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A conversation with the deeply entangled Merlin Sheldrake
SUK AYNA POWELL
If you’ve even thought about mushrooms in the past year or so (and if you haven’t congratulations on getting so far into this magazine) you will probably have heard of Merlin Sheldrake and his pretty-much-every-list bestselling book ‘Entangled Life’, which takes the fungi-curious reader on a well-referenced and deeply thoughtful meander around the interconnected cosmos of mushrooms, mycologists, money, music, minds and more. A biologist, historian, musician, brewer and philosopher Merlin is generously taking the world with him on his full, fearless dive into a deeper engagement with every aspect of fungal ecology, and somewhere along the way found some time to chat to us. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sukayna: Last year was pretty big for mushrooms generally – Louie Schwartzberg’s blockbuster documentary, Francesca Gavin’s exhibition at Somerset House, your bestselling book, and much more! Many people in the field have been wondering – why now? What do you think?
It’s very noticeable – a fruiting moment for fungi it seems. I think there are a few reasons why this is happening now – some of which have been bubbling away for a while, and some are more recent. One reason is technological: we know more about the fungal world than we did before because of techniques like DNA sequencing that grant us new access to fungal lives. As we’ve found out more about what fungi do, the stories that we can tell about their roles in the living world have deepened and expanded, preparing the ground for the surge of interest we’re witnessing at the moment. Then there are the worsening environmental crises, which have led to an ecological turn across a number of disciplines. Fungi make good poster organisms for this because their interconnected nature embodies the basic principle of ecology: relationship. A surge in ecological awareness has coincided with the rise of network thinking and network technologies – from the internet to many of the machine learning algorithms that underpin modern ‘AI’, and I think fungi ride easily within this network zeitgeist. And then there are the many ways we can partner with fungi to help us adapt to life on a damaged planet. Sometimes these are presented as ‘myco-fixes’, but I’m a bit wary of the ‘myco-fix’ narrative because it reduces fungi to solutions for our self-inflicted problems, when of course they are so much more. The resurgence of interest in psychedelics has driven a lot of fungal fascination in recent years. Many recent studies have used psilocybin, and its a short hop from thinking about psilocybin and its place in the living world, to thinking about other molecules that fungi produce and the many activities that they are engaged in.
“I’M A BIT WARY OF THE ‘MYCO-FIX’ NARRATIVE BECAUSE IT REDUCES FUNGI TO SOLUTIONS FOR OUR SELF-INFLICTED PROBLEMS”
And of course, mycovangelism has done a lot to raise the profile of fungi in societies at large. Paul Stamets is the most well-known example, and his PR efforts on behalf of fungi have done a huge amount to raise their profile – involving fungi within the latest Star Trek series, for instance. There’s a positive feedback cycle that kicks in at a certain point, where mycovangelism begets mycovangelism.
Much of what people seem to connect with, with regards the fungal kingdom, is its potential to inspire new paradigms that can seem, at the same time, acceptably ancient and sort of ‘retroactively reasonable’, so to speak. You write about some of the pleasures and pitfalls of such story-spinning in your book, so what should people consider when approaching fungi as something to think with?
It’s hard to generalise and I certainly wouldn’t want to formulate guidelines. Some people might find themselves fascinated by the way fungi live as networks, some to the ways that fungi enter into collaborations with other organisms, some to the metabolic ingenuity and ability to transform matter, some to the astonishing forms and colours of mushrooms…
There are so many ways to be a fungus and so many ways to engage, as a human, with fungal life. When thinking about fungi, and about the living world in general for that matter, I’ve found that a balanced narrative diet is important – our metaphors and analogies can box things in and so I try to see through the lens of several metaphors or analogies to avoid one becoming dominant to the exclusion of others. I’m also interested in shifting perspectives as much as possible – if we’re going to use concepts and metaphors from human life to understand fungi, it feels only balanced to try to let fungal behaviour itself influence the metaphors we use to understand other phenomena, whether in human life or elsewhere.
I enjoy noticing the ways fungi seem to decompose familiar concepts – it’s generally in these places, where my preconceptions wear thin, that I’m tempted into new perspectives. I’ve found I end up in more interesting predicaments if I try to let fungi lead rather than working hard to shoehorn them into existing frameworks. When thinking along these lines I might check with myself how open ended my enquiry really is. How attached am I to my expectations? Am I trying to prove something? What kind of fungus am I thinking about, in particular? What happens if I try to think about the fungal scenario from the perspective of a bacterium? Or a nematode worm? Or a plant root?
One of the paradigms that mycological relations, systems, and networks encourage us to appraise more thoroughly is the traditional parasite/host binary. Do you think taking a closer look at this (with the help of fungi) might have some interesting consequences for both ecological and political interventions?
Traditionally, symbiotic relationships have been characterised in fairly rigid terms, for instance as parasitic, in which case one partner would benefit at the expense of another, or mutualistic, in which case all partners would benefit from the association. In recent years, it’s become clear that it makes more sense to think of a symbiotic continuum, with parasitism at one pole and mutualism at the other. How a given organism behaves depends on who they find themselves partnering with and where they happen to be. A bacterial species in our gut can make up a key part of our digestive system but cause a deadly infection if it gets into our blood. Some plants benefit from their mycorrhizal fungal partners in some conditions and not in others.
I find it most helpful to think of collaboration as always being a dynamic balance of competition, conflict, and cooperation. We’re no strangers to this idea: the members of a jazz band can give a captivating performance and still compete and conflict with one another. Understanding symbiotic relationships in more fluid terms also raises questions about control. Are mycorrhizal fungi farming their companion plant/s, or are plants farming their mycorrhizal fungal partners? This type of confusion seems to me a helpful antidote to rigid dichotomies and dualities, and when extended to our own symbiotic associations, medicine for our species narcissism. A large dose of species humility, it strikes me, could have powerful ecological and political consequences.
“A BALANCED NARRATIVE DIET IS IMPORTANT – OUR METAPHORS AND ANALOGIES CAN BOX THINGS IN AND SO I TRY TO SEE THROUGH THE LENS OF SEVERAL METAPHORS OR ANALOGIES TO AVOID ONE BECOMING DOMINANT TO THE EXCLUSION OF OTHERS”
You mentioned jazz, and you also write about polyphonic music as a great analogy for the complexity and open-ended nature of fungal relationships. You even folded music and sound into your entanglement with your own book – is music and sound something the sciences and humanities – mycologically oriented and beyond – could weave into their thinking more deeply?
I find that listening to and playing music helps me to think and imagine. Music is a helpful reminder that the universe is made up of processes, rather than fixed, stable things. Nature is an event that never stops. Atoms and molecules are sites of fervent activity, and the ‘you’ of five years ago was made from different stuff than the ‘you’ of today. As William Bateson, who coined the word ‘genetics’, observed, ‘We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing’. Similarly, a musical note can’t exist in a single instant. Sound takes time to unfold in. In pieces of music, notes wind in and out of relation with other notes, and in and out of patterns of stability, of chaos and order. Music thus enacts something fundamental.
And I suppose more broadly, how important do you think our lived sensory experience is important for understanding, and should sensory and sensual experience be ritualised into intellectual inquiry?
It always amazes me how easy it is to slip my moorings and drift into abstraction. I find that coming back to lived, sensory experience is an important remedy. When I was doing research into mycorrhizal fungi in Panama I had a colleague who was a skilled spore wrangler. Some evenings we made snacks from spores, fragments of cracker, and sour cream: tiny crumbs of mycorrhizal caviar that we had to prepare under the microscope and tweezer into our mouths. We didn’t learn much, but that wasn’t the point. It was an exercise that helped us to keep our balance as we careened from the microscopic world of soil organisms to their enormous influence on whole landscapes and ecosystems. Mouthfuls of spores provided rare moments of unmediated contact with our experimental subjects, goofs to remind us that mycorrhizal fungi aren’t mechanical abstract entities – one can’t eat a machine or a concept – but living organisms engaged in lives that we still struggle to understand. Exercises like this help me situate myself as an embodied organism, and reminds me that my senses participate in the world they perceive.
Collaboration is at the heart of many mycological behaviours and the behaviours of many mycologists and mycofolk – what have been your most enriching/enrapturing collaborations with fungi?
My mycorrhizal studies have led me to think of gardening as a form of fungal collaboration. Almost all plants depend on fungi that live in their roots or shoots to grow and behave as they do, which makes plants the visible, edible, smellable outgrowths of fungal collaborations. When we cultivate plants, we participate in this collaboration, which is something I’ve long found deeply enriching.
And then there is fermentation. For years my brother Cosmo and I have been keen brewers and fermenters: beers, wines, meads, pickles, sauerkrauts, kvass, hot sauces… the thrill persists. I see it as a sort of gardening, with vast populations of microbes taking the place of green plants. Fermentation is a way of domesticating decomposition – rehousing rot. In these jars and bottles successive waves of microbial populations rise and fall, enacting complex ecological dynamics. Invisibly small organisms have been shaping life on the planet for as long as there has been life. But unlike the vast biogeochemical cycles that maintain the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere or oceans, fermentation take place over timescales that we can observe – and taste – with our own unaided senses. A jar of koji and fermenting chillies and provides a small window into the way that life happens, and the hot sauce these organisms create makes everything taste better.
As part of the international community of people working with fungi, what do you think this giant ‘mycelial’ network should be focusing on to ensure that we can face present and future global challenges?
I think education and outreach is really important, especially to young people. Giuliana Furci and her amazing team at the Fungi Foundation are working to develop mycological components for school curricula, which is exciting and long overdue. What would a mycologically (and microbially) informed society look like? How might things change if symbiosis and collaboration in the living world received as much educational attention as conflict and competition? And of course, more research. Most people who have spent time thinking about fungi bump up against our ignorance before long, and it would be wonderful to see more funds allocated to fungal enquiries – especially for projects that struggle to get funding: long term studies on the one hand, and risky, exploratory projects on the other.
What’s calling from over the horizon – what’s next for you?
I’m keen to get back to that research. I’ve got a pile of papers to publish, and there are open questions whichever way one looks.
“FERMENTATION IS A WAY OF DOMESTICATING DECOMPOSITION – REHOUSING ROT. IN THESE JARS AND BOTTLES SUCCESSIVE WAVES OF MICROBIAL POPULATIONS RISE AND FALL, ENACTING COMPLEX ECOLOGICAL DYNAMICS”
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