SEPTEMBER 17, 2020
FUNGI ARE HAVING a moment. Last winter, the shoestring documentary Fantastic Fungi was an enormous grassroots success with round-the-block lines and sold-out screenings. The film came on the heels of Michael Pollan’s best seller on psychedelic science, How to Change Your Mind (2018). Just a few years earlier, anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book on matsutake, The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015), triggered a rush of interest in mushrooms among academics. Venture capitalists are also paying attention. As biodegradable substitutes for meat, leather, and a range of petroleum-based products, fungal biomaterials could be the Styrofoam and polyester of the 21st century.
Arriving on this wave of media fanfare, Entangled Life will likely amplify it, with good reason. The author, Merlin Sheldrake, is the son of the controversial scientist-turned-philosopher Rupert Sheldrake, whose “morphic field” theory attempts to explain paranormal and quantum phenomena. Merlin is accomplished in more conventional yet equally wondrous terrain. He has a PhD in tropical ecology from Cambridge University, where he specialized in endomycorrhizal fungi and mycohetereotrophs. While fungi are easy sources of wonder, getting to the wonder means understanding the basics, which can be arcane in the case of fungi. Sheldrake carefully explains the details in clever, affable prose. His book has a host of other strengths as well. It emphasizes the openness and indeterminacy of mycology, a vastly understudied field, through honest depictions of scientists in the lab and field trying to puzzle out fungi’s unexplained behavior. Sheldrake also shows how culture shapes scientific knowledge, as evidenced in the anthropocentric tropes and economic models that have been used to explain fungi; and, conversely, how fungi have shaped human culture, as in the brewer’s yeast that produces alcohol and, indirectly, human conviviality. He embraces the sort of fantastic speculations that come with the territory, as when a childhood memory of Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist, mystic, and family friend, segues to McKenna’s fantastic theories about the extraterrestrial origins of fungi. But ultimately the book remains grounded in empirical evidence.
Sheldrake is stylistically impressive, too — he can be charmingly poetic, using metaphors and analogies to communicate meaning, for instance when he writes about “the chemical babble” of soil that fungi must navigate and describes mycelium as “ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.” About the lichens he observed in British Columbia, he writes: “Some look like stains, others like small shrubs, others like antlers. Some leather and droop like bat wings, others, as the poet Brenda Hillman writes, are ‘hung in hashtags.’” Sometimes the scene itself shines with poetry, as when “a wave of bioluminescence” passes over the mycelial networks of a glow-in-the-dark fungus.
The book’s real ambition though is to communicate a range of ideas. Each chapter pairs specific classes of fungi (including lichen and yeast) with an underlying question, at once philosophically beguiling and logistically baffling. How does a fungus signal food or threat to its neighbors? Why did fungi evolve to produce compounds that are psychoactive in animals?
Unlikely combinations of topics help illuminate the questions at hand. For example, rather than writing a whole chapter on psilocybin, he embeds the topic in a chapter about species that act on animals’ nervous systems. Alongside shrooms, the reader learns about Cordyceps, whose fruiting process is a horror show of cross-kingdom parasitism: once its spores have infected an insect, they germinate and produce hyphae, the tiny branching filaments that compose the fungus in its vegetative state, which “wind through [the insect’s] body cavities, from heads to legs, enmesh their muscle fibers, and coordinate their activity via an interconnected mycelial network.” The infected insect will then climb to the top of a plant before dying, the better for the fungus to disperse its spores once it fruits from the insect’s corpse. Placing the diabolical next to the entheogenic serves to highlight the question that drives the chapter: what does it mean for a fungus to “take over” a mind?
Another example, and my favorite chapter of the book, features lichen. As a symbiotic arrangement between a fungus and blue-green algae, lichen were the model organism in the development of symbiosis as a scientific concept in the 1870s. They play a key role in ecosystems as the only life-form that can chemically break down rocks, freeing up their minerals as nutrients for other living things. Lichen act as “go-betweens that inhabit the boundary dividing life and nonlife,” writes Sheldrake. As fascinating as lichen are as life-forms, the history of lichenology is just as fascinating. The notion of symbiosis as a force in evolution was at first rejected outright by the scientific establishment in the late 20th century because it contradicted the neo-Darwinian belief in competition as evolution’s primary driver. The evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis is a main character in this story. Arguing that cooperative arrangements like those of lichen are more a rule than an exception, she laid the theoretical groundwork for what was later proven to be horizontal gene transfer. The discovery of symbiosis between fungi and other organisms has quite literally changed our understanding of life — and continues to do so.
Entangled Life can thus be thought of as the latest example of a shift underway in how people think about fungi. Once charged with negative associations like infestation and rot, fungi are now becoming conceptually linked to ecological well-being, therapy and medicine, and sustainable technologies. This is not to say that mushrooms are always seen as all good or all bad, as earlier ethno-mycologists have argued. Wild mushrooms have always been a delicacy for American gourmands, and pathogenic fungi still infect our homes, bodies, forests, and crops. In my own research as a cultural anthropologist studying mycology, I’ve learned that if there is one pattern in the ethnographic literature, it’s that fungi dwell in moral ambiguities rather than polarities; they are associated as much with death, spirits, and volatile forces as with healing, bounty, and beneficence. But the question still remains: why is there so much fascination with fungi right now?
The answer has as much to do with our historical moment as it does with the organisms themselves and the means — technological, social, conceptual — by which we apprehend them. During the 1970s, Americans began engaging with fungal life in a range of new settings. Organic farmers learned about mycorrhizal fungi to enrich their soil, back-to-the-landers studied up on wild mushrooms as they foraged for food, do-it-yourself cultivators learned how to grow psilocybin mushrooms at home, herbalists studied the mushrooms used in traditional Chinese medicine, and small-scale entrepreneurs began to cater to all of these emerging markets. By the 2000s, a robust subculture of mycological fascination and experimentation had established itself on the internet, picking up where a handful of manuals (canonical and religiously read through the 1980s and 1990s) had left off. Inspired by the mycological evangelist extraordinaire, author and businessman Paul Stamets, people began experimenting with low-tech applications for fungi like soil and water remediation. The mainstreaming of psilocybin therapy and the growing movement to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms are only accelerating this grassroots enthusiasm.
At the same time, fungal inspirations have left deep impressions within contemporary philosophy and theory. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s writing about the rhizome (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated into English by Brian Massumi in 1987) introduced fungi to philosophers, artists, and anthropologists. The rhizome, in contrast to arboreal forms, grows through constant branching, with no operative center or hierarchy. It can be reproduced by cutting and replanting any part of the organism. (Besides fungi, many plants considered weeds grow rhizomatically.) Fungi are “good to think with,” as anthropologists would say. As such, they’ve been adopted among post-humanist scholars as counter-modern emblems of hybridity, queerness, fictive kinship, and horizontality. This academic fascination with fungi has converged with the subculture of amateur mycology that has flourished since the 1970s. Fungi are seen as embodying hopeful alternatives to the worst aspects of modernity: industrial capitalism, patriarchy, and ecological destruction.
Sheldrake is clearly informed by this literature, adopting key ideas and terms like “the more-than-human world,” “involution,” and the eponymous “entanglement.” Of fungi as tools for thinking, he writes early on, “[F]ungi have changed my understanding of how life happens […] These organisms make questions of our categories, and thinking about them makes the world look different.” While he is clearly not the first person to write about this experience, he may be the first to communicate it in such clear prose for such a wide audience. Entangled Life popularizes this otherwise obscure scholarly discourse.
Sheldrake takes aim at the “vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought” in the hope that “our ruinous attitudes toward the more-than-human world may start to change.” At the core of this conceptual undertaking is mycelium: the rhizomorphic network of hyphae (those barely visible tubular threads, one-cell thick) from which mushrooms arise. Fungi live primarily as mycelium, only forming mushrooms to procreate — if they form them at all; many do not. The mushroom is the fruit of the fungus and the spores are its “seeds.” In a common analogy, mushrooms are to a fungus as blueberries are to a blueberry bush or apples to an apple tree. But unlike a plant or most animals, the fungus lives most of its life hidden, at least from a human perspective. Fungi derives its nutrients from the material it inhabits. As Sheldrake explains:
Mycelium is how fungi feed. Some organisms — such as plants that photosynthesize — make their own food. Some organisms — like most animals — find food in the world and put it inside their bodies, where it is digested and absorbed. Fungi have a different strategy. They digest the world where it is and then absorb it into their bodies.
Mycelium is like stomach, skin, and sensory apparatuses and like none of those things. To understand mycelium is to understand that fungi are without a “body” in any familiar sense nor do they possess boundaries — they interweave with the mycelia of other fungi and extend into the cells of other organisms.
Mycelium invites poetry. Sheldrake describes it as an “anarchic filigree” and “not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.” As a life-form and a mode of livelihood — a means of finding sustenance, shelter, community, and mates — mycelium is intrinsically weird. Mushrooms are iconic and photogenic but they represent only a fleeting moment of exhibitionism within the life of a fungus. Mycelium, on the other hand, is its default mode. As people learn more about fungi, attention is shifting from mushrooms to mycelium.
The puzzling and enchanting properties of fungi in its mycelial form are in fact the focus of Entangled Life. As mycelial networks, fungi inhabit dense microbial ecosystems. Many cultivate symbiotic relationships with other organisms, a form of enmeshment that involves dizzying complexity, with bacteria inside fungi inside plants, all nested like living and breathing Russian dolls. Sheldrake refers to symbiosis as an “intimate collaboration.” Species engaging in the maintenance of their shared ecosystems are, he writes, “a ubiquitous feature of life.” That “exploratory, irregular tendency” of mycelium — to hunt out food, threats, and symbionts — makes fungi ideal collaborative partners.
The navigational capacity of hyphae constitutes another intriguing aspect of mycelium. Put simply, mycelial networks respond and adapt to their environments in ways that resemble a brain. They even exhibit directional memory. Some findings suggest that, similar to animal brains, electrical impulses account for these capacities, but the causal mechanism is still unclear. The question of fungal intelligence could easily open into a labyrinth of speculation, both natural and supernatural. Sheldrake treads carefully, noting that fungi lack “high-level mental functioning” such as “language, logic, reasoning, recognizing oneself in a mirror.” He reorients this question by asking, “What do we make of intelligence without brains?” While fungi don’t have synapses or neurotransmitters, they do seem to have circuits — that is, networks with regulatory openings acting like gates and oscillators. In other words, while mycelium might not be brain-like, it might be computer-like; or, put another way, computers might be mycelial. This echoes Paul Stamets’s concept of the “mycelial archetype” as a universal pattern of information-processing, the internet and synapses being prime examples. The curious synchrony of computing and mycelium is a perfect example of what might emerge when, instead of humanizing the world, we mycologize it. Categories are destabilized when intelligences multiply.
Although Entangled Life never lapses into polemics or preaching, the book has an evangelical message all the same: humanity is neither innately special nor truly dominant; rather, we emerge and are sustained by a web of interspecies interdependence and diverse kinship; and our human notion of individuality is chimeric. The book is a call to engage with fungi on their level. “Is it possible for humans, with our animal brains and bodies and language, to learn to understand such different organisms? How might we find ourselves changed in the process?” Like fungi, “‘[w]e are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships.”
In short, fungi have come to embody and signify ecological values — ecology as popularly understood, as an ethic, a call for humility, a reorientation in our approach to other life-forms, a catchall term for a web of relationships. Philosopher Isabelle Stengers, whose work inspires many post-humanist, anti-capitalist, and feminist scholars today, describes ecological values as essential to producing new relationships between humans and nonhumans. These values are rooted in an ecological understanding of the continual evolution and relationality of all beings on earth — or, as Stengers puts it, “the temporal regime of their entangled coexistences.” Fungi are accomplices to the ecological paradigm.
The underlying questions of Entangled Life, and other mycophilic media today, are: How can we be more like fungi? How are we already like fungi? How can we, as Paul Stamets puts it, ally ourselves with the fungal kingdom? How can we mycologize ourselves and our world? How can we break down our waste for fuel and sustenance, rather than let it accumulate in garbage dumps, oceans, and bloodstreams? How can we organize ourselves flexibly and responsibly so each part of the social web gets what it needs? If we fail and our own species does not survive the next few centuries, we can at least trust that a resilient species of fungi will evolve to consume the copious remains of our civilization and renew the planet again.
Joanna Steinhardt is an Oakland-based researcher, writer, and editor with a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology. She wrote her dissertation on do-it-yourself mycology and was a communications consultant at MycoWorks, a start-up making biomaterials from mycelium.