In 1927, Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina, spent their honeymoon in the Catskills in what would turn out to be a life-altering experience. On a walk through the woods, they came across a patch of mushrooms. Wasson expressed no interest in them—his impulse was to turn away in disgust. “Like all good Anglo-Saxons,” he later wrote, “I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt that the less I knew about those putrid, treacherous excrescences the better.” But Valentina, who grew up in Russia, was delighted—the sight unlocked a memory of gathering mushrooms with her family as a child. Leaving her husband behind, she wandered off and began collecting them.
For Wasson it was a moment when he realized just how little he knew about these strange organisms, how little even Anglo-American folk traditions or culture had to say about them—beyond the notion that they should be feared. He would keep coming back to this divide—between mycophiles and mycophobes, terms coined by Wasson and Valentina—for the rest of his life. He went on to write and co-write several books and dozens of articles on the subject and corresponded with the likes of Robert Graves, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roman Jakobson. He traveled to Oaxaca in the early 1950s and was one of first Westerners to take part in the sacred mushroom ceremony of the Mazatec Indians. In 1957, a few years before Timothy Leary arrived on the scene, Wasson wrote a cover story for Life magazine about his experience (it was titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”), which introduced millions of Americans to the world of psilocybins.
Even Wasson couldn’t have foreseen how many people would eventually take an interest in what was then considered an esoteric subject. Today, it’s not uncommon to see supermarket shelves stocked with exotic varieties of fungi, both wild and cultivated. Mushrooms are also being deployed to make all sorts of consumer products, from Adidas shoes to “vegan leather” designer handbags. And at the same time, there’s been a renewed effort to understand how psilocybin, the chemical compound found in some species of fungi, can be used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as well as addiction, as Michael Pollan charted in his bestselling 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind (now also a Netflix series). Fungi even get a starring role in the video game and hit HBO show The Last of Us, as a world-destroying blight. Not since the 1960s have mushrooms so captivated the American imagination.
Perhaps more than any other recent author, Merlin Sheldrake, a 36-year-old British biologist, has tapped into this growing fascination. His book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, became an unlikely bestseller in 2020. He has since collaborated on an IMAX film narrated by Bjork (Fungi: Web of Life), consulted with the designer Stella McCartney on a show titled “Fashion Fungi,” and been profiled in The New York Times Magazine, which described him as a “slightly eccentric naturalist” and “the face of fungi.” A new abridged edition of Entangled Life includes dozens of glossy photographs that showcase the otherworldly beauty of the fungal kingdom. But unlike Pollan et al., Sheldrake is less interested in making the case for how we can use fungi than in demonstrating with a kind of unbounded wonder how intimately fungi are connected with all forms of life.
What is a fungus? Many animals have characteristics that we can relate to easily enough: They see, smell, touch, and even use language. Fungi, though, are entirely different. Neither plant nor animal, they feed mostly on dead and decaying organic matter, providing an essential ecological service, and typically reproduce by disseminating millions of microscopic spores into the air. (“Fungi produce around 50 megatons of spores each year—equivalent to the weight of 500,000 blue whales—making them the largest source of living particles in the air,” Sheldrake writes.) They can survive in some of the world’s harshest environments and have managed to live through each of the planet’s five mass extinctions. They have been found in the Antarctic Dry Valleys—one of the driest, least hospitable places on earth—and amid the wreckage of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors. The so-called “kerosene fungus” thrives in the fuel tanks of airplanes. And they live inside of us too, making up a small but vital component of our gut microbiome.
These relationships are the central subject of Sheldrake’s book. Life on earth as we know it is rooted—or perhaps I should say entangled—in a roughly 600-million-year-old relationship between plants and fungi. When green algae made its way from the swamps and estuaries that covered much of the earth during this period, it had no means to tap into the nutrients it needed on land. In order to survive, the algae teamed up with fungi in what are now called “mycorrhizal relationships,” which are integral to most plant species, “a more fundamental part of planthood than fruit, flowers, leaves, wood or even roots.” In most cases, both species benefit. Fungi tap into sugars and lipids produced by plants during photosynthesis. Plants gain access to a whole host of minerals and other nutrients consumed by enterprising fungi. As Sheldrake writes, “By partnering, plants gain a prosthetic fungus, and fungi gain a prosthetic plant. Both use the other to extend their reach.”
The photos in the new edition—many of them images scanned with electron microscopes—complement his endeavor, literally giving form to processes that we cannot see with our own eyes. What we typically think of as a mushroom is the fruiting body that appears above ground, but much of the action that leads to this often fleeting moment takes place out of sight, within the dense rootlike structure known as the mycelium. Mycelia, in turn, are made up of countless individual hyhpae, microscopic tube-shaped cells that are responsible for gathering nutrients and water, often in partnership with trees or plants. It is hard to overstate the importance of these underground networks, which make up at least a third of the living mass of soils. “Mycorrhizal mycelium is a sticky living seam that holds soil together,” Sheldrake writes. “Remove the fungi, and the ground washes away.” Some of the most revealing images in the book are those of various kinds of wood-rotting fungi alongside their mycelial networks.
Humans too have long benefited from their use of fungi, most notably with the discovery of penicillin in 1928. (There is evidence that the medicinal properties of penicillin have been understood for far longer, perhaps even before Homo sapiens: One recent study found that Neanderthals, who went extinct roughly 50,000 years ago, made use of penicillin-producing mold.) Fungi have also been deployed in a wide range of pharmaceuticals, including in an immunosuppressant that makes organ transplants possible, in cholesterol-lowering drugs, and in a number of antiviral and anticancer compounds. And mushrooms have proven useful in cleaning up contaminated environments, including oil spills, plastics, and even nuclear waste, in what has been dubbed mycoremediation. (Sheldrake’s mentor, Paul Stamets, wrote a book on the subject in 2005 titled Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.)
Like Pollan, and Wasson before him, Sheldrake also gains some firsthand experience of the effects of mushroom-derived psychedelics on the human mind, but this line of inquiry is not his primary focus. After signing up to take part in a clinical study looking at the effects of LSD—a drug originally derived from a fungus that grows on wheat and rye—on humans’ problem-solving capabilities, he briefly sketches his experience. The LSD-induced visions, he writes, “are at best plausible and at worst delirious nonsense.”
Yet they do provide him with something else: the conviction that science alone is not capable of fully understanding the world of fungi. “The LSD had forced me to admit that I had an imagination and I now saw fungi differently … I wanted to let these organisms lure me out of my well-worn patterns of thought, to imagine the possibilities they face, to let them press against the limits of my understanding, to give myself permission to be amazed—and confused—by their entangled lives.” In just about every book on mushrooms that I’ve read, including Sheldrake’s, there’s an acknowledgment somewhere that only about 6 percent of the fungal kingdom has been described, a figure that never ceases to amaze me. When we start to look at this underground world, Sheldrake writes, “we are standing at the entrance to one of the oldest of life’s labyrinths.”
One of the most engrossing sections of the book—with some of the most striking photographs—describes the novel ways that so-called “zombie fungi” manipulate the bodies (and perhaps minds) of certain insects to release their spores. Ophiodordyceps unilateralis, for example, takes up residence in carpenter ants and strips them of their instinctive fear of heights known as “summit disease.” The ants leave their nests and climb the nearest plant, chomping down on one of its leaves. At this stage, like a spider weaving its web, the mycelium grows out of the ant’s feet and binds the insect to the plant’s surface. The fungus then proceeds to digest its prey and emerge, Phoenix-like, as a mushroom out of the ant’s head. In a kind of macabre victory lap, spores rain down on the ants passing below and are carried on their way.
Similarly, the Entomophthora fungus, which takes root in flies, causes them to release a gluelike substance that sticks to whatever surface they touch. The paralyzed insect is devoured, “starting with the fatty parts and finishing with the vital organs,” before a stalk emerges and releases spores into the air. Another fungus, Massospora, consumes the hind quarters of the cicada, essentially causing it to disintegrate and ultimately release the spores through its ruptured rear end. (In The Last of Us, the fungal apocalypse turns humans, not insects, into zombies.)
Sheldrake does not shy away from the fact that fungi can do enormous damage, but he spends less time on what this might portend. Since about 2006, white nose syndrome, a fungus that likely originated in Europe or Asia, has decimated bat populations in North America. Every year, as Sheldrake notes, a fungal pathogen destroys up to a third of the global rice crop. And the risk of disease remains paramount, hence the subtitle of Emily Monosson’s recent book, Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic.
Sheldrake is more concerned about the endangerment of fungi by habitat loss, deforestation, and climate change. A recent report by Kew botanic gardens in the U.K. found that thousands of fungal species could disappear before they’ve even been recorded by science. This poses a daunting challenge: cataloging the vast number of mushrooms that have not been identified and at the same time conserving land, particularly forests, to ensure that they can survive.
The prospect of these extinctions is deeply troubling, not only for the inherent loss of biodiversity but for the species’ potential benefit to humanity. Sheldrake himself is a member of the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks, which warns that the destruction of mycorrhizal networks could “destabilize ecosystems” and make it more difficult to combat climate change. Fungi, it turns out, are a major global carbon sink—another benefit they provide that remains poorly understood. A study published in June estimated that fungi attached to plant roots sequester surprisingly large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Getting people to care about endangered plants and animals—even so-called charismatic species (think polar bears, dolphins)—is difficult enough; fungi have the added burden, at least in the anglophone world, of centuries of stigmatization. Wasson’s reaction to the sight of mushrooms on his honeymoon reflected a deeply held cultural belief, one that has only recently begun to shift. There’s a certain irony in the fact that Wasson’s popularization of magic mushrooms in the 1950s had the unintended effect of focusing the nation’s attention on a fascinating but relatively minor aspect of the mycological world. After his Life story was published, thousands of people descended on the remote region of Oaxaca where the traditional Aztec ceremonies were still taking place. Wasson later took some responsibility for “unleashing on lovely Huautla a torrent of commercial exploitation of the vilest kind.” His guide and source, Maria Sabina, regretted ever having shared the mushrooms with him.
Like Wasson’s article, Sheldrake’s book has made a big splash. But it’s done so by revealing the less visible ways in which fungi are integral to all life on earth, including our own. Love or hate them, our fates are intertwined.