The Man Who Turned the World on to the Genius of Fungi

One evening last winter, Merlin Sheldrake, the mycologist and author of the best-selling book “Entangled Life,” was headlining an event in London’s Soho. The night was billed as a “salon,” and the crowd, which included the novelist Edward St. Aubyn, was elegant and arty, with lots of leggy women in black tights and men in perfectly draped camel’s-hair coats. “Entangled Life” is a scientific study of all things fungal that reads like a fairy tale, and since the book’s publication in 2020, Sheldrake has become a coveted speaker.

At talks like these, Sheldrake is sometimes asked to answer a question he poses in the first chapter of his book: What is it like to be a fungus? The answer, at least according to Sheldrake, is at once alien and wondrous. “If you had no head, no heart, no center of operations,” he began. “If you could taste with your whole body. If you could take a fragment of your toe or your hair and it would grow into a new you — and hundreds of these new yous could fuse together into some impossibly large togetherness. And when you wanted to get around, you would produce spores, this little condensed part of you that could travel in the air.” There were nods. In the audience, the woman next to me gave a long, affirming hum.

“Entangled Life” has turned Sheldrake, who is 36, into a kind of human ambassador for the fungal kingdom: the face of fungi. He has flown to the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania to shoot an IMAX movie, narrated by Björk, that is screening this summer. Shortly after his London talk, he was scheduled to leave for Tierra del Fuego, where he would join a group sampling fungi on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), a conservation-and-advocacy organization founded by the ecologist Colin Averill and the biologist Toby Kiers. Sheldrake described the trip as part of the group’s effort to map the global diversity of mycorrhizae, which help plants and trees survive, and to establish protections for fungi. (In the United States, just two fungi, both lichens, are protected under the Endangered Species Act.)

A pied bleu on an off-white background.
A pied bleu (Lepista personata), also known as the field blewit. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Like many small organisms, fungi are often overlooked, but their planetary significance is outsize. Plants managed to leave water and grow on land only because of their collaboration with fungi, which acted as their root systems for millions of years. Even today, roughly 90 percent of plants and nearly all the world’s trees depend on fungi, which supply crucial minerals by breaking down rock and other substances. They can also be a scourge, eradicating forests — Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight are fungi — and killing humans. (Romans used to pray to Robigus, the god of mildew, to guard their crops against plagues.) At times, they even seem to think. When Japanese researchers released slime molds into mazes modeled on Tokyo’s streets, the molds found the most efficient route between the city’s urban hubs in a day, instinctively recreating a set of paths almost identical to the existing rail network. When put in a miniature floor map of Ikea, they quickly found the shortest route to the exit.

“Entangled Life” is full of these sorts of details, but it’s also deeply philosophical: a living argument for interdependence. Without fungi, matter wouldn’t decay; the planet would be buried under layers of dead and unrotted trees and vegetation. If we had a fungi-specific X-ray vision, we would see, Sheldrake writes, “sprawling interlaced webs” strung along coral reefs in the ocean and twining intimately within “plant and animal bodies both alive and dead, rubbish dumps, carpets, floorboards, old books in libraries, specks of house dust and in canvases of old master paintings hanging in museums.”

The idea of fungi as metaphor for life has lately entered the zeitgeist, seeded in part by the forest scientist Suzanne Simard, who discovered that trees are connected through a mycelial network, the “Wood-Wide Web.” There was also the surprise hit 2019 documentary “Fantastic Fungi,” an effusive tribute that felt a bit like being cornered at a party by the stoned guy who’s really, really into mushrooms. But where “Fantastic Fungi” fell decidedly into the old-school, ’shroom-head camp, Sheldrake’s book is more embracing and more optimistic. Sheldrake describes mycelium as “ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.” At a time when the planet seems to be falling apart — or, rather, is being actively dismembered — the idea that we are bound together by an infinite number of invisible threads is so beautiful it almost makes your teeth ache.

Sheldrake is adept at channeling this longing for connection. After reading “Entangled Life” in lockdown, the couture designer Iris Van Herpen was moved to create a collection inspired by fungi, featuring a dress pleated like a chanterelle and bodices made of snaking silk tendrils modeled on hyphae, the thin, mobile strands that fungi use to explore the world. Hermès, Adidas and Lululemon have all embraced animal-free “mycelial leather,” and designers have started selling biodegradable furniture made from the stuff. The HBO series “The Last of Us,” about a cordyceps fungus that turns humans into zombies (based on a real species that hijacks the brains and bodies of ants), drew around 32 million viewers per episode. Retail stores have followed the trend, too. This spring brought an explosion of toadstool-print clothes and décor — shirts, wallpaper, throw pillows, dinner plates — plus mushroom-shaped table lamps, poufs and bedside tables.

While many cultures and Indigenous groups have a long history with mushrooms — a SPUN video begins with a Mapuche elder in Chile singing to them — Sheldrake sees the current fungal moment as a product of converging trends. Along with the ecological crisis, there’s a renewed focus on psychedelics as a way to treat depression and PTSD, plus a surge of interest in our gut microbiome (which is mostly bacteria, not fungi, but falls into the same basket of things too small to see that live in and on us and turn out to be really important). In other words, it’s a belated and largely pragmatic awakening: fungi as medicine and material.

Sheldrake’s own quest is both dreamier and more ambitious — to make us see the world, and our place in it, differently. There’s a yearning that runs through “Entangled Life,” a desire to merge with these alien lives that explore the world with millions of tendrils, each of which functions, simultaneously, as an independent brain, mouth and sensory organ. We imagine ourselves to be individuals, Sheldrake observes, when we are in fact communities, our bodies so thoroughly inhabited by, and dependent on, microbes that the very concept of individuality begins to seem bizarre. Why do we think of a “self” when it’s more accurate to identify ourselves as a walking ecosystem?

Sheldrake on a couch with many books on a shelf behind him.
An ambassador for the fungal kingdom, Sheldrake starred in an IMAX movie, consulted on a fashion show for Stella McCartney and is working on legal protections for fungi. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Sheldrake often seems to have stepped out of a particular British template: the erudite, slightly eccentric naturalist of unusual literary skill. When I visited, in late February, he had recently moved from London to the English countryside, where he lives with his wife, the poet Erin Robinsong, in an old Methodist chapel. (His brother, Cosmo, a musician, lives a few miles away, with his wife, Flora Wallace, a ceramist and artist, also in an old Methodist chapel.) At the time, the building was in the process of being restored — new plaster, fresh paint — and the only access was via a narrow dirt path that led to a steeply raked backyard where Sheldrake had just planted a dozen kinds of fruit trees. He was also in the process of building a small fermentation lab to make various ciders, as well as Sheldrake & Sheldrake hot sauce, a popular side business that he and his brother started during lockdown.

Merlin and Cosmo are both in their 30s, with dark curly hair and similarly rangy builds, though Merlin’s face is more delicate, as though a distant ancestor might have been part elf or dryad. Each has a perpetual restless energy: cerebral and slightly awkward in Merlin’s case; gregarious and extroverted in Cosmo’s. They were raised without television or video games, and they remain unusually close; their worlds, like those of fungi, often interweave. Merlin, who plays piano and accordion, regularly performs with Cosmo; and Cosmo, who is interested in natural science, occasionally accompanies Merlin on research expeditions. When Stella McCartney staged a fungal-themed runway show in Paris in 2021, she enlisted Merlin as a consultant and hired Cosmo to create the soundtrack, which used a custom apparatus that turned the electrical signals generated within mycelium into notes. (Cosmo also recently made an album that incorporated the songs of endangered birds, and in April released another constructed around archival recordings of undersea creatures.)

The kitchen of Sheldrake’s childhood home. Much of the shelving is painted dark green and the tables have a dark green covering. There are dried plants hanging above the counter.
The kitchen of the London house where Merlin Sheldrake grew up. He and his brother were raised without television or video games. Their mother and father are both unconventional and see the world as deeply connected in mysterious ways. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Both of his parents are unconventional and see the world as deeply connected in mysterious ways. Merlin’s mother, Jill Purce, a skilled singer, has long embraced the power of chant as a way to heal emotional and physical wounds, and still leads workshops that incorporate both shamanistic and Mongolian overtone chanting. (During my visit, she noted that Merlin’s astrological reading at birth indicated that one of his strengths would be “revealing that which is underground.”) His father, Rupert, is more reserved, but easily delighted. He studied biology at Cambridge and the philosophy and history of science at Harvard and later worked in agricultural development but eventually became consumed by the idea that memories could be inherited and that intentions — planning to call a particular friend, say — could be transmitted telepathically, a phenomenon he attributed to “morphic fields.” These fields, he believed, accounted for both the prickling awareness of being stared at by another person and the uncanny ability of dogs to know when their owners are returning home. (He wrote books on the subject, including “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home” and “The Sense of Being Stared At.”)

When Merlin was a child, he and his father spent hours roaming the heath in all weathers, looking at plants and tracking each other through the forest. Merlin describes his father as incessantly curious: “He would always be pointing stuff out, like: ‘Boys, look at this! Do you know what this is? What do you think that does?’ Or we’d be staying with a friend, and he’d say: ‘Remember we planted this willow cutting when you were 3? Isn’t it amazing that willows can regenerate like that? It’s like taking one of your fingers and growing a new you from it.’”

Back home, they would do experiments in a lab that his father set up in a pocket kitchen on the second floor. One year, they decided to test the hypothesis that dog owners look like their dogs by going to the Crufts dog show (and later to the Luton rabbit show, Merlin recalled, to see if the same was true for them). Rupert also regularly recruited Merlin and Cosmo for his own experiments in telepathy. “We were the first guinea pigs,” Merlin said. “He would say: ‘Boys, I’ve got another experiment. Do you mind? Can we try this out? Please?’”

Merlin absorbed his father’s interest in the natural world and his sense of wonder. In “Entangled Life,” he fondly describes the way his father used to carry him “from flower to flower, like a bee,” though when we spoke, he described the experience less romantically: “ ‘Look! Look at the smell! Stick your face in the flower! Isn’t that nice? Here’s another one. And another one!’”

During the summer, the family would relocate to an island in British Columbia that was home to an Esalen-like retreat center, where the adults made music and art and discussed expanded consciousness. The children enjoyed a semi-feral existence, scavenging on the beach or investigating the nearby forest. As a teenager, Merlin began spending time with one of the island’s regulars, a self-taught “fungal evangelist” named Paul Stamets, who encouraged his interest in symbiosis: the way fungi, plants and other creatures could come together cooperatively. Not long after that, he read a book by Karl von Frisch, a biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for decoding the waggle dance in honeybees, called “Animal Architecture.” Among other things, von Frisch described how potter wasps make juglike nests that they stock with food, how another wasp species makes paper nests by chewing up wood and thinly layering the pulp and how humans may have learned these techniques from watching the insects.

The family in front of the kitchen.
The family at home in London, clockwise from top left: Cosmo, Rupert and Merlin Sheldrake and Jill Purce. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Sheldrake found these ideas electrifying. When he left for Cambridge, at 18, he decided to study biology (he also considered classics) and went on to complete a Ph.D. For his dissertation, he spent several seasons at a research station in Panama studying Voyria, also known as ghostplants: tiny flowers that live off nutrients from underground fungal networks. Sheldrake loved studying fungi in the wild. In “Entangled Life,” he described spending hours snuffling in the dirt while trying to follow a single hairlike root to the point where it merged with subterranean mycelium: the millions of fungal strands that weave through the tropical soil, trading nutrients and, more mysteriously, information with the plants and trees above them. Unlike lab work, in which a researcher peers at an organism isolated in a sterile flask, field work felt messy and vital: “Like the flask is the world! And you’re inside it.”

Shortly before my visit, Sheldrake flew to California for a conference on the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was what’s known as a process relational philosopher: He believed that reality is more about interactions than objects. He also believed that everything in the universe — people, cats, planets, atoms, electrons — can “experience” existence. “I have a lot of time for Whitehead’s views,” Sheldrake told me later. “He saw the whole universe as an organism, with organisms living within organisms living within organisms.” He recently began collaborating with the Whiteheadian philosopher Matt Segall to study “ways fungi might help us to think through different philosophical possibilities.”

In this spirit, Sheldrake also started working with the field researcher Giuliana Furci and César Rodriguez Garavito, a law professor at New York University, to create legal protections for fungi, part of a spate of animal rights and environmental-protection lawsuits that seek to give courtroom representation to living things that don’t happen to be human. Other projects are more whimsical but similarly mind-bending. After “Entangled Life” was published, he seeded a copy of the paperback with oyster mushroom spores, then filmed a time-lapse of the book’s pages being consumed until it became a swollen brick of white mycelium, sprouting mushrooms around the edges of the cover, which remained intact. Then he ate the mushrooms, the joke being that he was eating his words.

A warped version of Sheldrake’s book held in front of a plant.
The book Sheldrake seeded with oyster-mushroom spores. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Though the video was essentially promotional — Sheldrake’s publisher had asked him to post something on social media — its ouroboros-ness (creation, decay, consumption) made it feel more like a fever dream or an ayahuasca vision. This wasn’t incidental. Sheldrake first experimented with psychedelics when he was 16, when magic mushrooms were briefly legalized in Britain. Being in an altered state started out as a curiosity — a group of friends trying psilocybin — but over time Sheldrake came to see these trips as essential because of the way they “defamiliarized the familiar.” He compared them to the classic psychedelic experience of “laughing at light switches”: seeing the hilarity and strangeness in how wiggling a tiny nub in the wall makes the world light or dark. You might be inclined to dismiss such moments as giggling stoner insights, but Sheldrake sees them as genuinely profound: a way to lose our jaded view of the world and be “startled into curiosity.”

Walking around Hampstead Heath with Sheldrake one morning, I mentioned a book by Emily Monosson titled “Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic,” coming out in July, of which I received an early copy. The book is like a shadow version of “Entangled Life”: a comprehensive look at the dark side of fungi and their ubiquity, including various fungal diseases that kill humans (Candida auris, which thrives in hospitals) and wipe out crops (the rice blast Magnaporthe oryzae, which destroys enough rice each year to feed around 60 million people). All of which are apparently on the rise because of globalization and climate change.

It was blisteringly cold, and the heath’s paths were full of people bundled up in coats walking dogs that were also bundled up in coats. Why, I wondered, had he chosen to present fungi as fascinating and near miraculous and leave out many of the ways they can destroy? The answer he gave — that the fungal kingdom is vast, and harmful species few — was true but also felt incomplete. Over several days of talking with Sheldrake, I was struck by how carefully he seemed to choose his words. This was partly a matter of intellect; Sheldrake is a rigorous and nuanced thinker. But it also seemed as though he was mentally reviewing his remarks, the better to anticipate how they would be received.

That may well have been the case. When Merlin was a boy, he remembers, his father got furious, sometimes vitriolic letters from scientists upset both by his parapsychology claims and by his public critique of conventional science. (He went on to write a book about the latter, titled “The Science Delusion.”) “It was something we were very aware of growing up,” Merlin told me. “That he had these enemies.” When I asked how that had affected him, he paused. “I’m sure in loads of ways,” he began, then stopped. “It’s so baked into who I am that I probably couldn’t name them all.”

Rupert was largely unaffected by the letters; he would cheerfully engage with even his most vocal critics. But when Merlin was in college, his father was stabbed and seriously injured while speaking at a conference on consciousness in Santa Fe, N.M. Though the attacker wasn’t a scientist and was clearly mentally ill — he insisted that Rupert was controlling his mind — Merlin described the assault as feeling like a culmination of all that institutional anger.

His father’s experience, he said, made him acutely aware of circumstances in which people “might become aggravated by certain types of thought or ideas that seem transgressive or beyond the pale.” When it came to his own work, he observed: “There are ways of framing things that are more or less confrontational. I tend to be less confrontational.”

A golden mushroom cluster in front of a golden background.
Enoki (Flammulina filiformis), also known as golden needle mushrooms. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

While doing his Ph.D., Sheldrake spent a year studying the history and philosophy of science, essentially taking an anthropological look at his own field. During one of our talks, he noted that Galileo revolutionized science in part by arguing that scientific experiments should focus on things that could be observed and measured, consistently and objectively — what he called reality’s “primary quantities.” Things like tastes or sensations, which were subjective and therefore hard to study empirically, were “secondary.” In the centuries since then, Sheldrake argues, science has become so focused on primary qualities that it has lost touch with all the squishy but profoundly vital things like emotion, friendship and consciousness that were, as he put it, “bracketed off.” This segregation, Sheldrake says, limits our ability to understand the world in all its complexity and may have exacerbated our current planetary catastrophe.

After finishing his Ph.D. in 2016, Sheldrake worked as an independent biologist and was until recently unaffiliated with a university. But he continued to collaborate with scientists and recently became a research associate at Vrije University in the Netherlands, where he works with Toby Kiers and a team at the Amolf Institute, who are using complex equipment to study how mycorrhizal networks coordinate their activity. Sheldrake’s path reflects a deeper division in his own work between the world of scientific respectability and his parents’ more mystical inclinations. Even now, Sheldrake told me, he will discuss experiments with his father, whom he describes as “a very holistic scientist,” one whose approach to the natural world “never took the magic out of things.” And while “Entangled Life” is rigorously researched, it also seems to strain against conventional scientific practice, with its focus on the objective and quantifiable over the dreamy and imaginative.

That day, as we finished our walk on the heath and took a small side trail back to the house, we passed a rotting log with a few desiccated, fan-shaped mushrooms next to some hard black knobs that looked vaguely fungal. Breaking off a piece of the mushroom, Sheldrake pointed out its pores and scaly top, then tentatively identified it as dryad saddle. The lumps, he added, were likely Daldinia concentrica, or coal fungus, which grows on ash tree logs, where it acts as a home for small insects and is also eaten by the caterpillar of the concealer moth.

While neither species was rare, the sighting still felt unexpectedly magical. Long after I flew home, that feeling lingered. Occasionally I caught myself daydreaming about a world in which fungi, not humans, had evolved to be the dominant species. What would such a world be like, so full of shared senses and experiences? Would a fungus look down on the disturbing isolation of mammalian life, where perceptions and thoughts were limited to a single small body and brain? It was a dizzying idea but also enticing. And when the daydream would fade, returning me to my solitary, disconnected body, I would sometimes find myself thinking: Wait. Please stay. Can I join you?

A king oyster mushroom in front of a dark pink background.
A king oyster (Pleurotus eryngii), also known as a king trumpet mushroom. Credit: Alexander Coggin for The New York Times

Jennifer Kahn is a contributing writer for the magazine and the narrative-program lead at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Alexander Coggin is an American maker of photographs, films and theater. He is based in London, Berlin and Michigan.

This article was originally by Jennifer Kahn for the New York Times on June 8, 2023. You can find it here