When you start learning about everything fungi can do, it’s hard not to see them as protagonists in the story of life on Earth.
Though often overshadowed in the human imagination by animals and plants, fungi have altered the course of planetary history in dramatic ways, influencing everything from global climate and religion to food systems and evolutionary biology. They are, as biologist Merlin Sheldrake likes to say, “worldmakers.”
Recently, they’ve been receiving a bit more recognition for the many crucial roles they play in our ecosystems. As a result, they suddenly seem to be everywhere: sprouting from grow kits on our counters, inspiring haute couture collections, and starring in award-winning books and films.
According to Sheldrake, the burgeoning public interest in fungi—a kingdom that includes everything from yeast and varieties of mold to psychedelics and the shiitake in your fridge—coincides with a growing body of knowledge about them. But the symbolic functions that fungi fulfill are perhaps what most capture our imaginations.
“As environmental crises have worsened, people have become aware of the many shimmering networks of connection that we’re bound up in,” Sheldrake explains. “Fungi have become ecological poster organisms for this, because they form these persistent physical connections and networks with other organisms.”
For those seeking hope in a destabilizing world, fungi (of which mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies, analogous to the apples on an apple tree) may seem like the perfect vessel. They can digest cigarette butts and toxic chemicals, serve as an alternative to leather, meat, and plastic, and help trees communicate with one another via the “wood wide web.” Plus, they often defy incredible odds, proving themselves capable of growing through concrete or even solving mazes.
However, if fungi are protagonists, the scientist in Sheldrake would shy away from characterizing them as anything like the unambiguous heroes in a Hollywood film—he’s quick to point out they’re just as capable of creating what humans would classify as problems (hello, crop blight).
Still, he describes mycology as a “neglected megascience” and thinks that allowing fungi to play a larger role in science, as well as in the social imagination, would greatly benefit humanity. He points to lichens as an example: Long seen as individual organisms, research in the nineteenth century proved that they actually consist of a partnership between fungi and algae. This paved the way for a new understanding of natural relationships in which collaboration, rather than competition, drives interactions. It also challenged the very notion of the individual: If the fungi and algae evolved together to create what we now know as lichen, are they even really separable from one another? What does any of this mean for organisms like us, who rely on fungi and microbes in our guts to stay alive and healthy—where do “we” end and “they” begin? If we saw ourselves as being this intimately connected to other organisms, how would it change our interactions with the world?
The more we learn about fungi, Sheldrake argues, the more we question reality as we’ve always seen it. “The ways that we try to make sense of fungi often tell us as much about ourselves as the fungi that we try to understand,” Sheldrake writes in his recent book on fungi, Entangled Life.
To get a better sense of what this enigmatic group of organisms can teach us about the world and ourselves, we chatted with Sheldrake about fungi’s connections to everything from queer theory and spirituality to carbon sequestration and climate change.