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Life lessons from from fungi

We’re surrounded by endless sources of learning: books, podcasts, peers, mentors – but fungi?


It sounds strange but, fungi are a lifeform so weirdly unique and incredibly wonderful, that a closer look can spark some interesting reflections.

Fungi are more than pizza toppings, hallucinogens, and the red-capped stuff of fairy tales. They sprawl through the environment, on trees, on bread dough, on us. Single-cell, multi-cell, neither animal nor plant but their own kingdom.

In Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, goes deep into their incredible kingdom, exploring and explaining how Fungi throw our concepts of individuality and even intelligence into question.

 As Sheldrake puts it:

“These organisms make questions of our categories and thinking about them makes the world look so different.”

Traditionally science has used humans as a yardstick of intelligence that everything else is measured by. But this misreads and undervalues organisms outside the animal kingdom – like fungi and slime mould – that have evolved sophisticated problem-solving behaviours.

Sheldrake points out that:

“Because they don’t look like us or outwardly behave like us – or have brains – they have traditionally been allocated to somewhere at the bottom of the scale.”

“Yet many are capable of sophisticated behaviours that prompt us to think in new ways about what it means for organisms to ‘solve problems’, ‘communicate’, ‘make decisions’, ‘learn’ and ‘remember’. As we do so, some of the vexed hierarchies that underpin modern thought start to soften. As they soften, our ruinous attitudes towards the more-than-human world begins to change”

Fungi, alone, and in vast networks, can enable incredible things. They not only distribute nutrients across plants, but they have evolved to distribute information too. Did you know if a plant suffers an aphid attack it lets out a ‘chemical shriek’ that can be ‘heard’ by other plants it is connected to via a fungal network, allowing the connected plants to prepare for attack? It’s pretty extraordinary stuff.

Perhaps what is even more extraordinary is the potential for our understanding of fungi to transform our perspective on the world. Take Mycelial networks, decentralised organisms who eat by putting their bodies into food, or mushrooms that can crunch their way through a tarmac road. As Sheldrake puts it: “If I think about mycelial growth for more than a minute… my mind starts to stretch.”

So exploring fungi can take us beyond a simple understanding of their remarkable capabilities. It can stir questions about ourselves, our interactions, and the world we live in.

  • Do we have blind spots when it comes to others? Do we classify them incorrectly and underestimate their potential, their capabilities and their contribution?
  • Are there parts of ourselves that are hidden beneath the surface that have yet to be explored? That we misunderstand or misrepresent? That have the potential to achieve great things?
  • Could we ‘be more fungi’ in our approach to challenges? To creativity? To personal growth? Are there opportunities to look beyond assumptions, to make new connections, to be more collaborative?
  • Are there things going on around us that we don’t see because we’re too busy? Too blinkered? Networks and communities we could engage with and benefit from – both formal and informal?

The natural world has the power to change our way of thinking. The next time you’re experiencing it try it with fresh eyes, think a little deeper about the living things around you, and how it could connect with the way you feel, think and behave.