Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.
I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life. While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.
Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed.
Fungi are identifiable as genetic individuals. A single individual can be confined to a solitary dust particle or cover many square miles below the land’s surface, depending on species. They live the vast majority of their lives ‘below’ our sight, in the soil or within other organisms, observable by us only with technology and inquiring minds… but for their spore producing bodies, that may burst flower-like, as mushrooms, upon the scene and disappear just as rapidly. Their bodies consist of hyphae, single celled strands of always extending growth, knitted into vast complex networks, seemingly so unlike other life forms, endlessly searching out ‘food’, appropriate fungi to ‘mate’ with and other plants and animals compatible with themselves with which they can ‘trade’ nutrients, carbon in the forms of sugars in return for phosphorous and other elemental nutrients of which they have become highly effective miners.
Sheldrake takes considerable space to define these relationships, our current knowledge of and the studies which are ongoing into the lives of fungi and what they do for us, as well as their essential roles in the ongoing experiment of life on Earth. Fungi, on earth many millions of years before either plants or animals, enable this life. They are consummate ‘social’ beings. The word, ‘entangled’, of the title refers originally to this ‘social’ aspect of life, the complex of relationships that make life not only possible, but was essential into bringing it into being. There is a lot of science here, amply footnoted and referenced in the back. This is a book that can be read through once and be valuable or one that could be studied following its leads around the earth. Sheldrake speculates, not without reason and support, that plants themselves evolved from this relationship, a joining of algae and fungi species, each contributing what it does best, each affecting the other over millions of years, algae contributing its capacity for photosynthesis, fungi its abilities to search out and find particular nutrients necessary for cell growth, developing its capacity to search across dry land and dissolve minerals from rock and soil and provide structural support.
These early ‘plants’, cooperative symbiotic systems, were much like the Lichen of today in that they were cooperative symbionts, the individuals of which have a tendency to join with said others. These relationships served the needs of each and over millions of years, ‘plants’ gradually became more fixed genetically, the ‘plant’ itself evolving with its own particular structures, continuously, each successful change providing it with the competitive advantages recognized through the process of natural selection. Sheldrake argues that fungi served an early role as proto-roots for early plants, separate, cooperative, organisms. Over enough time plants became more as they are, multi-celled structures with differentiated tissues and complex structures, still in relationship with both mycorrhizal, exterior ‘fungal roots’, as well as arbuscular, inside their tissues, fungi, all contributing to the now more complex organism we commonly recognize as an ‘individual’ of a species.
Another major element in this book is looking into how fungi conduct these complex processes and exchanges. A fungal ‘intelligence’ is at work, making constant ‘decisions’, which direction each hyphae should grow, there is a ‘random’ exploratory state, which shifts depending on the quality and quantity of area nutrients the overall mycelial structure comes into contact with, creating shifts, earlier, paths of hyphae, unproductive, become abandoned. The same goes for the process of fungal ‘mating’ and which ‘individual’ will only contribute genetic material while the other develops the spore producing body. Fungi are not male or female, but they are + or -, requiring an appropriate partner, but their sex is fluid.
Fungi form complex relationships within the soil they occupy, or within the host’s body, producing a vast array of chemicals which they use to communicate, defend themselves and attract ‘partners’, as well as in communicating with other organisms. Their mycelium form complex networks which many researchers describe as ‘brain-like’ in that their structure resembles the complex pattern of animals brains, though there is no such recognizable organ itself, the network of mycelium being analog. Organic networks like these have been demonstrated to perform as ‘decision gates’ much as they do in the neural networks those studying artificial intelligence do. How fungi make their decisions, which way to grow, which fungi to mate with, with which other organism will they trade and how do they establish a ‘price’ or exchange value, a value which is not fixed, is a mystery. Other researchers, like forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, expands this concept of a ‘ brain-like’ nerve system to what is sometimes being referred to as the ‘Wood Wide Web’, a system of fungal mycelium and roots that fill every cubic centimeter of soil with which connected members conduct an elaborate system of trade between individuals and species, a complex network, Simard and others argue, is largely responsible for the health of a forest, a network that senses and responds to the conditions within the organisms themselves as well as the soil and the ambient conditions within which all of this exists.
Sheldrake, and others, would argue that such networks affect, not just the health of individual members, but may even determine a given biotic community’s conditions and quality of life, its state of health. These relationships they argue, can be viewed as analogous to a climate system in terms of its nutrient cycling and the members of its community. Like the weather these countless organisms are networked in such a way that they behave in negative and positive feedback loops, switches, that maintain a soil in a dynamic state, adjusting itself in response to the many factors in play from moment to moment, delivering nutrients from areas of plenty to those of need. Change any of the species, plant, animal or fungi and the balance of the soil community and nutrient balance will change. Interestingly this balance has been found to be thrown grossly out of balance by modern chemical agriculture, typical cultural practices and even the use of lab produced fungal strains that can ‘tilt’ the balance away from a more healthy dynamic. Each species of mycorrhizal fungi brings something different to the biotic community and the dominance of one over another can undermine the balance of a given plant community…all is linked.
Fungi accomplish this physically in a variety of ways transporting nutrients by various means through its network, sometimes even in opposing directions. While it is not ‘proven’ these mycelia networks are thought to control this not just by gradients in which nutrients flow from high to low areas of concentration, but because the networks are capable of signaling and determining the flow of nutrients, hormones and enzyme catalysts they produce. Living mycelial networks produce coordinated electrical waves which are thought to coordinate the larger organism’s behavior and perhaps even signal nearby others of a pending ‘attack’ or simply enable it to read the distress signals of a neighbor under attack and thus chemically prepare its own defenses.
Sheldrake’s ideas here are supported by a growing number of researchers today. They are also supported in often surprising ways by researchers in other fields ranging from ecologists to those studying the evolution of flora, to micro-biologist and bio-chemists, and those on the cutting edge of quantum physics to those creating the expanding field of quantum biology. The time would seem ripe for an era of integration after several hundred years of reductionist study. We are perched dangerously on life’s edge today and our single minded approach, an assault really, on nature is beginning to cost us dearly and if we don’t quickly start revising our view of the world, we might damage it so severely that we too as ‘relational’ creatures will find it increasingly difficult to simply survive in a deteriorated world, so many of the relationships already broken or lost.