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A Look At: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures
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The Mushroom Boom

In recent years mushrooms have entered the spotlight. As clinical evidence mounts for the effectiveness of psilocybin in the treatment of a variety of mental health issues, the mainstream is starting to take notice of the fungal kingdom. Conversations about psychedelic mushrooms are becoming ever more common. This also seems to be the case for home cultivation and use of psilocybin fungi. The excitement extends beyond psychedelic mushrooms to all manner of fungi. Fungi are being used in mycoremediation, mycofabrication, scientific experimentation, and simply for home growing and cooking. Merlin Sheldrake’s new book on the topic of the fungal world, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, is a very welcome addition to the increasingly mycophilic marketplace.

The Lives of Fungi

A key message of the book is that our world is more than human. Fungal lives are as real as our own and show astounding complexity. For many humans today, life has become deeply disconnected from nature, making this claim seem far-fetched. For those who choose to deepen their connection with nature, whether through spending time outdoors, foraging, or tripping on a chemical of fungal origin like psilocybin or LSD, the idea of nature as sophisticated and intelligent will come as no surprise. We see the world around us differently when this mode of ecological awareness is triggered within us. We start to see nature as being like ourselves. 

As well as being a trained scientist, Sheldrake is a wonderful writer. In this book, his gift for prose is bent toward triggering this recognition of the aliveness of the unassuming fungal world. It’s one thing to read a dry scientific argument for the idea that nonhuman organisms are intelligent, but it’s quite another to read of “riots” of mycelium navigating through “rot-scapes.” Sheldrake’s vivid writing makes us feel the truth of the fungal world, alive and intelligent, without having to tell us.

A Psychedelic Pedigree

Merlin Sheldrake is the son of Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist who has been at the forefront of discussions around science, spirituality, and psychedelics for decades. Sheldrake’s childhood in the inner circle of psychedelics thinkers seemingly prepared him well to carry the torch of the fungal spokesperson. From a young age, he spent time with Terence McKenna, a family friend of the Sheldrakes. In his teenage years, he got to know famed mycological evangelist Paul Stamets. McKenna and Stamets both published smash-hit guides to growing psilocybin mushrooms . These pioneers have been largely responsible for the increasing popularity of mushrooms since the 1960s. Both are known for thinking big. McKenna’s Stoned Ape theory holds that psilocybin mushrooms were responsible for the origin of the human species, and Stamets argues mushrooms can save the world. On such topics, Sheldrake errs on the side of scientific skepticism.

Psychedelics for the Masses

Psychedelics medicine is set to go mainstream. Accordingly, nearly everyone broaching the subject is forced to decide how to handle psychedelics’ weird and wild side. Entangled Life is a tour-de-force, exploring all that is mind-blowing about the world of the fungus. Refreshingly, it does so in a manner that should in no way alienate a mainstream audience. Despite the subtitle’s idea that fungi change people’s minds, Sheldrake dedicates only one chapter to psilocybin mushrooms. In addition, he tucks this chapter away in the middle, rather than thrust in the reader’s face up front. Sheldrake assesses McKenna’s and Stamets’s ideas, already mentioned, as largely unjustified. This rebuttal both intellectually entertains the reader and provides reassurance that a trustworthy guide is navigating this landscape of ideas.

Self-Experimentation

The only appearance of a psychedelic is when Sheldrake takes LSD as part of a scientific trial. The reader may feel that it is a shame that the psychedelic couldn’t have been psilocybin, but then is quickly reminded that LSD, too, comes from a fungus, ergot. Sheldrake could have attended one of the many legal psilocybin retreats that now exist. Confining his psychedelics exploration to government-approved scientific trials is a shrewd way to avoid the skepticism that might otherwise trigger a wider audience. The result is a fairly psychedelic book that one could feel safe buying for a grandparent who has a fondness for homegrown porcini.

A Vision of Life Itself

Entangled Life does not pretend to be a book primarily about psychedelics. It is clearly a book about the fungal world. At its core, however, is the vision of mystical union with the natural world that typically confronts users following states of psychedelic-induced ego-dissolution. From a fascinating chapter on lichens that demonstrates how all organisms, including us, consist of symbiosis of multiple creatures, to another on the mycorrhizal networks on which most plant life depends, the message is consistent: the natural world does not consist of separate individuals. All living systems, from fungi to us, are expressions of the activity of the natural world. We and the fungi are processes that defy simple categorization. 

Sheldrake continually reminds the reader of this fact through his presentation of cutting-edge research. I left the experience of reading Entangled Life feeling as if I had somehow read both a gripping textbook on fungal biology, and a mystical treatise on life itself.

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