A review of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
It is extraordinary that fungi are in our bodies and in the soil beneath our feet, yet we have no idea of what they actually do. Just as important is their potential to solve some of our knotty problems connected with the climate crisis. This is one of the most important books of the 21st century. The subject matter is one which we all ignore and most of us know nothing about. There are probably between 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungus on this planet, six to ten times more than plant species. 90% of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi on their roots.
Merlin Sheldrake has travelled widely and been to many international conferences on his specialist subject, but he looks at it also from a practical perspective in addition to an academic viewpoint. He actually goes to experience things – such as truffle hunting in Italy and growing magic mushrooms in Oregon. He has also done some serious hands-on research in Panama.
The structure of fungi
Mycelium is ecological connective tissue. It both competes with plants and nurtures them. It is like a trading system for moving food and water around the roots systems of plants and amongst its own parts. It is unique in that it branches, but then can join back to itself.
Most fungi make hyphae which are long thin strands usually matted together to make the soft tissue we can feel in mushrooms. Hyphae make mycelium. They also produce the spores that replicate into new fungi.
Fungal systems both decompose and create matter. Such a system makes decisions all the time. It appears to be intelligent but does not have a brain, although it works like one. It also works like a computer. Bio-computing is now a serious field of study.
They’re in this together
The chapter on lichens is totally absorbing. They cover 8% of the planet’s surface – more than the tropical rainforests. We all think of lichen as a type of plant, but it is actually a bunch of fungi which merged with algae which harvest light and carbon dioxide to provide the sugars needed by the fungi. Symbiosis is a word that I learned when doing A-level biology, but I haven’t thought about it much since. It was the study of lichens that first stimulated the concept of symbiosis in biology.
I find it incredible that lichens can exist in space. Experimentation on this is ongoing as they are taken up in various rockets. Possibly their living systems actually created life on earth. Soils were created from bare rocks by algae and fungal relationships. It is even speculated that some of these arrived on earth on meteorites.
The Wood-Wide Web
The discovery that trees connect to each other via the hyphae of specific fungi is already transforming forestry (see “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben). Trees of the same species communicate via these hyphae, and even help each other by warning of predators, or sending extra sugar supplies to ailing individual trees. Fungi enable a “Wood-Wide Web”!
Our current system of agriculture has tended to ignore fungi, and thus soils are depleted and poisons run off into rivers. Possibly this can be turned around to help mitigate climate change.
When it comes to mycorrhizal relationships, I found I had a packet of stuff obtained through some garden supplier, so I will see what effect it has on my plants in the allotment. I suspect that it will be a bit like rooting powder is for cuttings (which apparently doesn’t work unless it is fresh and new). It is some type of fungus which will empower the roots of my plants.
Did you know…?
There is an interesting little section on how humans were able to tolerate alcohol, courtesy of an enzyme that we acquired when we were monkeys coming down from the trees to live on the land.
Towards the end of the book are many suggestions for using fungi to solve climate change problems. There are some well-known relationships between fungi and carbon dioxide. This is referred to as Radical Mycology. Specialist fungi can be used for building works, for packaging and for dealing with refuse and as fuel for transport. They can even make fabrics and leather from these fungi.
Most fascinating are medical uses where they can be used to treat cancer, viral diseases and create vaccines. His most exciting report is of a fungus to cure the colony collapse of bees.which are, of course, essential for our food production on the planet. So expect much more research into applications of fungi in the future.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake