August 17, 2020

God knows, we have been killing David Attenborough’s blue planet for long enough. As soon as Homo sapiens set foot in Australasia, we slaughtered all the megafauna; as soon as we reached the Americas in 14000 BC, the giant sloth was done for. (The sensitivity and wisdom of native peoples can be exaggerated.) The ‘wild campers’ who, having escaped Covid confinement in AD 2020, leave their rubbish behind them in the National Parks are only, sadly, human. We rarely learn. ETs on faraway planets must pray, pray we never reach them, because we will only trash the joint.

So Merlin Sheldrake’s 358-page eulogy to fungi, Entangled Life, is a useful reminder to idiots that the world has 99 problems, and Covid-19 is only one of them. The virus predominantly takes away the vulnerable old, as annual flus tend to; our oh-so-very human disruption of the planet’s eco-system — which is held together by, you guessed it, fungi — will likely exterminate us all. It’s the environment, stupid.

Of course, in any battle with Nature, Nature will eventually win. It is infinitely durable. Take Dr Sheldrake’s beloved fungi. Sapiens has achieved two million years on earth, while fungi have totted up — wait for it — a billion. They exist in environments as varied and opposite as our own warm guts and the dead cold depths of Antarctic valleys. When a volcano creates a new island in the middle of the Pacific, the first things to grow on the stark rockface are fungi. There are fungi that harness Chernobyl radiation as a source of energy, and others that can ‘eat’ kerosene, while Pleurotus mycelium grows happily on a diet of used nappies.

Yes, you did read that last sentence right. It isn’t as though Nature doesn’t give us a hand in clearing up our own shit. “With much of life on Earth threatened by human activity,” Sheldrake asks, “are there ways we can partner with fungi to help us adapt?”

By the best estimates there are between 2.2 and 3.8 million species of fungi in the world (just 6% are named), some of which are as encouragingly altruistic as the radiation, kerosene, and faeces consumers. Although fungi have long been categorised as plants, they are truly more closely related to animals; at the molecular level, fungi and Sapiens are sufficiently similar for us poor insignificant wretches to benefit from their biochemical innovations. Fungi are “pharmaceutically prolific,” and we depend on them for all sorts of medicines, from the immunosuppressant cyclosporine to the anti-cancer compound Taxol. The happy probability is that many more life-saving substances found in the world’s fungi — or their ‘fruit’, the mushroom — will be discovered for us to ‘partner’ with.

Actually, scratch ‘discovered’, and replace with ‘rediscovered’. Like I said: humans rarely learn. If they do, they forget in a collective, continuous Alzheimers. Researchers once replicated the diet of Neanderthals and found they took penicillin for dental abscesses. Fast forward to AD 1945 and Alexander Fleming gets the gong of a Nobel Prize — for finding out what Neanderthals already knew.

As one hopes from a mycologist forenamed Merlin, Sheldrake misses not a trick in his promotion of fungi. Outside of medicine and de-pollution, the human uses of humble fungi are multitudinous. The black-and-white illustrations in Entangled Life were drawn with ink from the shaggy ink cap mushroom. A bit of a home brewer, Sheldrake also devotes pages to yeast. Then there are truffles, one of the most exquisite foods in the world, and one of the most expensive — though less pricey than oudh, a fungal infection of Aquilaria trees found in India and south-east Asia and used in perfume. It costs as much as $100,000 per kilogram. Veggie fashion designer Stella McCartney is currently experimenting with clothes and accessories made from fungal ‘leather’.

So far, so optimistic. Now for the black decay, the grey mildew, the white rot. This is a very modish book; one can just see the pitch (‘Guys, it’s like Wohleben’s mega-selling The Hidden Life of Trees — but about fungi!’) The interconnectedness of living things is the vibe of our time — fair enough — although Sheldrake’s imbibing of LSD to imagine himself as a fungal part of the natural network is risible. There is an award in literature for Bad Sex, but there should be one for Bad Drugs too, though I fail to see how anyone will ever top Merlin’s “The nurses made sure I drank the LSD at exactly 9 a.m. They watched me closely until I had swallowed all the liquid, which had been mixed in a small wine glass’s worth of water.” Authors requiring aid in “imagining” should take a glass of claret or a walk (solvitur ambulando), not a confected, publicity-seeking jack-up. Believe me. Dame CV Wedgewood, doyenne of historian ‘imaginers’, merely needed a stiff cup of tea.

The problem with Wohleben’s discourse-dominating Trees is that, while justifiably exploring the complexity of arboreal networks, it confused trees with Ents, the half-tree, half-human creatures in Tolkien. Sheldrake, happily, is more restrained, and more scientific about the ‘Wood Wide Web’ — the organic subterranean internet, whereby fungal threads of hyphae fuse into a root-like mycorrhizal network capable of transmitting electro-chemical information across vast areas. (One single honey fungi in Oregon weighs in at hundreds of tonnes, and spills across 10 square kilometres.)

The mycorrhizal network is absolutely not, as some enthusiasts like to believe, a Nature super-computer, a fungal brain, a mushroom Matrix. In the best pages of this book — and they are very good — Sheldrake traces the prosaic, primary purpose of the mycorrhizal network, which is the transporting of nutrients and water to plants and trees, flowers and grass. “This ancient association gave rise to all recognisable life on land, the future of which depends on the continued ability of plants and fungi to form healthy relationships.”

This, of course, is not news. Albert Howard, fungi-fancier and founder of organic farming, pointed out the close connection between fungi and soil health back in the 1940s, adding the corollary that applications of chemical fertilisers would endanger mycorrhizal association, the means by which “marriage” of fertile soil and plant is achieved.

Howard worried whether humankind could regulate its affairs so that soil fertility, our “chief possession”, could be preserved. Well, the answer from the future is an obese, resounding ‘no’ because, I repeat, humans do not learn. Industrial agriculture doubled crop yield over the second half of the twentieth century, but at the expense of degrading the environment. Soils in the United Kingdom have become so impoverished that researchers at the University of Sheffield estimate that there are only a hundred harvests left; even robust fungi struggle with lashings of fungicide, molluscicide, herbicide, pesticide. And if you chemically annihilate one aspect of nature, it affects the others — hence the title of Sheldrake’s book, taken from a line of German Ur-biologist Alexander von Humboldt: “Gradually, the observer realises that these organisms are connected to each other, not linearly, but in a net-like, entangled fabric.”

It ain’t rocket science, people. Mycorrhizal fungi glue the soil together, and thereby increase the volume of water that soil can absorb. And it doesn’t stop there. Turns out these fungi are an essential ‘partner’ to our agricultural industry. Sheldrake notes that they can:

increase the ability of crops to compete with weeds and enhance their resistance to diseases by priming plants’ immune systems. They can make crops less susceptible to drought and heat, and more resistant to salinity and heavy metals. They even boost the ability of plants to fight off attacks from insect pests by stimulating the production of defensive chemicals. The list goes on: the literature is awash with examples of the benefits that mycorrhizal relationships provide to plants.

Kill the mycorrhizal fungi, then, and not only will your crops whither, but the ground will quite literally wash away from under your feet. You can ‘rewild’ upland Exmoor with as many cute beavers as you like, but the magic solution to Britain’s now seemingly annual flooding — the solution to almost all Britain’s environmental woes, actually — is exactly what Albert Howard suggested 80 ancient years ago: organic farming. Protecting soil that is rich and complex with fungi is basic self-preservation.

Not that the fungi care whether we ‘partner’ them or whether we disregard their helping hyphae. Nature will win in the end; it always does. One way or another, the future is fungal.