Review: Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Lives explores the magical mushroom world

How our lives are entangled with those of the fungi

Did you know that a split gill fungus has over 23,000 mating types, roughly equivalent to biological sexes in the animal world? Or that some fungi hunt worms with nooses and poison-tipped stalks?

Merlin Sheldrake's book is more than worth your time if you already enjoy the strange diversity of fungi, or are eager to learn more about fascinating relationships in the natural world.

Sheldrake is an unabashed enthusiast, as well as a scholar. He dedicates Entangled Life to "the fungi from which I have learned", and this wonderful book is littered with engaging anecdotes from his lifetime's devotion to this varied life-form.

These organisms make our bread rise, and have sustained us when other food sources were in short supply. Certain fungi, taken in the right quantity, can famously change our perceptions of the world.

While Sheldrake's personal experiences are more than enough to sustain the book, he also introduces a cast of characters to convince us of the importance of fungi. Star Trek fans will be delighted to learn that there is a real Paul Stamets who has devoted his life to enlisting fungi to solve real world, human-created, problems. He was the inspiration for the eponymous character in Star Trek: Discovery, who finds a way to use inter-galactic mycelial networks for faster-than-light travel.

Star Trek and the future aside, Entangled Life is breath-taking in scope, using biology and archaeology to trace fungi's deep connection with humans throughout our existence. Sheldrake examines the idea that the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms might be the spark that ignited our capacity for self-reflection, language, and spirituality.

Readers will also be fascinated by the descriptions of the way in which fungi have enrolled others in their world. This includes the well-known example of the unwilling and unfortunate carpenter ant who can be taken over by the "zombie fungus".

The fungus's ability to control the ant ensures that its spores are distributed from the right height, after the ant's death. There is also the "Wood Wide Web", where vast fungal networks connect forest trees and transfer carbon and other resources between them for reasons that are still obscure.

For all the colour in the book, there are also serious notes. The need for more research into these ubiquitous partners is one obvious concern.

The challenge that fungi and their networks pose for views of evolution that emphasise competition rather than collaboration, is another.

Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.

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This story How our lives are entangled with those of the fungi first appeared on The Canberra Times.