The Avid Reader: Understanding the ‘Wood Wide Web,’ through Sheldrake, Simard and Schwartzberg

  • Elaine Holden

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/16/2021 10:30:16 AM

Once in a while a book comes along that makes me so excited I have to buy several copies and send them to friends and family. This time it’s more than one. The first to spark such excitement is Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.” I was sent a video of an interview with him discussing his research and the video was so compelling I ordered his book.

As I read, I kept finding myself on the edge of my chair because I was so excited about the information he was imparting.

What makes me so excited? First, think about what goes through our brain when we hear the word “fungi.” Most likely, fungi and mushrooms are synonymous in many of our minds. But it turns out mushrooms are just the tip of the massively diverse iceberg-like structure living underground, or even just out of sight. The reality is that fungi support virtually all life here on planet Earth, and if we want to know why we do what we do, and why we think the way we do – look to the fungi.

Yes, when we view the world from the point of view of the fungi, we see that members of this startlingly gigantic kingdom extend for miles underground and link plants together in a network called the “Wood Wide Web.” The intricate linking of plants compels us to realize that these underground connections and information transmission links, are far superior to those we mammals have devised in our need to communicate.

And, by the way, Sheldrake makes a strong case for fungi causing us to think the way they want us to. He points out many scientific studies that suggest fungi can cause us to change our minds, select certain foods to consume, and even devise ways to heal our bodies. We are not that isolated, nor are we that independent. The fungal networks on, as well as within, our bodies are thought to be far more in charge of us than we ever suspected. Thus, our relationship with fungi is now undergoing close examination, and there is a dramatic shift in research that shows many aspects of our lives might be controlled by the fungi inside us.

Sheldrake certainly changed my understanding of the web of life on this planet, as well as how I choose (read this as: “directed by my fungi”) to go about my daily life.

Part of Sheldrake’s exploration involves the fungal networking among trees, and for that he devotes almost one chapter to the pioneer researcher on plant communication and intelligence: Suzanne Simard. Simard has long been hailed as the leading expert on plant intelligence, and her exceptional book, “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” also got mailed to my hit-list members. Sheldrake was clearly a fan, and if he liked what Simard has to say, I figured I would as well.

When I began looking for her writing I was surprised to discover that for all the research she has done, the TED talks she has given, and advice provided to filmmakers (The Tree of Souls of James Cameron’s “Avatar”), this is her first book!

I opened it and stepped into her world. Starting when she was a college intern, periodically dropping back in time to childhood, and often explaining the logging culture of the Northwest. Simard showed me her world of trees.

From being a logger’s daughter and only thinking of timber and pulp, to the one who discovered the very complex and interdependent underground fungal connections among trees, I experienced the same wonder and awe Simard did. Trees do not just exist alone. They are cooperative organisms that communicate, support each other, recognize danger, and behave in ways that resemble us.

At the heart of all of this are the Mother Trees.

These Mother Trees are the ones that nurture the forest in the most marvelous ways. Just like human mothers, these trees establish bonds among their “children,” help them survive and grow, connect to other living forest creatures, and nurture the vulnerable in the face of an attack.

Sheldrake’s fungi make these connections possible, and the resulting forest intelligence recognized by Simard electrifies us with all the possible future interactions we might have some day with the residents of the forest.

To get to that point, we need to be open to the possibilities, and Louie Schwartzberg is my third author on note. He made a documentary that subsequently became the book, “Fantastic Fungi: Expanding Consciousness, Alternative Healing, Environmental Impact,” edited by world-class mycologist Paul Stamets. The time-lapse photographs of mushrooms (over 400 of them) emerging from the earth is worth the reading of the book. However, beyond the amazing pictures, readers are able to study essays from Suzanne Simard, Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil, Roland Griffiths, and many more leading experts.

I learned that mushrooms and fungi will, if allowed, restore our planet’s ecosystems, heal our bodies and minds, make our clothes, feed our hungry, and repair our own broken links to the natural world. These are all tall orders – but the fungal world is up to it I assure you.

By now you are wondering how open your mind further, and get onboard with this movement - and I don’t blame you. Here it is: The Radical Mycology Mycelial Network! This is an international, grassroots network of local groups and even individuals, that shares mycological information among the members. Any sincere individual can join and participate in whatever way makes the most sense for them personally. Given what I have read in these books, I will most likely become involved, if for no other reason than to learn about all the groundbreaking research being done on how mushrooms and fungi can be used to help our planet survive.

Check it out, and let me know what you think the next time our paths cross – most likely in the woods  communing with a tree or two.


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