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Good Reads  Mycology

Entangled Life How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

Nature Writing New SPECIAL OFFER
By: Merlin Sheldrake(Author), Colin Elder(Illustrator)
374 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. The Sunday Times Bestseller. Without stepping off the edge of reason, the beautifully written Entangled Life is a truly mind-altering and perspective-shifting book on fungi. Read our Q&A with Merlin Sheldrake
Entangled Life
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  • Entangled Life ISBN: 9781784708276 Paperback Sep 2021 In stock
    £8.99 £10.99
  • Entangled Life ISBN: 9781847925190 Hardback Sep 2020 Out of Print #248534
Selected version: £8.99
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Neither plant nor animal, it is found throughout the earth, the air and our bodies. It can be microscopic, yet also accounts for the largest organism ever recorded – covering ten square kilometres, weighing 35,000 tons and estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Its ability to digest rock enabled the first life on land, and for 40 million years its towering structures dominated earth's landscape. It can survive unprotected in space, and thrives amidst nuclear radiation.

It can solve problems without a brain, stretching traditional definitions of 'intelligence', and can manipulate animal behaviour in astonishing and often unsettling ways that we struggle to explain. The discovery that it connects plants in large collaborative networks, the 'Wood Wide Web', is transforming our understanding of how non-animal life works. In giving humans bread, alcohol and life-saving medicines, it has changed our species' history, while its ability to digest plastic, explosives, pesticides and crude oil is being harnessed in break-through technologies. Its psychedelic properties, which have shaped cultures since antiquity, have recently been shown to alleviate a number of mental illnesses. And yet most of its millions of species remain undocumented.

In this mind-altering adventure, Merlin Sheldrake introduces the spectacular and neglected world of fungi: endlessly surprising organisms that have made our world, and continue to shape our futures.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Mind-altering and beautifully written
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 2 Oct 2020 Written for Hardback

    One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.

    Say "fungus" and most people will think of mushrooms. However, they are only the above-ground fruiting bodies that serve to disperse fungal spores. Most of what a fungus does happens underground. Here, they form mycelium: networks of fine, tubular cells called hyphae. Leave it to Sheldrake to dissolve boundaries and make you rethink everything you thought you knew about living organisms. Mycelium is "better not thought of as a thing, but as a process – an exploratory, irregular tendency" (p. 7), as "a body without a body plan" (p. 55), writes Sheldrake. Mycelial fungi are maze dwellers, probing the underground world in search of resources. Hyphae can branch and fuse, exploring in all directions simultaneously. These amorphous, shape-shifting entities have no fixed shape. Like water, "mycelium decants itself into its surroundings" (p. 58).

    And while there is no "brain", no centre of control, mycelium somehow communicates information through its network. When it finds something to digest, hyphae leading there grow more numerous, while those leading nowhere are pruned. Mycelium communicates this information across its network with surprising rapidity, though how is still open for debate. Pressure changes as in a hydraulic network? Volatile chemicals? A likely candidate that Sheldrake highlights are electrical impulses.

    Really questioning the concept of identity are lichens, the symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. Taxonomists have long struggled to make sense of this inter-kingdom collaboration where an organism is made up of two separate lineages. Lynn Margulis turned to them to support her idea of endosymbiosis. But look harder and things become weirder. Recent discoveries show that lichen groups consist of stable partnerships involving a third or even fourth fungal partner. And their identities differ between different lichen groups. It seems that a broad range of different fungal and algal players can come together to form lichens, making them "dynamic systems, rather than a catalogue of interacting components". One scientist quoted here points out how this leads to the absurdity of "an entire discipline that can’t define what it is that they study" (p. 101).

    Fungi shape both the deep past and the present. They played an important role in plant evolution, providing root systems for algae conquering the land 50 million years before plants evolved roots. Today, over 90% of plants still depend on these so-called mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi also have many practical applications, from yeasts providing us bread and beer to mycoremediation (cleaning up waste with fungi) and new building materials. Sheldrake pays particular attention to the efforts of mycological maverick Paul Stamets to save the world one mushroom at a time, and the loose collective of DIY-mycologist that has sprung up around Peter McCoy’s organisation Radical Mycology.

    I admit that I was initially worried that this book might veer into very speculative and spiritual territory. One of my concerns was the question "like father, like son"? After all, Merlin’s father Rupert Sheldrake is both a biologist and parapsychologist who formulated the concept of morphic resonance* – an idea that lacks both empirical support and widespread acceptance. Add to this the topic of psychedelic mushrooms and you have the ingredients for a potent new age brew. Instead, there are two chapters in particular where Sheldrake Jr. shows how to open minds without stepping off the edge of reason.

    First, when discussing psychedelic mushrooms and his own experiences taking LSD in the setting of a clinical drug testing unit, he draws parallels to Ophiocordyceps fungi, popularly known as zombie fungi, that take control of insect minds. Though he acknowledges that the powerful and transformative hallucinations induced by psilocybin-containing mushrooms can literally, as Michael Pollan put it, change your mind, he does not confuse them with reality. Rather, they confirm the idea that "our subjective worlds are underpinned by the chemical activity of our brain" (p. 121).

    Second, he is surprisingly critical of the relatively novel idea of the "Wood Wide Web". This is the finding that mycorrhizal fungi connect different plants, even different plant species, with each other via their mycelial networks. The popular press has run with the idea of trees talking to each other, helped along by the success of books such as Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, but Sheldrake takes a far more balanced and sobering view, shying away from sweeping extrapolations. First, he points out how plant-centric this metaphor is and considers the fungal point of view. Second, mycorrhizal networks are not all about "sharing and caring", their behaviour is far more ambiguous than that. Our metaphors are fraught, argues Sheldrake, before asking: "Are we able to stand back, look at the system, and let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria [...] be themselves, and quite unlike anything else?" (p. 193)

    Not only is the science fascinating and Sheldrake’s ideas and musings perspective-shifting, he is also a first-class wordsmith who has crafted a beautiful book with Entangled Life. When diving into the pungent underground world of truffle hunting, he writes: "truffles provide a depiction of animal tastes – an evolutionary portrait-in-scent of animal fascination" (p. 28). On the question of how mycelium should distribute itself when growing: "How do fungi juggle this kind of trade-off while exploring a crowded rot-scape in search of food?" (p. 54). Extensive footnotes, sometimes running half a page, add much interesting detail, while tasteful drawings made with ink from shaggy ink cap mushrooms give the book a certain cachet.

    In comparison, other popular books on fungi feel like taking a look in from the outside. Somehow, Sheldrake has the uncanny ability to speak as if directly relaying messages from the mycelium. Entangled Life is a gem of a book that mixes scientific astuteness with remarkably entrancing writing.

    *a sort of collective memory in nature that would allow for telepathy-type interconnections between organisms
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Merlin Sheldrake is a fungal biologist and a writer. He received a PhD in Tropical Ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In 2016, he was profiled in the New Yorker by Robert Macfarlane for an article about the Wood Wide Web. He is a musician and keen fermenter. Entangled Life is his first book.

Nature Writing New SPECIAL OFFER
By: Merlin Sheldrake(Author), Colin Elder(Illustrator)
374 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. The Sunday Times Bestseller. Without stepping off the edge of reason, the beautifully written Entangled Life is a truly mind-altering and perspective-shifting book on fungi. Read our Q&A with Merlin Sheldrake
Media reviews

"[...] This is Sheldrake’s first book, and, while his expertise means that the readers should feel that they are in safe hands from the off, in truth the experience is more like being whisked down a burrow by a white rabbit, or on a tour of Willy Wonka’s research facility: a trippy, astonishing, and completely exhilarating ride. Wonders come thick and fast. [...] Again and again we glimpse vistas of wonder that border on pseudoscience, and every time we are pulled back on to more empirical rails, wide-eyed and breathless, experiencing a kind of biological vertigo where not only humankind, but all of animal-kind is ancillary to the big picture. These insights and questions are backed up with 80 pages of notes and references, making the book a feat of collation and synthesis as well as a masterpiece of exposition and enlightenment – all  the more extraordinary given that Sheldrake has just turned 33. I lost count of the times I exclaimed out loud, drew and puffed a long breath, reread passages to make sure that I was not imagining too much. Once I got up and danced. This book is likely to change the way you see everything, without having to eat a single magic ‘shroom. Go on, it cannot hurt to try a little bite."
– Amy-Jane Beer, British Wildlife volume 32(2), November 2012

"A dazzling, vibrant, vision-changing book. Sentence after sentence stopped me short. I ended it wonderstruck at the fungal world – the secrets of which modern science is only now beginning to fathom – and the earth-shaking, hierarchy-breaking implications of Sheldrake's argument. A remarkable work by a remarkable writer"
– Robert MacFarlane, author of Underland

"One of those rare books that can truly change the way you see the world around you, Entangled Life is a mercurial, revelatory, impassioned, urgent, astounding, and necessary read. It's fearless in scope, analytically astute, and brimming with infectious joy"
– Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk

"A true masterpiece, a thrilling and fascinating insight into the living world, beautifully written, entertaining, funny and inspiring, while representing the science carefully and responsibly. I hope and trust that it will become an instant classic"
– George Monbiot

"I fell in love with this book. Merlin is a scientist with the imagination of a poet and a beautiful writer [...] This is a book that, by virtue of the power of its writing, shifts your sense of the human [...] It will inspire a generation to enter mycology"
– Michael Pollan (Bay Area Book Festival, 2020)

"Wondrous [...] an astonishing book that could alter our perceptions of fungi for ever. It seems somehow to tip the natural world upside down"
– Rachel Cooke, Observer

"Reads like an adventure story [...] wondrous [...] beguilingly weaves together lived experience and scientific research"
– John Carey, Sunday Times

"After this book, nothing will seem the same again [...] beautifully written and illustrated [...] dazzling [...] reveals a world that's both more extraordinary and more delicate than could be imagined"
Mail on Sunday

"The lives of fungi alone are fascinating, but the questions and wider implications that Sheldrake teases out from them are often truly astounding [...] an engrossing, captivating journey [...] rigorous, comprehensive, perspective-altering [...] if this book is any indication, [Sheldrake] has an exciting career in not only science but also literature ahead of him"

"Brilliant [...] entrancing [...] when we look closely [at fungi], we meet large, unsettling questions [...] Merlin Sheldrake [...] carries us easily into these questions with ebullience and precision [...] challenging some of our deepest assumptions [...] A 'door-opener' book is one with a specialist subject in which it finds pathways leading everywhere [...] Sheldrake's book is a very fine example"

"Mind-boggling [...] [Sheldrake] is nothing if not a participatory researcher into his subject and one with a winning sense of humour [...] it might be a good time to give thanks for this humble lifeform's effect on our lives [...] It's tempting [...] to see fungi as the biological model for a better world"
Telegraph *****

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