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Book Review - Entangled Life

Move over bees, there’s a new buzz word in farming - fungi! Anyone with half an eye on regenerative agriculture will find biologist Merlin Sheldrake's 2020 book indispensable - possibly even mind-altering.

Covering everything from psychedelic mushrooms to decomposition spas and lampshades made from mycelium, one suspects the author of this fascinating book is as expansive and eccentric as the fungi he studies. Obsessed with the process of fermentation, he admits to scrumping apples from Newton's tree in Cambridge University’s Botanic garden to make a boozy cider he called ‘Gravity’.

Tree eater fungus - photographed by FWAG East's Nigel Russell

The revelations just keep coming … Did you know that there is a species of fungi that thrives in the fuel tanks of aircraft? Or that a ‘mycoremediation’ industry seeks to harness the decomposing potential of fungi to clear up contaminants from damaged environments and wastewater? Meanwhile a ‘mycofabrication’ industry is pioneering new ways to make sustainable replacements for leather, plastic and meat from mycelium farmed from agricultural waste?

Whilst not aimed specifically at farmers, the book reminds us that natural fertility depends heavily on healthy fungal networks - indeed that plants themselves were wholly reliant upon their symbiosis with fungi for some fifty million years before they evolved their own independent root systems. We are reminded too that plant and animal cells are a product of an ancient symbiosis with photosynthetic bacteria (which went on to evolve into the cell organelles chloroplasts and mitochondria).

Bracket fungi doing its thing on a coppice stool in an ancient woodland in Essex - photographed by FWAG East's Jilly McNaughton

As if not mind boggling enough, Sheldrake then goes on to encourage us to consider the contradictions of competition and altruism in the ecology of the forest. He asks us to view things not from the perspective of plants, but from the fungal-centric perspective of the mycelial networks which connect and sustain them, asking ‘who is using who?’

Ultimately this book is as hopeful as it is revealing - and what more could one ask for than that?

The iconic Fly agaric - photographed by FWAG East's Pat Neylon

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