Merlin Sheldrake (2020)

I often avoid books like these, as I worry that they’ll focus on a single aspect of the environment and try too hard to make it all-consumingly special. This isn’t a book like that. Perhaps because it’s written by a scientist, it’s balanced and carefully supported. It covers all the parts of fungi you’d expect, in all their strangeness: we talk of things being “animal, vegetable, or mineral” and ignore the fourth possibility (although we should perhaps also include bacteria, archæa, and viruses too).

The “wood wide web” of communications between trees mediated by fungi gets an excellent treatment, both its mechanics and in terms of how evolution might have brought it about by allowing co-operation to complement individual competition (shades of Peter Kropotkin‘s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution). There’s also extensive consideration of the psychotropic effects of fungi and the chemicals they produce, both on humans (which can be pleasant) and insects (which can be far worse). And there is also the far-less-known ability of fungi to act as decontaminators to break down chemicals that are otherwise extremely difficult to deal with and lethal to most plants – and even more remarkably, that this ability seems to be amenable to being trained or at least steered in useful new directions.

I have to admire Sheldrake’s creativity and perseverance in studying fungi. They’re clearly a hard topic to research, not least because the fruiting bodies are only a visible clue to a far larger and more diffuse underground body that’s a challenge to detect, let alone sense or explore.

5/5. Finished Thursday 31 August, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)