Merlin Sheldrake wants us to understand the genius of fungi

By | June 8, 2023

Jennifer Kahn writes:

One evening last winter, Merlin Sheldrake, the mycologist and author of the best-selling book “Entangled Life,” was headlining an event in London’s Soho. The night was billed as a “salon,” and the crowd, which included the novelist Edward St. Aubyn, was elegant and arty, with lots of leggy women in black tights and men in perfectly draped camel’s-hair coats. “Entangled Life” is a scientific study of all things fungal that reads like a fairy tale, and since the book’s publication in 2020, Sheldrake has become a coveted speaker.

At talks like these, Sheldrake is sometimes asked to answer a question he poses in the first chapter of his book: What is it like to be a fungus? The answer, at least according to Sheldrake, is at once alien and wondrous. “If you had no head, no heart, no center of operations,” he began. “If you could taste with your whole body. If you could take a fragment of your toe or your hair and it would grow into a new you — and hundreds of these new yous could fuse together into some impossibly large togetherness. And when you wanted to get around, you would produce spores, this little condensed part of you that could travel in the air.” There were nods. In the audience, the woman next to me gave a long, affirming hum.

“Entangled Life” has turned Sheldrake, who is 36, into a kind of human ambassador for the fungal kingdom: the face of fungi. He has flown to the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania to shoot an IMAX movie, narrated by Björk, that is screening this summer. Shortly after his London talk, he was scheduled to leave for Tierra del Fuego, where he would join a group sampling fungi on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), a conservation-and-advocacy organization founded by the ecologist Colin Averill and the biologist Toby Kiers. Sheldrake described the trip as part of the group’s effort to map the global diversity of mycorrhizae, which help plants and trees survive, and to establish protections for fungi. (In the United States, just two fungi, both lichens, are protected under the Endangered Species Act.)

Like many small organisms, fungi are often overlooked, but their planetary significance is outsize. Plants managed to leave water and grow on land only because of their collaboration with fungi, which acted as their root systems for millions of years. Even today, roughly 90 percent of plants and nearly all the world’s trees depend on fungi, which supply crucial minerals by breaking down rock and other substances. They can also be a scourge, eradicating forests — Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight are fungi — and killing humans. (Romans used to pray to Robigus, the god of mildew, to guard their crops against plagues.) At times, they even seem to think. When Japanese researchers released slime molds into mazes modeled on Tokyo’s streets, the molds found the most efficient route between the city’s urban hubs in a day, instinctively recreating a set of paths almost identical to the existing rail network. When put in a miniature floor map of Ikea, they quickly found the shortest route to the exit.

“Entangled Life” is full of these sorts of details, but it’s also deeply philosophical: a living argument for interdependence. Without fungi, matter wouldn’t decay; the planet would be buried under layers of dead and unrotted trees and vegetation. If we had a fungi-specific X-ray vision, we would see, Sheldrake writes, “sprawling interlaced webs” strung along coral reefs in the ocean and twining intimately within “plant and animal bodies both alive and dead, rubbish dumps, carpets, floorboards, old books in libraries, specks of house dust and in canvases of old master paintings hanging in museums.” [Continue reading…]

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