Reviews

Merlin’s magnificent mushroom masterpiece

A fascinating book examines fungi not as something apart from the rest of the world, but as something intertwined with other life on the planet.

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake, 2020. The Bodley Head.

What was Merlin Sheldrake – author of Entangled Life which book is appraised here – doing on 29th October 2019? According to the Notes and Bibliography for that book he was accessing that tome’s on-line sources; judging by the numerous resources so cited, it was a very busy day for him! And it’s that sort of attention to detail – combined with its readability – that makes Entangled Life such a stand-out publication, and outstanding example of science communication.

Overview

The goal of Entangled Life is quite straightforward, to showcase the world of fungi (which is largely-unappreciated by people). But it’s not just about fungi as if they were organisms separate from other entities on Earth. Rather, it’s about the many ways that fungi interact with other life-forms on the planet – especially humans. In that respect there is a great deal in the book that emphasises the intricate and intimate ways that fungi have influenced: the past history of our planet (in which fungi have helped green plants to colonise the land via mycorrhiza, an intimate resource-sharing association between a fungus and the root of a plant); informed our understanding of present-day ecological relationships (cue the WoodWide Web, the populist name for the extensive mycorrhizal network whereby several different plants are connected to each other by fungi); and how fungi may well be major players in helping to secure some sort of future for humanity on Earth (the potential biotechnological impact of fungi is huge, cue fungal computers, nerve-gas-digesting mushrooms, mycotecture…). Wow! Heady stuff. But for all its detailed – and numerous – examples and explanations of often quite-technical concepts, Sheldrake’s writing makes it all readily accessible and understandable. The science – and there’s a lot of it in here – is explained in a comprehensible way – making Entangled Life a great example of how science can be communicated.

A sub-heading about the sub-title…

The interactions between fungi and other life forms are numerous – and quite profound – and this dazzling degree of interconnectivity and inter-dependence justifies the book’s main title. By way of reinforcement – a well-established pedagogic concept (and which reminds me to mention how invaluable the book will be as a highly readable textbook for a mycology course, and/or any other course that aims to give an up-to-date introduction to the fungi…) – the thesaurus has been extensively-mined and synonyms for ‘entangled’ and the concept of entanglement such as enmesh, tangled, bound up, inter-connected, intertwining, entwine, are used abundantly throughout the text. If that leaves you thinking that you can’t fully disentangle fungi* from everything else on the planet, you’d be right – and Sheldrake will have done his ‘job’. And this knowledge will also justify the book’s sub-title How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures.

A book I’d love to call mine own…

Were I inclined to write a book about fungi, then Entangled Life is the book I’d liked to have written. Now, I don’t need to; Dr Sheldrake has done the deed for me – and all of us. And what a fantabulous, fact-filled, fungus-fest it is. It’s well-written with erudition, thoughtfulness, humour and humility, and full of fascinating insights** into all aspects of fungal biology that are delivered with arresting statements and quotable phrases***, and stylish text***. Entangled Life is informative, entertaining, challenging and – occasionally – provocative; it will make you wonder, think, and imagine. What more could you want in a book?

Merlin, more than a match for Money and Moore

I don’t know what it is about fungi, but that subject seems to bring out some of the best botanical writing I’ve read. Accordingly, Merlin Sheldrake now joins the likes of such marvellous myco-writers and educators as Nicholas Money and David Moore as a fully-fledged fungal tale-teller extraordinaire. But, not only is he a mycologist (one who studies fungi), Sheldrake is also a bit of a ‘character’. After all, what’s not to admire about somebody who took part in an LSD drug trial, or who appears to have committed the most outrageous apple-stealing escapade of all time when he – and some co-conspirators – ‘liberated’ enough fruit from Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree (entrusted to the care and safety of the University of Cambridge’s botanic garden) to make 30 litres of juice that was duly fermented into a heady brew which scrumper ****-supremo Sheldrake cheekily christened ‘gravity’, or who ‘seeded’ a copy of Entangled Life with mushroom spores and ate the mushrooms that grew up from it?

A note about the pictures

Having heaped sufficient – and justified – praise on the text of Entangled Life, it is appropriate to mention the illustrations that adorn several of the book’s pages. Contributed by Collin Elder, they were – fittingly, but unusually – created with black ink made from Coprinus mushrooms*****. And, for balance, there’s also a set of (mostly) coloured illustrations grouped together near the middle of the book.

Pedagogic credentials – general

Entangled Life is in two parts: approx. 250 pages of main text, and >100 pages of Notes, Bibliography, and Index. Entangled Life is therefore an academic text, but – and importantly – one that is very readable. The main text is divided into an Introduction, and 8 main Chapters. Although each of those can be read as stand-alone sections, there are plenty of links between them as the author shows how intertwined are many aspects of fungal biology, ecology and biotechnology. Space prevents a summary of each section here, but particular highlights for me are the Introduction (which gives enough facts and ideas for a whole course in mycology), the thoughtful and superb Chapter 3 on lichen (an intimate association of photosynthetic partners – cyanobacteria and/or green algae – and fungus/i)) , Chapter 5 which is devoted to ‘true’ mycorrhiza, and Chapter 6 which deals with the enhanced, expanded and enlarged mycorrhizal entity known as the woodwide web (WWW). Quite rightly, mention of this relatively-recently-recognised and still under-studied and -appreciated entanglement of underground interconnections between fungi and plants looms large throughout the book, and Entangled Life is a great introduction to this phenomenon.

An unexpected ‘Aha! moment’

Although I’d been aware of the wood-wide web for several years, I hadn’t managed to find the ultimate source of that term. I’m happy to say that Entangled Life gave me an answer (but which I’m not going to share here and spoil your own chance to be enlightened by reading the book!).

Pedagogic credentials – referencing specifically

In Entangled Life, most paragraphs that contain ideas or statements or concepts attributable to others – and which therefore require a source to be noted – have a super-scripted number at their ends******. Those numbers link to Notes – listed by chapter towards the back of the book – which expand upon the in-text ideas with additional information and supporting references that can be followed-up from the book’s extensive Bibliography. Entangled Life can therefore be read – and enjoyed – on several levels – as an informative, fun-to-read text keeping to the 250 main pages, or with excursions into the more-detailed notes, and maybe following-up some of the Bibliography’s items for added-value. Generally, Entangled life is very well-referenced – something you know I like to see. And with >450 references in the Bibliography having publication dates post-2010 – this is a very up-to-date book. But! Arguably, the most important statement – that “Today, over 90 per cent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi” (p. 4) – wasn’t referenced. However, the article by Mark Brundrett & Ledo Tedersoo (New Phytologist 220(4): 1108-1115, 2018; doi: 10.1111/nph.14976) – that is cited by Sheldrake to support another fact in the book – is probably as good a source as any for this ‘statistic’. Another important reference that appears absent is the one to support the assertion that plants have “between fifteen and twenty different senses…” (p. 150). Such a quotable ‘fact’ – which I’m more than happy to believe – deserves a source. And I’ve noted several other places where sources for statements were needed but not found within the book. So, Entangled Life is not perfect on that score, but does much better than many other academic texts out there.

Dodgy statements

A major issue for those who aspire to communicate science or scientific ideas to the general public is the degree of ‘simplification’ that can be justified or is required to convey complex concepts in a comprehensible way with clarity and correctness. Generally, Sheldrake does that very well. However, his definition of photosynthesis as “the process by which plants eat light and carbon dioxide from the air” (p. 12) is, to say the least, ‘interesting’. And badly-worded at best, wrong at worst is the statement regarding the acquisition by ancient cells of the precursors of mitochondria that are described as entities with the “ability to make energy from oxygen” (p. 92).

Curing ‘fungus blindness’..?

Entangled Life is informative, entertaining, challenging and – occasionally – provocative; it will make you wonder, think, and imagine. What more could you want in a book? [Yes, that is repetition/reinforcement.] And, if this book helps to cure the condition known as ‘fungus blindness’ [the inability to recognise fungi in the environment and/or appreciate their importance], as predicted by Nicholas Talbot (Nature Plants 6: 1068–1069, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-00767-z), then so much the better. After all, ridding the world of myco-myopia is as important as saving humanity from the condition formerly-known as ‘plant blindness’.

Summary

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake is amazing! It’s probably the most intriguing, interesting and engrossing book on fungi I’ve read – ever: Everyone should read it. If it doesn’t change your view of fungi I’ll be very surprised (and disappointed!).


Notes

* And, at an estimated 2.6 – 3.8 million species (see Sheldrake-cited article by David Hawksworth & Robert Lücking, microbiolspec July 2017 vol. 5 no. 4; doi:10.1128/microbiolspec.FUNK-0052-2016), there’s an awful lot of fungi to ‘untangle’…

** Fascinating insights from Entangled Life include the following [NB I’ve not added references for all of these items – either from Entangled Life or elsewhere – I’ve got to leave you something to explore for yourself in the book!…], that: The Ancient Romans had a god of mildew, called Robigus; There are fungi that ‘eat’ radiation (e.g. Sheldrake-cited sources Ekaterina Dadachova & Arturo Casadevall, Curr Opin Microbiol. 11(6): 525–531, 2008; doi: 10.1016/j.mib.2008.09.013; Arturo Casedevall et al., microbiolspec March 2017 vol. 5 no. 2; doi:10.1128/microbiolspec.FUNK-0037-2016); Leaf-trapping fungi exist (e.g. Jake Snaddon et al., Biol. Lett. 8: 397–400, 2012; doi:10.1098/rsbl.2011.1115); Lichen is a principal ingredient in the food-flavouring garam masala (see e.g. here, and here); Lichens colonise 8% of the Earth’s surface, an area bigger than that occupied by tropical forests; Some lichens are >9000 years old; There is a phenomenon known as the Carboniferous rainforest collapse (see e.g. Emma Dunne et al., 2018, Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20172730; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2730); Birch trees transferred to fir trees 6% of the labelled carbon they had taken up in photosynthesis via the underground tree-tree connections provided by fungus mycelium [my emphasis] (Sheldrake-cited source, Suzanne Simard et al., Nature 388: 579–582, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1038/41557) – a graphic demonstration of the potential of the woodwide web; Mycorrhiza can provide up to 80% of the hosting plant’s nitrogen, and as much as 100% of its phosphorus (in return, plants allocate up to 30% of the carbon they harvest to their fungal partner); “Globally, the total length of mycorrhizal hyphae in the top ten centimetres of soil is around half the width of our galaxy…” (p. 142); Fungal highways allow bacteria to enter otherwise inaccessible sites of decay; African termites – and their associated wood-digesting fungi – were ‘weaponised’ against occupying French forces in coastal west Africa; and mycorrhiza are mentioned – although not by name – in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings… And there are many, many more great facts and astounding statements about fungi throughout the book.

*** Arresting statements/quotable phrases/stylish text from Entangled Life include the following: “anarchic filigree of mycelium” (p. 7); “which overlap with one another like ghosts at a disco” (p. 33); “What we call “plants” are in fact fungi that have evolved to farm algae, and algae that have evolved to farm fungi.” (p. 142); and “Yeasts are both makers and breakers of human social orders” (p. 229).

**** Scrumping is a term – apparently, of West Country origin – that refers to the act of ‘foraging’ for apples – which usually means taking them from a tree that is either not owned by the scrumper or is one over which s/he has no rights or legitimate claims to the fruit, i.e. it is theft.

***** Though it’s probably best not to put the pen-nib or brush in your mouth if using ink-cap ink and drinking – or have recently consumed – alcohol (see here, here, and here)…

****** Although this ‘fix’ is quite efficient for a work that aspires to be readable by a broad audience, Sheldrake’s ‘end-of-paragraph’ referencing style is not one I recommend to students learning the craft of evidence-based science writing – please show your source(s) alongside each statement, not lumped together at the end of a multi-concept paragraph.

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