Fungi’s Lessons for Adapting to Life on a Damaged Planet
Merlin Sheldrake in Conversation with Robert Macfarlane
Merlin Sheldrake’s new book Entangled Life looks at the complex world of fungi, its adaptive ability, and its interconnectedness with all other forms of life. He spoke with Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland, about his relationship to fungi and its strategic lessons on growth in the face of climate crisis.
Robert Macfarlane: I want to plunge straight in and ask about the title of your book, Entangled Life. I hear echoes of Darwin’s famous “tangled bank” paragraph, closing the later editions of On the Origin of Species, and “entanglement” is one of the favorite tropes of what might be called Anthropocene ecology, conspicuous in the work of Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, for instance. What do you mean by “entangled” and for that matter, what do you mean by “life”!?
Merlin Sheldrake: Plunge! I think of the word “entangle” as a knotting and re-knotting, a ravelling, an intertwining. The word appears to have some of its roots in Nordic and German words for “seaweed,” presumably because they are life forms that knot and clump with themselves—
Entangled Life is a book about fungi, most of which live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelium is how fungi feed. Animals tend to find food in the world and put it in their bodies; fungi put their bodies in the food. To do so, they must ceaselessly remodel themselves, weaving their bodies into relation with their surroundings. This entanglement—with themselves, with their physical surroundings, and with other organisms—is their staple mode of existence. On a very literal level, then, I use the word entangle to refer to the ancient growth habit of this little-understood kingdom of life.
But fungi don’t keep to themselves. Mycelium is the living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulphurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the bustling wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks. Tug on strand of mycelium and you’ll find it hitched to something else. Fungi embody the most basic principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. This is another sense in which I use the word entangled. Fungi form literal connections between organisms and in doing so remind us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.
This relates to your question about life. Evolution’s most well-worn iconography is that of a tree, mirroring the genealogical trees used to portray lines of human descent. Since Darwin, the dominant narrative within evolutionary circles has portrayed lineages as endlessly diverging from each other like the branches of a tree. But over the last several decades, it’s become clear that divergence is only part of the story. Some of the most dramatic moments in the history of life occurred when single-celled organisms engulfed unrelated single-celled organisms which continued to live inside them. Within the bodies of these new composite organisms, branches of the tree of life that had been diverging for hundreds of millions of years did something entirely unexpected, and converged.
In light of these discoveries, many biologists have begun to reimagine the tree of life as a reticulate mesh formed as lineages not only branch, but fuse and merge with one another. Strands of the mesh loop in and out of the realm of viruses—entities that many don’t consider to be living organisms at all—and make it clear that life shades off into non-life gradually. If anyone wanted a new poster organism for evolution they needn’t look far. It is a vision of life that resembles fungal mycelium more than anything else.
Are we in broad agreement, would you say?
RM: Yes, I think so. I remember in reading Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, where they take aim at the ubiquitous metaphor of the “tree” on basis of its implicitly hierarchical-vertical structure; they propose, as you know, in its place the model of the “rhizome,” which weaves and moves by node and network. But I always felt they were a little harsh on trees; for as your research as a plant scientist, and your writing in Entangled Life both reveal, trees are themselves participants in a vast web of mutualisms, wafting aerosol signals between each other above ground, and sharing resources below ground via mycorrhizae…“There are a number of ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet and we don’t know nearly as much as we should.”
But enough of that; I want to pick up now on those closing sentences of your answer: we are speaking to each other from our respective lockdowns here in England. The entanglement of the “realm of viruses,” as you call it, with the human sphere has rarely—
MS: Well I think I just had it. In the absence of widespread testing it’s hard to know. In any case, my experience was mercifully short. I woke up feeling like I had aged 80 years overnight and after a miserable day in bed I was more or less back to normal. What can we learn from our predicament? I think it depends on how much we’re willing to learn. In 2016 the UK underwent an exercise to simulate the effect of a viral pandemic on the country’s systems and infrastructure. It revealed terrible shortcomings, yet insufficient action was taken because those in power were unwilling to learn. Right now we can see a wide range of governmental responses to a common threat, from competence to tragic confusion. I expect that we’ll see a similarly wide range of willingness to learn. Perhaps it will become clear—to those who remain unpersuaded—that a stubborn refusal to change our habits is fatal.
The planet is made up of reverberating dynamic systems in which small causes can ripple into large effects. An invisibly small entity can cause human societies to grind to a halt. Are we as in control as we think? Clearly not. This isn’t news. Invisibly small organisms have been shaping life on the planet for as long as there has been life. Nonetheless, for our lack of control to be revealed in such vivid and painful detail does help dispel some of our delusions and challenge us to find comfort in—
Viruses are prodigious catalysts of evolution. By shuttling genetic material between organisms they generate evolutionary novelty and have even made possible some of our deepest intimacies: as placental mammals we depend on genes acquired from viruses to develop within our mothers. Viruses enter their hosts and must suspend their immune systems; developing mammals are faced with a similar challenge. In the absence of these viral genes, it wouldn’t be possible for embryos to share bodily space with their mother without being rejected as an other, a non-self. I can’t stop thinking about this. Our parental care, our social bonding, our need for closeness—all have their roots in a viral infection. I hope that the current period of cultural evolution catalyzed by a virus can draw us towards a state of greater care, bondedness, and consideration—both towards other humans, and towards the more-than-humans with whom we share the planet. Of course, it could do quite the opposite.
RM: Fascinating. I have certainly been skeptical of the early wave of what might be called “pandemic utopianism”; an undetailed belief that societies will emerge from the chrysalis-phase of this crisis profoundly transformed for the (progressive) good. There is a strong counter-narrative in terms of historical precedent which finds that power consolidates power after pandemics (especially with regard to marginalized or vulnerable groups). I’m thinking particularly here of the catastrophic consequences of disease for indigenous communities in the North and South Americas, introduced by colonizers. My strong sense is that there are abundant changes for the good which might occur, but each will need to be fought for—by tired citizens, emerging from a bruising period of existence—to prevent a relapse to the status quo or worse.
Watching Milan re-imagine its urban-planning away from the current priority for choking motor-vehicles, and towards cycling and pedestrianism—in large part given the increasingly clear co-morbidity between air pollution and COVID-19—is one example of a positive change that could have taken decades now taking months. Turning back to Entangled Life, then—can I ask you to tell us a little about your own life’s entanglement with fungi. How did your fascination with this world-shaping, vision-changing kingdom of life begin, and what shaped its growth?“Ongoing environmental devastation has brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound.”
MS: There are many strands. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that things transform. Why do things change? And how do they change? My curiosity has led me back again and again to the organisms that deftly arrange and rearrange the world. As a child I used to make piles of leaves and lie inside them to try and catch them in the process of rotting; I cultivated plants and mushrooms and watched them grow; I took up brewing. Fungi are among the most gifted of life’s decomposers—and composers—and it’s been hard to stay away. Of course, human lives have pivoted around the metabolic ingenuity of fungi for a long time—bread, alcohol, cheese, soya sauce, psychedelic compounds, penicillin, cancer treatments, organ transplants… it’s a huge list. Fungi are often described as a hidden kingdom of life, which may be so. But many hide in plain sight and it’s hard to unsee them once you’ve noticed they’re there.
Symbiosis was another gateway concept for me. The more I learned about biology, the more I became interested in the often astonishing ways that organisms had evolved to collaborate with each other. Fungi are key players in some of the most blockbuster symbioses in Earth’s history, and it was my interest in these relationships that led me to study mycorrhizal fungi and their underground networks of influence—a tangled enquiry from which I’m yet to emerge.
And then there’s the urgency. There are a number of ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet and we don’t know nearly as much as we should. Ongoing environmental devastation has brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound: some fungi produce powerful antiviral compounds which reduce colony collapse disorder in honeybees; in the process of mycoremediation, fungi can be harnessed to break down toxic pollutants; in mycofiltration, contaminated water can be passed through fungal mycelium which filters out pathogens and heavy metals; in mycofabrication, fungi are used to produce sustainable materials, from bricks to “leather.” Not to mention the many ways that fungi change the way we think, feel, and imagine. I anticipate that my fungal fascinations will only increase as the global crisis worsens, and I suspect that I’m not alone.
RM: As someone who has also—especially in my two most recent books, Ness and Underland—tried to write about entanglement, I’d be interested to hear how you approached your task from a literary (as well as a philosophical and scientific) perspectives. This is your first book—
MS: It was an adventure. Early on I decided to produce a first draft by writing very quickly and scrappily. Somewhere in this puddle of text, I hoped, I might find a book. The momentum of this approach helped prevent paralysis. It also allowed me to see more clearly the themes emerge. Reworking this formless mass became a process of trying to understand mycelium, which is conceptually and intuitively slippery: Mycelial coordination takes place both everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular; a fragment of mycelium can regenerate an entire network, meaning that a single mycelial individual—if you’re brave enough to use that word—is potentially immortal; mycelial networks are indeterminate shape-shifters, living maybes that fuse and branch, decanting themselves into their surroundings.
Mycelium used to feel like a kōan, unintelligible to my mammalian mind. But I’ve come to think of our minds as the most mycelial parts of ourselves. Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—
And yet, when listening to polyphonic music several streams of consciousness commingle in the mind and a multitude of parts can coalesce into a single piece of music that doesn’t exist in any one of the parts alone. It was this type of listening that helped me to feel my way through the writing process. I came to think of fungal mycelium—which is both a multitude of growing tips and a single interconnected entity—as polyphony in bodily form. Mycelium is what happens when elongating fungal cells, which are streams of embodiment rather than streams of consciousness, commingle.
All the while I did my best to maintain as much contact with the fungal world as possible. I drank large pots of tea made from chaga and reishi mushrooms, for example, and tried to eat mushrooms for at least one meal a day. I still do.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake is available via Random House.