What Fungi Can Teach Us
Mushrooms have a moment.
There are mushroom coffee and mushroom documentaries. There are start-ups that are using fungal filaments to develop alternatives to: leather and plastic. And then there are scientists who want to create an atlas of all the underground fungal networks under our feet, all over the world. Underground fungal networks, they say, could help us deal with climate risks.
That was the pitch I got a few months ago from Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist from Amsterdam. It was a bold idea: to explore this vast world we can’t see, but which lies right beneath our feet. I like daring. I said yes to her invitation to go on a research trip.
I met Kiers and her team in a forest in southern Chile, under the gaze of volcanoes, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I wrote about her research here.
What I learned kind of melted my mind.
Because how these researchers saw the forest was different from how I had seen forests before. They didn’t just see trees as trees, and fungi as fungi. They saw relationships in the woods. They saw organisms enmeshed in each other’s existence, sometimes symbiotically, often out of self-interest.
Fungi were the agents of entanglement.
“When I look at a tree, I can’t remember its name,” said Giuliana Furci, head of the Fungi Foundation, a group in Santiago that led this expedition with Kiers. “What I see is a symbiotic organism.”
I had received a withering look from Furci on the first day of the expedition. I had mistakenly assumed that mushrooms were plants. I had also called their stems stems.
Furci was forgiving. I told her that I ask a lot of stupid questions, that it is a risk of the job.
Fungi, dear reader, are certainly not plants.
Fungi are their own kingdom of life – just like animals and plants. They contain microscopic yeasts and large mushrooms, some of which are psychedelic. They are in bread. They’re in medicine. They clean up oil spills. Only a small proportion of the fungal species have been identified.
Fungi bond things together.
Some species literally merge life and death. They decompose dead things – leaves, twigs, giant trunks of old trees – and turn them into soil so that more trees and twigs and leaves can grow. I began to see them as agents of reincarnation.
Other types of fungi, such as the mycorrhizal fungi that Kiers are studying, bond the soil together. They attach to plant roots and spread underground. They also entangle trees in a network. I began to see that underground fungal network as a secret silk road beneath our feet. Nutrients travel into the trees via that route. Carbon travels down into the soil. Without fungi, carbon could not be fixed in the soil.
Some fungal species seem to do this exceptionally well. Kiers wants to find those super-lockers, decode their genes, make sure the country they’re in is protected.
Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and writer who was also on this expedition, said something that got me thinking. In difficult times, organisms find new relationships to survive and grow, he said. Fungi have helped trees adapt to so many environmental shocks. Anthropogenic climate shocks are the latest. “Crisis,” Sheldrake said, “is the melting pot of new relationships.”
Inevitably, I thought of this in human terms. I thought about my own relationships, especially in the final years of crisis, with a global pandemic exacerbating the global challenges of rising authoritarianism, inequality and climate risk. I thought about the relationships that nurtured me in the midst of these shocks and the relationships I could no longer bear. I was thinking about relationships that are symbiotic and the relationships that are extractive.
In this newsletter I often write about innovations and policies to cope with life on a warmer planet. Learning about fungi made me think more deeply about the relationships we need to cope with life on a warmer planet.
Perhaps this will help explain why fungi have a moment. Perhaps we are all thinking more about our relationships with each other in a time of increased isolation. Perhaps fungi embody an entanglement we crave.
In his book “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures,” Sheldrake describes how learning about fungi changed him. “These organisms ask questions about our categories,” he writes, “and by thinking about them, the world looks different.”
It certainly did the same for me.
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Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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