fungi mediate these relationships and to what end.

Rather than falling into an overly scientific or anthropomorphic depiction, Sheldrake embraces uncertainty, and suggests that by approaching these scientific problems through a fungal perspective, we might come up with better questions. It’s a refreshing approach that I haven’t encountered in nature of scientific writing before. Notes and references take up nearly a quarter of the book’s page length, and if I had one quibble, it’s that some of the notes deserved a spot in the main text. But that would detract from Sheldrake’s artistic inquiry. Entangled Life is also a work of narrative analysis, a questioning of the “stories we use to make sense of the world”.

“I was,” he writes:

intoxicated with a story, comforted by it, constrained by it, dissolved in it, made senseless by it, weighed down by it

and doesn’t that precisely dissect all the potential and pitfalls of stories? More than offering a resolved picture of these very strange lifeforms, Sheldrake wants to provoke questions, expand thinking and language. It’s a trip well worth taking. 

Gay rating: 1/5 for “queer theory for lichens“, a way “for humans to think beyond a rigid binary framework”.

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