A fungi to be with

| 26th November 2020 |
A review of Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (Bodley Head 2020).

Because of similarities in cell structure, fungi are even seen to be more closely related to animals than to plants.

Books about fungi are not usually like this. Most are about species identification, which of course can be particularly important if you are thinking about eating any.

Those books always have pictures of different species and then some remarks about where they are to be found.

This book is about what it is like to be a fungus, how they live, the roles they play in ecosystems, and their potential for healing the world.

Identification

It is about fungi generally and why they matter, not only to humans but also to trees, plants, and soil.

It is a book with scientific credentials, endorsements, and footnotes, but it is also a story told in a vivid style, with illustrations and anecdotes.

This is certainly the best book about fungi I have ever seen.

Every October I go out on my annual Fungus Walk, all other years with one of those identification books, leaving me puzzled because so many species look so similar to others.

Nutrients

This year instead I went out excited by being in the middle of reading Entangled Life and found myself noticing and understanding things I hadn’t seen before.

Yeast is a fungus, responsible for bread and alcohol. Penicillin is a fungus. There are fungi that consume pollution and recycle waste, and even one species that nourishes itself from radioactivity.

There are fungi that operate as means of chemical communication between nearby trees. There are fungi which form combinations with algae, creating lichens.

Perhaps most important of all, there are fungi which enable plants to take in the nutrients they need from the soil.

Opisthokonta

There are fungi which feed humans, others that poison us, and some that cause hallucinations or perhaps experiences of the divine.

Just 50 years ago, fungi were regarded as plants, and in Victorian times, when hierarchies were more explicit, described as amongst the “lower plants”.

Now they are regarded as a separate kingdom, with a classificatory status alongside the plant and animal kingdoms.

Because of similarities in cell structure, they are even seen to be more closely related to animals than to plants.

A word which does not appear in this book but which appeals to me is Opisthokonta, the super-group which covers both animals and fungi, and puts me in the same large biological category as a mushroom.

This Author

Victor Anderson is a freelance researcher, until recently co-ordinator of the Debating Nature’s Value network.

MERCH

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