After decades of being a largely underserved area of scientific study, fungi are finally having their moment. The phenomenon feels not unlike the overnight appearance of a mushroom; all it took were the right conditions for the right fruiting body. The conditions: a reading public amid COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, aching for connection. The fruiting body: British biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life, who showed us just how interconnected we really are.
Gently, affectionately and in the loveliest prose, Sheldrake invited us to discover the unfathomable fungal networks that run throughout our soil, binding and building our whole world. Illuminated with sweet illustrations drawn by Collin Elder in ink from an ink cap mushroom, Entangled Life felt like a classic naturalist’s journal. Except for these drawings and a slim centerfold of photographs, readers were left to imagine the worlds that Sheldrake described. With Entangled Life: The Illustrated Edition, the bestselling, award-winning book transforms into a visual spectacle that contains 100-odd full-color otherworldly images of mushrooms, lichens, mycelium and more.
Mushrooms poke up in jaunty angles like whimsical umbrellas, some neon-bright and avant-garde, others gooey and grotesque. Delicate mycelial networks appear like white lace stretched across great caverns of rotting wood. Globular spores shine like blown glass. There are more intense colors and complex structures than can possibly be described, even in Sheldrake’s gorgeous language, which has been significantly abridged by the author for this edition. The section on psilocybin is particularly well illustrated, featuring photographs of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who led sacred mushroom ceremonies in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in the early 1900s.
Many images are on an almost incomprehensibly small scale, with electron microscopy revealing fungi living inside a root or dust seeds binding with mycorrhizal fungus. The simultaneous grandness and tininess of mycology overwhelms; by the end of the book, microscopy of spores starts to resemble mushrooms on a rotting log, the scales bleeding together in a riot of colors and textures.
The message of Entangled Life is to be open to new ways of thinking—to be a little less focused on orienting ourselves, and more willing to see the world anew. This is the gift that Sheldrake continues to give us: He reveals fungal life as both more familiar and more abstract than we imagine, and encourages us into the space between the known and the as-yet unknown.