Blog

Entangled Life: the book fungi have been waiting for ๐Ÿ„

Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life has been sitting on my bookshelf for well over a year. It might even be two years. It almost certainly has fungal spores on it, probably mould.

I knew it was going to be an excellent book that contains huge amounts of fascinating info about the fungal kingdom because I’d read the first 50 pages. Alas, I couldn’t find the mental space to take it all in. The reviews have also been almost universally positive, from a broad cross section of readers. This includes people new to the study of fungi and those who are more experienced.

Recently I have had a bit more of that required mental space, after a year of being swamped. I’ve now read the book and It. Does. Not. Disappoint. You get the impression that Sheldrake could write books for the rest of his days focusing on one of the themes chaptered each time, such is the depth of each subject.

It’s the kind of book fungi have been waiting for to tell their stories, as the meme below so totes hilariously illustrates:

I read it with the sense that Sheldrake was using his extensive knowledge and research into fungi to campaign for a better appreciation before it is too late. That said, there isn’t the overarching doom narrative of a lot of nature conservation messaging, more a sense of awe regarding how little we know and have the potential to uncover. This is a book about hope and new possibilities, while understanding some of our planet’s oldest secrets.

It becomes clear halfway through the book that fungi are not an add-on to plants, they are the reason that we even have those bright green things as they are today. It’s a point I often labour at public events and to people not yet convinced by the importance of wilder, species-rich landscapes – without fungi we would not exist.

Suzanne Simard is namechecked as the founder of the ‘Wood Wide Web’, showing that plants actually behave far more communally and that fungi are the lifeblood of the mineral and resource exchange that builds the world we have evolved in. Sheldrake also features several other female academics, a welcome move in a community dominated by middle-class, white male perspectives and privileges. Simard’s book, Finding the Mother Tree is an absolute must-read and is included as a hugely important character in this narrative.

๐Ÿ„

The more I read about fungi, especially in Sheldrake’s writing, it just makes me think how little we know about anything. We spend a lot of time warring with one another during such short windows of life, we should be using that time to learn more about the incredible world we live in. For example, fungi were only given their own kingdom in 1969, previously just lumped in with plants or as flora. Now there are calls to speak of flora, fauna and funga. Cowafunga, dudes!

Perhaps because most fungi are almost all out of sight (endophytes live within the tissue of plants, rather than producing charismatic fruiting bodies like fly agaric, above ground). Endophytes thus remain forever out of mind. In this sense, our innate human biases (sight) are restricting our ability to conserve vital biodiversity in the form of fungal diversity in soils and other ecosystems. There is evidence about how more charismatic wildlife receive the majority of conservation funding.

Some of the facts on display in Entagled Life will blow you away. Consider that lichens may not be what we think they are, and that some fungi used to ‘lichenise’ but no longer do. The relationships between plants, fungi, algae and bacteria are not necessarily fundamental but more opportunistic. Tree species that are more ‘promiscuous’ are more likely to have found greater dominance over larger areas because they can link up with fungi as they go. The connections trees have with fungi have shaped the landscapes of today.

Further to this, fungi are so biologically complex that it may not be possible to truly name them scientifically as distinct species!

Fungi are able to break down rocks, as they will have done hundreds of millions of years ago to create the first soils and thus stable ecosystems for us humans to evolve in.

Then there are the theories that humans developed complex languages through the brain development spurred on by the ingestion of psylocibin (the hallucinogenic chemical found in some fungi) and other ‘magic’ mushrooms. That remains unproven, as Sheldrake responsibly underlines. But the idea is brilliant and makes life seem so random.

I also was unaware that LSD is derived from the fungus ergot, and ergot infection of people back in mediaeval times may be the reason they ‘danced for days’. Now certain Berlin 24-hour nightclubs make more sense, though they’re way past my bedtime.


Fungamentally this is a book that everyone, from fungi enthusiast to someone just looking to know a little bit more, can get a lot from. It’s written in a very lucid and engaging way, though bear in mind it does take a scientific and methodical approach to its subjects. After the glut of recent nature writing where man-encounters-divine-nature-for-the-first-time, usually in search of one species, that may be just what the mycologist ordered. That said, do species even exist? You have to wonder what Sheldrake will do next with the information he has to share.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms


Latest from the Blog

Dulwich Park fungi walk in October

Hi everyone,

I’m pleased to announce that I’m leading a fungi walk in Dulwich Park (SE London) on Sunday 23rd October 2022:

The meeting point is near the cafe at 11am. The walk will last around 90 minutes. The walk is free to attend and is funded by the Dulwich Society.

It’s been such a dry spring and summer but hopefully the stock of old trees and sensitive management that takes place in parts of the park will mean a decent array of fungi can be found. If not, there are always plenty of strange anecdotes about fungi to share.

We’re likely to find common species like inkcaps (above), jelly ear, turkeytail, Ganoderma brackets and brittlestems.

While it’s not a culinary or foraging walk, I can share general information regarding edibility of some common species.

This will be the first walk I’m leading as a freelance guided walks leader (having led walks since 2012). You can find more information about that on my new bookings page.

Thanks for reading.

The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

The cheeseburger fungus ๐Ÿ”

It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway.

That was hammered home with a tweet I saw recently of someone who had replaced the verge outside their house (not their verge) with plastic grass. The verge was also home to a tree, which will have probably suffocated due to lack of air through the soil and only being able to access water underground.

That said, it has been known for tree roots to seek out water over long distances. Some trees will cross underneath roads to quench their thirst. This becomes increasingly more understandable when you learn that a tree’s roots often extend twice the distance of their height in length under the soil.

Weakened trees on city streets almost always end up with wounds that they struggle to heal, leaving openings for fungi to invade. It is perfectly normal and natural for fungi to grow on trees, and many of them are beneficial. They can help to remove excess dead wood and also act collaboratively with a tree’s roots to trade nutrients.

Some fungi will cause a tree to fail mechanically or biologically. Some will just look like a massive vegan cheeseburger attached to a tree.

I encountered this bracket fungus on a street tree in south London recently and was amazed by the yellow spider silk and webbing. This is the product of the yellow spores the fungus evidently produces, so miniscule that they attach to the sticky silk and turn it fast-food cheese yellow.

The spider that made this web must really be confused by this situation. Perhaps it’s happy with the random redecoration that’s occurred. I wouldn’t mind, it’s actually the colour of my bedroom wall!

I am fairly certain this is Inonotus hispidus or shaggy bracket. It’s a surprise to see it at eye level, whereas it’s usually very high in a tree. You may have seen it as a black fungus sitting at the bottom of a tree trunk. By that point it has finished fruiting and has fallen from its perch. It’s usually on ash but on this occasion was on a whitebeam (Sorbus). If you go walking in an ash woodland at this time of year do take a moment to crane your neck and see if you can spot one up there in its shaggy glory before it comes crashing down to earth.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Latest from the Blog

36 degrees of perspiration ๐Ÿฅต

If you live in Britain you must be sick of hearing about it: England recorded temperatures of above 40C this week for the first time on record. Wednesday the 20th July was 230 years in the making, and it didn’t feel great.

Why 230 years? The Industrial Revolution is described as beginning around the 1790s and the epic burning of fossil fuels since then has built up so much carbon in the atmosphere that the globe is warming at a rate that earth’s current residents haven’t ever had to deal with before.

Why am I mansplaining this? I spoke to someone the other day who said that we should just enjoy the weather.

36C in my garden in the shade

My body seems to want what Western Ireland had to offer on the hellfire day, 17C and cloud, rather than the 36C my West Sussex garden thermometer clocked up in the shade. Not much enjoyment there.

It was so harsh the spiders had to leave their nooks because it was too hot under the black painted wood of the shed. A few hours later when the sparrows reappeared they went hunting for eight-legged snacks.

Spiders leaving their usual nooks due to the extreme heat

I’ve spent much of the past week feeding my cat in-law, doing regular evening and morning walks across town. I’ve noticed birds behaving differently: a green woodpecker feeding in the middle of a quiet road, a jay sitting on a gravestone at 9pm, and butterflies fluttering around the garden at dusk.

I’ve found a local house martin nest is occupied for another year in the old part of town, the parents flying around before 8am when it was nearly 30C. It turns everything inside out.

I’ve also noticed how many front gardens have been paved over and how much of a bad move that is when the mercury rockets. It also looks terrible. It’s another product of cars becoming status symbols, especially when 3 of them are sitting in front of your house. That house is now several degrees warmer because of the lack of vegetation or water.

Extreme crop of a peregrine flying over my house

Recently I’ve heard a bird of prey calling from high above my house. Last week I managed to get a photo and a sketchy video. I sent the video to my friend and he confirmed it was a pair of peregrine falcons. I’ve heard them almost everyday through the heatwave, and even woken to them at dawn. I wasn’t sure if that was a dream, however. I’ve been suspicious that they might be local having spotted them flying over the town and also heading south, probably to the South Downs and one of the old chalk quarries. Maybe their exposed perches have been too hot for their talons, sending them out into the sky.

Thanks for reading.

The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

Latest from the Blog

The orchids in need of fungi ๐Ÿ„

In June I did a long walk in the Surrey Hills around the famous Box Hill. The North Downs are absolutely fantastic walking country, being so easily accessible from London via public transport, and having some of the UK’s rarest wildlife, along with dramatic hilly landscapes and views.

The human (as well as the natural) history of the North Downs is incredible, with much of the North Downs Way coalescing with the Pilgrims Way.

Early on in this walk, I happened upon an area of yew trees and spotted some chicken of the woods growing. It’s always a nice thing to see.

Lured in by the sight of the fungus, I then found a massive dryad’s saddle growing like a gramophone from a beech tree. This is a fairly common larger fungus to find in June. It’s a summer woodland species.

Having moved round to look at the ridiculous gramophone fungus, I spotted what looked like dead growths of a wildflower or maybe a garden plant that had been dumped. After a minute or so I realised it was in fact a type of orchid: bird’s nest.

This isn’t a species I had ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t at its ‘best’, even though it lacks the colourfulness of other species nearby like common spotted or pyramidal orchids. There’s a really good reason for that.

It has a dependency on fungi. Its lack of cholorophyll is because it receives its food from fungi in the soil, which is also in relation to the roots of trees. The orchids were growing under yew but with beech in close proximity. It’s just another reminder of the role that fungi play in maintaining diverse ecosystems.

Away from the orchids, June is a good time to find chicken of the woods. We’ve had a very hot and dry spring/summer in southern England, and along the trail I noticed that a lot of the chicken had collapsed in brittleness. It’s not even worth looking for mushrooms growing in the soil, it’s just so dry. Fungi once again, or lack of, will show you that we are living through hotter and drier summers in southern England.

The North Downs, like its southerly sisters, the South Downs, are a chalky landscape. There are lots of beech trees in this type of soil. This means the very large Ganoderma bracket fungus is a pretty common sight on the many beech trees that are found here.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

Latest from the Blog

#30DaysMacro 2022: the final week ๐Ÿ“ท

And so to the final week of the 30 days of macro photography challenge. You can see week one, week two, and week three, by clicking their names.

Day 22/30: a seed of unknown origin resting on a fennel stem. I think it looks like Einstein!
Day 23/30: I didn’t manage to get this photo of a green nettle weevil in focus but the colours on its body are incredible. Perhaps it was a bit older and so had lost some scales.

Day 24/30: the very next day I found another green nettle weevil on my green wheelie bin! I don’t think it’s the same one, but it was posing perfectly and in focus this time. I always want to eye in focus with invertebrate photos.

Day 25/30: something that needs its own post here. It’s a fly that’s succumbed to entomophthora fungus, a parasitic species. I was astonished to find this having read about this kind of thing before, but never expecting to see it.

Day 26/30: in my garden as the light began to fade, I spotted these shieldbug nymphs on a grass head. They’re probably green shieldbugs, even though they’re black at this stage.

Day 27/30: another evening photo, this time of a green mirid bug in some rather posh mallow flowers.

Day 28/30: nettles are great for invertebrates. This is a nursery web spider garden her nest web, which will contain her eggs before they hatch into spiderlings. Hence the name ‘nursery web.’

Day 29/30: I took some photos of a large slug eating the remains of some pigeon feathers but I opted for this one instead. I took a similar image towards the beginning of this challenge, so it felt fitting that the hedgerow-snail-shell-portal-to-another-world would be opening once more as it neared the end.

Day 30/30: I spent the morning in a very nice woodland in Hampshire for the final day of the challenge. I witnessed many inverts at a period when I couldn’t photograph them, but when I had five minutes I found this leaf beetle exploring the edge of its world.

Thanks for reading!

More macro

#30DaysMacro: week three ๐Ÿ“ท

See week one and week two via these links.

Day 15/30: looking around my Mum’s garden in London, I was harnessing the softer evening light and hoping some insects would come and bask. Lo and behold, this large red damselfly flew over my shoulder and landed on a leaf half an arm’s length away!

Day 16/30: I’m not convinced 2022 is a particularly good insect year in the SE of England, but small tortoiseshells have been out in force this year. This one was on a salvia at Polesdon Lacey in the North Downs.

Day 17/30: at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve in East Sussex, I notice peacock butterfly caterpillars racing across the concrete causeway. Somehow, this caterpillar had been hugely unlucky, with its head being trampled on by a foot or a bike. There was a bloke zipping around on an ebike that looked like a motorcycle, which may have been what squashed it. Other caterpillars did make it across, where they were headed I have no idea.

Day 18/30: the difficulty of a photo challenge each day is managing your expectations and trying to keep things simple. I took this photo of a micro-moth in my house at about 9pm or later. At first it looked like a little smudge but with the benefit of flash and a bit of editing, it has red hair like me!

Day 19/30: speaking of red hair, I was taking some macro photos in my garden when a fox that visits us most evenings came as close as she ever has. She always comes to sniff my camera but her boldness suprised me. I recorded this video quickly on my phone. It got quite a lot of traction on Twitter which was quite exhausting but nice that people are interested in foxes.

Day 20/30: at lunchtime I went to a nature reserve within walking distance and found lots of damselflies gallivanting in a nettle patch. This blue damselflies were focused enough for me to get quite close and take a photo.

Day 21/30: I like this photo because the fennel leaves and stems make it look quite abstract. This is probably a meadow spittlebug, a common leafhopper. I took this one after sundown.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

Latest from the Blog

The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology. My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills… Continue reading The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

#30DaysMacro 2022: week two ๐Ÿ“ท

I’ve been slow to post week two of my June 2022 macro challenge, mainly due to offline and online duties. But don’t worry, the photos are still being taken and I’m on track to get it all done!

Day 8/30: some heavy rain in West Sussex brought some of the more ephemeral mushrooms out into the open air. These mower’s mushrooms (also known also brown mottlegill) appeared for a day or so after a downpour on my unmown lawn. It has been so hot and dry that the lawn has barely even grown anyway to be honest!

Day 9/30: I spent a good few hours walking around a local woodland expecting miracles (“assumption is a curse” as an old school friend used to say). Instead I just remembered how difficult woodland invertebrate macro can be. It was only until I got out onto the heathland, where the sun hit the woodland edge, that I saw more interesting things. This pic above isn’t perfect, it’s a bit shaky I think, but I do love the story. Ants and aphids have mutualistic relationships which allow the ants to harvest honeydew and the aphids to be protected from predators and also disease. The ants can remove diseased aphids to stop outbreaks. Amazing!

Day 10/30: This was one of those days when I was out and about doing other things but had a camera with a lens with me that did macro. This is a lesser stag beetle clinging to the corner of a brick wall.

Day 11/30: I only managed to venture out into my garden as night was falling. I found an absolutely miniscule wasp of some kind, as well as a typical yellowjacket harvesting wood shavings from the fence. The bug is probably a mirid or plant bug growing into an adult.

Day 12/30: in my garden again and I found this quite beautiful mirid bug.

Day 13/30: venturing out for a long-distance walk in the Surrey Hills, I was amazed to find bird’s nest orchids growing under some yew trees on chalk. I have never seen this orchid before and wasn’t ever expecting to see it. The delights of hiking or rambling over longer distances, especially in June.

Day 14/30: back in the garden with the mirid bugs. This was a very small, perhaps juvenile of some kind, pottering about on a very hairy hazel leaf in my garden.

Thanks for reading. Next up: week 3!

More macro

LATEST POSTS

Loading…

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.