There aren’t many science books that thank pieces of music and particular locations in their acknowledgments, but this isn’t an ordinary science book. It’s a discipline-disregarding eruption that blows the subject of mycology wide open and poses far more questions than it answers.
Fungi are everywhere, in us and around us, providing all sorts of services, be it ‘eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicine, manipulating the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere’. Plants wouldn’t even exist if fungi hadn’t helped them out of the water around 500 million years ago, providing them with roots before they evolved their own. More than 90 per cent of plants still rely on underground mycelial networks. And yet, not even ten per cent of fungal species are documented.
Part of the problem is our limited codes of classification. Lichens, for example, have been conceived of as a partnership between fungi and algae since the 19th century, but they still confound our taxonomic system. They are named after their fungal element, disregarding the other parties involved. ‘The only names they can be given glance off the phenomenon they aim to describe,’ writes Sheldrake. And that’s just the start of the mix-up. Once thought to be a relationship between two players, new research has shown that others are involved. ‘Lichens are not so much individuals as a stabilised network of relationships.’
But we need to pay attention to fungi, says Sheldrake. Having existed for millions of years and survived numerous cataclysmic events, they know a thing or two about living on a damaged planet, and they might just help us navigate the next few centuries.
Written by a scientific polymath, Entangled Life is a psilocybin trip in itself that reveals the world in its dirty, earthy, messy and inseparable splendour.