Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures
By Merlin Sheldrake.
Random House, 2020.
Hardcover, 368 pages, $28.
Reviewed by Eve Tushnet.
There are fungi that hunt their prey.
Fungi can communicate, trade, and defend. They reproduce sexually, fusing the little threads called “hyphae” with compatible threads from another fungus and mixing their genetic material. (“How the sexual attraction between truffle fungi plays out remains unknown.”) Fungi can eat dirty diapers, cigarette butts, neurotoxins, and radiation. If we want our planet to become a little less of, in Pope Francis’s pungent phrase, “an immense pile of filth,” fungi may be our only friends.
But these revelations—some heartening, many unsettling—are only the beginning of Merlin Sheldrake’s project in his delightful Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. Sheldrake is out to convince you not only that you’ve never really understood mushrooms, but that you’ve never really understood yourself. Halfway through this book, I found myself thinking, Wait—am I a lichen? Have I been a lichen this whole time?
There’s an ingenuous quality to Sheldrake’s self-portrait. Earlier this year, a profile in The New York Times Magazine highlighted Sheldrake’s biological boosterism (why don’t you ever talk about the bad things mushrooms do?) as well as his oddball personal charm: He lives with his wife, Erin Robinsong, in a converted Methodist chapel, a few miles from his brother Cosmo, who also lives with his wife in a converted Methodist chapel. In Entangled Life, Sheldrake portrays himself as Puck with a PhD. He goes on psychedelic trips (“The nurses made sure I drank the LSD at exactly nine AM”), pilfers cider apples from a clone of Isaac Newton’s apocryphal apple tree, and gets his snout in the soil to follow questing and branching hyphae. He inspired Iris Van Herpen’s Roots of Rebirth fashion line, with its frills, gills, networks, and sexy tendrils. On his website, you can watch a time-lapse video showing oyster mushrooms devouring a copy of Entangled Life, scored to the mushrooms’ own music (plus double bass and vocals) courtesy of brother Cosmo. Then Sheldrake eats the mushrooms.
Sheldrake is a lush and fun prose stylist: “The truffle’s aroma strayed upward from the hole, brighter and more saturated than in the weighing room.” He can make you see “the damp yellows and browns of the oak woods” where truffles are hunted by fierce taciturn men in camouflage, or the “black smear” of lichen that marks the limit of high tide. He consistently strikes a tone of wonder and delight without seeming saccharine, and his philosophical interventions are provocative without being pushy. He hasn’t produced a polemic against the ideal of the self-sufficient liberal political subject, or even a policy brief in favor of honoring our interdependence with the natural world. Instead he just invites readers to consider whether, perhaps, they are lichen.
This is the deepest of Sheldrake’s philosophical questions. It hums below the surface of his beautiful description of mushrooms as a kind of incarnate polyphony. It animates his defense of those psychedelic voyagers who return from their trips convinced of metaphysical truths: “That a chemical can induce a profound mystical experience appears to support the prevailing scientific view that our subjective worlds are underpinned by the chemical activity of our brains; that the world of spiritual beliefs and experiences of the divine can spring from a material, biochemical phenomenon. However… the very same experiences are so powerful as to convince people that a nonmaterial reality—the raw ingredient of religious belief—exists.”
If eating a mushroom lets you see ultraviolet light, would you conclude that UV light doesn’t exist? If eating a mushroom worked like a cochlear implant, would it mean that sound is fake? So why not entertain the possibility that when shrooms dissolve your sense of the boundaries of the self and allow you to encounter previously untouched depths of joy and peace, they’re opening “the doors of perception” into something real?
About those lichen. “Some look like stains,” Sheldrake writes, “others like small shrubs, others like antlers. Some leather and droop like bat wings”; some “live on beetles” or float “untethered” through the air. And they’re all “cosmopolitan”: lichen are an intertwining, in which a fungal partner and an alga or bacteria become one organism. As scientists struggled to understand lichen, they kept trying to impose models of parasitism and slavery, competition or socialism. Fungi keep smacking us up against the limits of our ability to define both species and individuals. Sheldrake is drawn to a kind of apophatic mycology, in which all definitions of species exist only provisionally, as porous and collapsing barriers: “Our descriptions warp and deform the phenomena we describe, but sometimes this is the only way to talk about features of the world: to say what they are like but are not.”
Rather than modeling our understanding of lichen on other relationships, Sheldrake proposes, we might model our understanding of ourselves on lichen. Gently, playfully, Sheldrake will push you to rethink individuality: to see yourself not as an individual careening around and bouncing off of other individuals, not even as one interdependent thread in life’s great tangle, but as, yourself, a tangle. “Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns,” he writes. But then, I’ve got microbes and bacteria and fungi teeming just everywhere on my own body—and I just bathed! “There are more bacteria in your gut than stars in our galaxy,” per Sheldrake.
At one conference, he reports,
Someone got up to talk about a group of plants that produced a certain group of chemicals in their leaves. Until then, the chemicals had been thought of as a defining characteristic of that group of plants. However, it transpired that the chemicals were actually made by fungi that lived in the leaves of the plant. Our idea of the plant had to be redrawn. Another researcher interjected, suggesting that it may not be the fungi living inside the leaf that produced these chemicals but the bacteria living inside the fungus. Things continued along these lines. After two days, the notion of the individual had deepened and expanded beyond recognition. To talk about individuals made no sense anymore.
These are theological problems, as all anthropological problems eventually are. When I receive Jesus in the Eucharist, am I eating His gut bacteria? Surely not! And yet… at the general resurrection, will we be raised up with our gut biome, with all our bacteria and yeasts, with all the indispensable critters God has furnished us to accompany and preserve our city-like, tangle-like lives? If I can’t live without my ecosystem, I’m more than its house. Maybe I’m more than just a part of it. Maybe what it means to be “me” is to be this particular ecosystem, interacting and exchanging with other ecosystems as readily as I shed and replenish cells.
Sheldrake explores a thought experiment about the relationship between a blind man and his stick: “The stick extends their senses and becomes part of their sensory apparatus, a prosthetic organ of their body. Where the person’s self begins and ends is not as straightforward a question as it might seem at first glance.” And here I started to wonder about the dangers of interdependent thinking. What if the blind man is guided not by a stick, but by a dog? By his son? By his slave? If I am whatever I can’t live without, how can I acknowledge the welfare and the separate existence of the object or animal or person who supports my life? Unlike the lichen, we do exploit one another when we refuse to see the other as another, not merely a projection or extension of our own will. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an I!
That New York Times Magazine profile ends with the reporter dreaming of a fungal world where we are freed from our “solitary, disconnected bod[ies].” Maybe it is tragic that humans can’t live as one ecosystem, intertwined without injustice. And maybe that much-maligned Western obsession, individuality, forces us to negotiate and allows us to love.
But then again, for those of us who believe that God is triune, even I AM is more than one Person. “Is the Trinity a lichen” sounds like something a schoolman at the University of Paris would come up with right before the Inquisition came knocking. But maybe entangled life exerts such fascination on us because it is what all lovers dream of: to become one with a beloved who remains always herself; union that preserves difference.
At one point Sheldrake immerses himself “naked in a mound of decomposing wood chips,” to surround himself with fungi as they make life out of rot. There’s a thrill in getting this close to living like a fungus—and knowing you will never truly understand them. The lover will go to any lengths to become one with the beloved, to know her strange life from within, trusting that this communion will not diminish her alluring mystery.
Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. Her most recent book is Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love.
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