Book Review: Entangled Life

Funny the difference a word makes.

Restaurants generally don’t advertise “fungi” on their menus.

But “mushrooms” and “truffles” are a different story. Even though they are the same thing.

Which leads me to a book that took me out of the animal kingdom and into the fungi kingdom, a far more populous and less understood kingdom and one upon which the plant and animal kingdoms depend upon for their (our) survival.

In this amazingly thought-provoking book, author Merlin Sheldrake guides us around this strange kingdom, getting to know a number of fungi species.

Fungi are decentralized organisms, with no heads, nor hearts but the uncanny ability to successfully navigate mazes and punch their ways through pavement. Some glow in the dark. Others emerge from the earth periodically in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies that we humans prize.

Reading this book will make you question the nature of intelligence, for many of the accomplishments of these nearly invisible creatures is hard to comprehend. Sheldrake writes:

Biological realities are never black-and-white. Why should the stories and metaphors we use to make sense of the world–our investigative tools–be so? Might we be able to expand some of our concepts, such that speaking might not always require a mouth, hearing might not always require ears, and interpreting might now always require a nervous system? Are we able to do this without smothering other life-forms with prejudice and innuendo?

Sheldrake takes us along with truffle hunters in Europe and Oregon, relying on the noses of dogs to sniff out truffles, which have evolved scents intended to attract, well, strong-nosed animals. Animals, and, yes, even pigs, eat truffles and spread them to new locations by way of poop.

We learn about how so many of our modern medicines are created by fungus, including the increasingly popular psilocybins. And I did not realize the extent to which our ancestors enjoyed the occasional magic mushroom.

And while fungi are small, they work together in ways that blur the divide between singular and plural. The largest fungi, in the Malheur National Forest, stretches for more than 2,000 acres, making the largest living organism on the planet.

Fungi is the connective tissue of soil. It lives on us, within us and we could not live without it.

But we’re also doing a pretty good job of trying to kill it — by way of dumping poisons into the soil in the name of fertilizer and pesticide. Sheldrake writes:

Mycorrhizal fungi increase the volume of water that the soil can absorb, reducing the quantity of nutrients leached out of the soil by rainfall by as much as fifty percent. Of the carbon that is found in soils–which, remarkably, amounts to twice the amount of carbon found in plants and the atmosphere combined–a substantial proportion is bound up in tough organic compounds produced by mycorrhizal fungi … Besides the hundreds or thousands of meters of fungal mycelium in a teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more bacteria, protists, insects, and arthropods than the number of humans who have ever lived on earth.

If we humans wish to stick around on earth we had better become better stewards of the soil and the fungi holding our world together. If you want to expand your mind — without magic mushrooms — I highly recommend reading Entangled Life.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Makes Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures
Merlin Sheldrake
Random House

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