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.


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.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: Finding the Mother Tree

On YouTube I follow Simon Baxter, a photographer who has recently begun to do something most YT photographers don’t do – he has focused on ecology and wildlife in the landscape he photographs. I enjoy watching some YT photographers but my unofficial inner-ecologist tells me that many spend too little time learning to understand the landscapes they photograph professionally, with little interest in the biological life that depends on those landscapes.

Simon has posted recent videos celebrating the role of fungi in woodland ecosystems, an oak one in Yorkshire from what I can work out. He has spoken about his passion for the book by Peter Wohlleben about the connectivity of trees, which is underpinned by fungi.

Peter Wohlleben seems to have taken a lot of the credit for this scientific discovery purely because he wrote a book about it (one which I really enjoyed as well), when that credit really belongs to Suzanne Simard. The phrase was used for the first time in the publication of Simard’s pioneering research in Nature.

Fungal mycelium (the web that connects mushrooms with trees)

Finding the Mother Tree

Simard has recently published Finding the Mother Tree an arboreal-memoir about how she worked to research the relationships and dependencies between fungi and plants in old growth woodlands that were being logged in epic fashion by the regional forestry services. It is a helpful real-world account of some of the things illuminated by Richard Powers in The Understory. There is some suggestion one of the main characters in The Understory is in fact based on Simard.

Finding the Mother Tree is an absolutely stonking read which describes the battles, bordering on persecution, that she faced for challenging the patriarchal systems that dominated woodland management and theory of the time. She is up against men in positions of power who did not want her to do her research and did everything they could to undermine her. It should not be that men now receive all the air-time or credit for the work that Simard did herself.

Simard doesn’t claim to be the first person to learn of these vital interconnections, however. She quotes Indigenous people in America who had stated this to be a fact long ago. It’s what makes her book so enjoyable – it is an exercise in truth-telling:

Bruce ‘Subiyay’ Miller of the Skokomish Nation, whose people live on the eastern Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, had told a story about the symbiotic nature and diversity of the forest, mentioning that under its floor ‘there is an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that keeps the forest strong.’

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: p.283

It reminds me of a story from an ecologist I met in Romania. In spring, frogs were found by scientists to be travelling down to networks of ponds via melt-water streams in Bulgarian mountain areas. This was hailed scientifically as new research. However, local people had known about this and disclosed it as fact for decades before this research had been completed. Local knowledge is often an untapped resource in conservation.

A special book

I read Finding the Mother Tree while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, reading chapters about Simard’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her messages cut through more deeply and, dare I say, gave some comfort in knowing that sometimes people go through these awful ordeals and survive them. People sometimes even prosper in their wake.

Simard’s book is something special, for its ecological deep truth and knowledge, and for her willingness to share her own vulnerability as a woman, a mother, a partner and a scientist. The ecological/environmental/conservation movements are still undermined by the same patriarchal forces of Simard’s early years as a scientist.

The logging industries in Canada, to name but one nation, still log ancient, irreplaceable forests in times of climate and biodiversity crisis. Simard’s book must be read by more people to understand both the ecosystems we need to celebrate and conserve but also to understand what holds back the good work that needs to be done.

Thanks for reading.

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