Book Review:Entangled Life

How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures” by Merlin Sheldrake.

Peter Glynne Jones reviews this book from biologist Merlin Sheldrake (son of Rupert), on the fascinating world of fungi. A book that challenges our sense of who we are and what we think our role in this life may be.

Entangled Life book cover

Many of us don’t give fungi a second thought from day to day, perhaps catching sight of mushrooms, or seeing moulds consume our forgotten vegetables. Merlin Sheldrake ’s recent book takes us on an adventure into their realm, revealing strange worlds that are unfamiliar and alien, and yet a fundamental part of the web of life of which we are a part. The author is a professional biologist and tells many stories including those of his PhD studies, digging around for fungi in tropical Panama. He has a wide passion for fungi that goes beyond academic study, and they seem to permeate his life much as they do the plants and other animals he describes.

I was already familiar with some of the concepts that he introduces, but part of the beauty of the book is the way it captures the vast complexity and scale of the interactions that are going on around us, and draws us into their world. Sheldrake draws a picture of the many fascinating discoveries that have been made in recent times. He also underlines how much we are still in the dark; despite fungi being an essential partner to over 80% of our plants, we have barely begun to scratch the surface in understanding the extent or function of fungi.

Some fungi form networks of mycelium that create large, extended bodies that can coordinate themselves in ways that are poorly understood. They join plants together underground in complex relationships that include communication and exchange of nutriments. Merlin describes these symbiotic relationships in both scientific and poetic detail. I was particularly struck by the photos showing how the fungal hyphae intertwine inside the cells of plant roots to create an exquisitely intimate connection. Even a teaspoon of soil can contain many hundreds of metres of these fine filaments from many species.

Each chapter offers new and wonderful insights and open questions, and there isn’t space to do justice to them all. One chapter digs into the history of our understanding of symbiosis which began to be recognised from studies of lichen. It shows how time and again the natural world challenges our notions of independent organisms with firm boundaries. Instead, it illustrates how life is nested within life, even within our own bodies.

As the world of fungi is glimpsed, Merlin raises questions of what this strange life must be like and contemplates how we can come closer to it. He invites us to become a little fungal in order to soften our own, often rigid, sense of self identify. Softened in this way there is the possibility of seeing new facets of both the fungi and ourselves, and of both in our interdependence.

Throughout the book, Merlin Sheldrake pulls at a thread from his life, and following it reveals a fascinating depth of complexity, mystery, and a deep interconnectedness.   One is left wondering what might emerge if one pulls and follows similar threads in one’s own life.

Peter Glynne Jones

Merline Sheldrake in conversation with Michael Pollan at the Bay Area Book Festival.

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