Bodley Head, 2020
Reviewed by Ian Mowll
There is a growing interest in fungi as science is finding out more about this amazing life form. This book is packed with fascinating facts; more than this, Merlin Sheldrake writes like any good storyteller, weaving in anecdotes and real-life examples to bring the narrative to life.
Through this book, I learnt so much about fungi. Some can alter the behaviour of ants to help spread their spores. Some produce hallucinogens. Some break down man made pollution and some can help produce materials to replace plastics. Here are some more interesting facts…
Lichens appear because of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. The relationship between these two life forms is complex and it’s not always possible to say that one species of fungi is associated with one species of algae to produce one lichen. It’s more like a symphony of life forms blending together to produce lichens. And due to the blending of life, it can be hard to say where one life form ends and another begins.
Trees did not always rot in the way they do today. In the Carboniferous period (359.2 to 299 million years ago), trees drew carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) out of the atmosphere and used the carbon to grow. When the trees died, they would slowly decompose into coal. Since the Carboniferous period, fungi have learnt to rot the dead wood of trees so now, no new coal is being produced.
Merlin takes considerable time to explain how nutrients are passed between trees and plants through fungi in a network that has been dubbed the “wood wide web”. But Merlin explains where this analogy of a network breaks down – a simple story that says that fungi are behaving in an altruistic way to connect trees and plants does not do justice to the complexity of the bio systems and there is still much to be learnt. In addition, it’s not always possible to understand a whole network in terms of its component parts; as happens so often in life, the sum is greater than its parts.
From this book, I understand that life on our planet is not made up of isolated, selfish life-forms that grab what they can take. Rather, it is a glorious, interconnected, mushy mess whose dynamics we are only just beginning to understand. And fungi are an integral part to the great adventure of life on our amazing planet.