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Fungi are only the tip of complex networks that we are barely beginning to understand
Cocaine is now seen as bankers’ drug of choice, but it wasn’t always so. In 1955, a JP Morgan vice-president called Gordon Wasson travelled to southern Mexico in search of “the divine mushroom”.
With the help of local medicine women, Wasson had a series of hallucinogenic experiences that would transform his life. His account, published in Life magazine, popularised the effects of magic mushrooms and stimulated a wave of research.
Hallucinogenic visions are just one of the many startling properties of fungi. As Merlin Sheldrake recounts in Entangled Life, fungi can be turned into food, furniture and pharmaceuticals; they can break down substances from wood to TNT; they can connect trees and make ecosystems. Fungi may even reshape our understanding of the possibilities of life.
Mushrooms are only the tip of the iceberg, the fruit of what are often huge fungal networks, stretching many miles underground. The fungal kingdom extends to truffles, yeast, slime moulds — and the microbiota found in our intestines.
Sheldrake argues that we have long neglected fungi, starting with university departments that lump them together with plants, rather than giving them the status that a separate kingdom deserves.
Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who created our system for classifying plants and animals, thought some mushrooms were not separate beings at all — but houses made by insects.
Sheldrake is a biologist who did his doctoral research in Panama on how fungi and plants exchange nutrients. While there, he found himself teased by Dutch ecologists who were studying the more academically respectable subject of carbon capture.
In this book, he exacts friendly revenge by showing how fungi are central to the natural world. More than 90 per cent of plants depend on mycorrhiza — a symbiotic relationship with fungi, which pass nitrogen, phosphorus and other substances to the plants in exchange for sugars and lipids. Lichens, which are a symbiosis of fungus and an algae or bacteria, cover 8 per cent of the planet’s surface. Meanwhile, a fungal disease has been destroying amphibian populations worldwide.
Sheldrake devotes much of his book to the symbiosis between fungi and plants. A single fungal network may connect many different trees, raising intriguing questions of how it shares the nutrients between them. Fungi are not just passive pipelines; they are “able to manage the transport on their network”. But our agricultural methods ignore the role of fungi: we apply fertilisers that damage fungi, and develop crop varieties that don’t take the vital symbiosis into account.
Entangled Life fits in a growing family of work that expands our conception of the living world. Compared with writers who specialise in mammals, birds, bees, octopuses and even trees, Sheldrake faces an uphill struggle in developing a connection with his subject. His efforts to overcome fungi’s otherness — “I never behave more like a fungus than when I’m investigating them,” he writes at one point — are valiant but not always convincing.
He does, however, successfully present fungi as counterpoints. Fungi, he argues, challenge our notions of individuality and decision-making. They don’t have brains, but do appear to have a form of memory. Mycelia — the branching part of some fungi — are expert maze-solvers: when they meet an obstacle in the soil, they divide to find the quickest way around it.
“What shape is mycelium?” writes Sheldrake. “It’s like asking what shape water is.” Perhaps the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters should have adopted “Be Fungi” as their slogan, rather than “Be Water”. The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize
Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.
Entangled Life is itself a little shapeless; the narrative sometimes doubles back on itself. Nonetheless, it is laced with intriguing details — some fungal spores are dispersed at up to 100km per hour; some fungi catch worms in nooses; the oldest known lichen is 9,000 years old.
There is also the zombie fungus, which can control carpenter ants, forcing them to climb a plant and to clamp on to a major vein. Once the ant has performed its role, the fungus digests the luckless creature, and spreads its own spores.
Wasson, the JP Morgan banker, was so taken with fungi that he divided all Indo-European people into two cultures — mycophobes, who are ignorant of the fungal world, and mycophiles, who know it and love it. Sheldrake makes the case for shifting ourselves a little towards the latter.
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake, Bodley Head RRP£20, 368 pages