4 out of 5 stars
Every single thing on this planet is interlinked and intertwined and often the thing that links them is fungi. They are everywhere and they bring life and death to every living entity on this planet. They can source life-giving nutrients from all manner of things, including plastic, oil and even explosives. Almost every living thing on this planet relies on them. We use them to make bread and beer, plants use them to extract nutrients. He even grows mushrooms on a copy of his book and then cooks and eats them. Their mycelium links trees in a forest in what has been called the Wood Wide Web and they can live in all manner of places from rocks to oceans.
But what exactly are fungi? The most common answer to this question is ‘we don’t know’.
However, Merlin Sheldrake sets about telling some of the fantastic and at times almost unbelievable stories of how they live, and their exploits. There are stories about how spores infect ants and take over their tiny bodies and get them to climb to a very specific height on a plant and bite it. Soon after their heads sprout fungi and the life cycle is complete. He joins hunters and their dogs searching for the elusive and expensive truffle. Slime mould is fairly unpleasant stuff, but it has a knack of finding the most efficient routes or its way out of mazes, or even Ikea… Lichens are fairly simple forms of life and yet they are made up from photobionts and fungus and they are somehow greater than the sum of their parts.
It wouldn’t be a book on fungi without magic mushrooms being mentioned. Sheldrake takes part in an LSD trial to measure just how these chemicals can have positive effects for those suffering from mental health issues. He takes a look back at the historical uses of these mind-changing mushrooms and how they have played their part in shamanism over the ages. Then there is the future, as we start to understand their capabilities we are finding uses for them that go far beyond the (very yummy) mushrooms on toast.
The mycelium world is so very strange and unlike everything else that scientists have studied in the past. The little that they do know is so different to the rest of biology that they just don’t know how and where to start explaining it, but it is slowly changing as they realise that dependency that we have on them. Sheldrake’s book takes us on a magical mushroom mystery tour and makes for fascinating reading. For a debut book, this is very good indeed. He has a light touch in his writing style, expanding on subjects without the book feeling like an academic paper. I liked that the art throughout the book is originally made from the ink of the shaggy ink cap mushroom. Well worth reading.