Purple Magazine
— The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

merlin sheldrake





Enigmatic entities  between  flora  and  fauna, fungi,  with  their  meta­bolic  ingenuity,  unfold  a  world of  new  solutions  from  food production  to  medicine, fashion,  and  planet preservation. It’s  time  to  partner  with  them to  transform  the  world and our  minds.

ALEPH MOLINARI — There is a new revolution happening with fungi. It’s something I’ve spoken a lot about with our mutual friend Daniel Pinchbeck, who is also one of the guest editors for this issue. I’ve been picking mushrooms for 18 years, so it’s a subject that interests me deeply. And I think that this new revolution, unlike the one in the ’60s and early ’70s, can truly shift things into new directions, more than before. You come from an almost Darwinian 19th-century tradition of scientific fieldwork, looking for revelations in the most minute details of life. What first drew you to this world of fungi?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Many things have drawn me to fungi over time, particularly the symbiotic relationships that mycorrhizal fungi form with plants. These remarkable associations underlie crucial transitions in the history of life, like the movement of plants onto land, and yet we know comparatively little about them. In their association, plants and fungi exchange crucial nutrients with each other, allowing both to exist in places where neither could survive alone.

ALEPH MOLINARI — So, these interactions denote intelligence, in a way. How would you describe this fungal intelligence and the way these networks operate?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Intelligence used to be thought of as something that required a brain, and researchers would rank other organisms’ intelligence based on how closely it mirrored human intelligence. It’s a very species-narcissistic view. I think it’s more helpful to think less about whether or not an organism is intelligent, but rather what kind of intelligent behaviors they show and to what degree. We might examine an organism’s ability to solve problems, to make decisions between alternative courses of action, or to acclimate to changes in its environment. Seen this way, it becomes clear that almost all organisms are intelligent. To be alive is to be intelligent, to some degree: all organisms must improvise within their constraints in order to rise to the challenge of living. Mycelial networks are sensing bodies that exist within rich fields of sensory information. They integrate complex data streams, decide on alternative courses of action, and adapt to changes in their environment.

ALEPH MOLINARI — The fungal networks that you talk about in your book are places where nutrients, energy, and biological information can be exchanged. These are highly sophisticated communication systems. What can we learn from these forms of communicating?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — I find it important to remember the huge diversity of these living systems. There are so many different ways to be a plant or a fungus, and there are so many different biomes in the world. This means that there are many things we might choose to learn from fungi. We might think about the fact that the living world is made up of webs of intimate, reciprocal dependence, and that it is frequently difficult to identify clean boundaries between different organisms. All organisms depend on webs of intimate reciprocal dependence, and through the ways that they live and grow fungi invite us to remember how being is always being with. We might think about the decentralized networks that fungi build, or the ways they can solve problems without a brain, or the ways that we might revise our dysfunctional philosophies of waste to take into account the metabolic cycles that underlie the regenerative capacity of the living world. And we might consider the astonishing power of the organisms that live out of our sight.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you feel that the Internet, artificial intelligence, and the information systems that we have created emulate these interconnected systems in nature, like mycelium?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Despite the potential for decentralized digital networks, most of the systems you mention strike me as quite centralized in the way that they currently operate. A handful of companies control vast nodes within the digital networks of the World Wide Web. As for AI, the large language models currently attracting a lot of attention suck up information from all over the WWW and route it through a centralized system that few people can understand or afford — ultimately a big shed full of massive GPUs — which give a single organization control of the machine-learning algorithm that they then push into the world. People are designing digital systems that are decentralized and more closely mirror fungal networks, but these are not yet mainstream.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Fungi function as a kind of metabolism for the planet. They are catalysts of chemical exchanges. What gives fungi this capacity to be part of so many metabolic processes?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Animals tend to find food in the world and put it inside their bodies; fungi put themselves inside their food and digest it from inside. These processes of digestion require enzymes, acids, and all sorts of other chemicals that facilitate decomposition — whether it’s wood, rock, or any other kind of organic matter. But their metabolic ingenuity is not limited to their digestive faculties. In order to find and absorb food, they have to have a large surface area, which means that they’re in close contact with their surroundings. This makes them vulnerable to viruses or bacteria or small animals that want to eat them, which has put evolutionary pressure on them to defend themselves. Indeed, we ourselves depend on a number of their defense compounds to keep ourselves healthy — penicillin is a classic case. And then there are the many sophisticated symbiotic relationships that fungi form, which have led to a remarkable ability to produce and respond to chemicals involved in communication with other organisms.

ALEPH MOLINARI — This metabolic ingenuity that you speak about has the extreme capacity to fracture rock, to digest toxic pollutants, and even to grow among nuclear waste, as well as to potentialize our brains and expand our consciousness. Do you feel that fungi are the key to unlocking a more sustainable future?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — There certainly are ways that we can partner with fungi to adapt to life on a damaged planet. For a start, we need to deepen our understanding of how they support the regenerative capacity of the biosphere and vital roles in agriculture, forestry, medicine, food production, or remediating polluted environments. Humans have worked with fungi for an unknowably long time, but there are many ways that we can harness current technologies to grant us new access to fungal life and enter into new productive relationships with them.

ALEPH MOLINARI — What are some of the cutting-edge uses of fungi today? Because it’s endless — we keep discovering new species of fungi and new uses.

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Building things with fungal mycelium is very exciting, from leather-like materials to construction materials. Harnessing agricultural waste streams in more efficient ways to grow mushrooms as food — it’s not a new concept, but I think we can really turbocharge it. We can more competently factor fungi into the ways that we cultivate plants, whether in agriculture or forestry. And then there are fungal drugs. Humans have been using fungal drugs forever, but the more we look, the more it becomes clear that we are peering into a deep well of untapped fungal metabolic potential. Then there are all the ways that fungi can change the way we think, feel, and imagine.

ALEPH MOLINARI — You mentioned the pharmaceutical and medicinal aspect of fungi, which has become a new way of treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder with psilocybin. Do you feel that these applications are scalable?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — In principle, for sure. It’s very easy to grow fungi. I’m more worried about the ways that psychedelics might interact with the unrelenting corporate greed that characterizes the economic systems in which we live.

ALEPH MOLINARI — To what would you attribute this return of mushrooms, this revolution that’s happening now?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of fungi: for the most part, fungi live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelial networks ceaselessly remodel themselves, weaving their bodies into relation with their surroundings. This entanglement — with themselves, with their physical surroundings, and with other organisms — is their staple mode of existence. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulfurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots, and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks. Tug on a strand of mycelium, and you’ll find it hitched to something else. Mycelium is a living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. A growing awareness of the fundamental interconnectedness of the living world — driven both by new research and by the worsening fallout from our ecocidal activities — has prompted an ecological turn in academic and popular discourse. Fungi embody the most basic principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. Mycelium is ecological connective tissue and reminds us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so. Fungi may have become poster organisms for ecological thinking, but interest in fungal lives has also been driven by the rise of network science. “Network” has become a master concept — from computing to sociology to neuroscience, ecology, and economic systems, not to mention the very structure of the universe itself, now understood to be a vast “cosmic web.” Fungi are ancient living networks, and the recent surge of interest in these organisms reflects our modern fascination with the extraordinary power of networks, from transport systems to the Internet, to shape our lives and cultures. These parallels are made explicit by popular terms like the “Wood Wide Web,” used to describe the shared networks of symbiotic fungi that link trees underground. And then there’s the urgency. There are a number of ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet, and we don’t know nearly as much as we should. Multiplying ecological emergencies have brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Because what we’re going to face with climate change is the desertification of parts of the planet, with fewer and fewer areas being fertile. Do you think mushrooms can also be a solution on the food front and in restoring ecosystems?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Whenever one cultivates a plant, one cultivates fungal relationships because all plants depend on fungi. There are many ways that fungi themselves make a valuable food source, and fungi play vital roles in making and maintaining healthy soils. I think fungi are key players in our efforts both to feed ourselves and restore degraded ecosystems.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Taking it further, do you think that fungi could be used for terraforming?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Fungi have been terraforming this planet for hundreds of millions of years. Fungi help create soils and play major roles in stabilizing them. Fungal relationships enable new ways of life — such as plant life on land — which, in turn, shape the biosphere.

ALEPH MOLINARI — If we send fungi to other planets, do you think they could fulfill the function that they had millions of years ago on this planet?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Fungi have done many extraordinary things on this planet, but they have not done them alone. To allow them to play similar roles on other planets, one would have to think at the level of the ecosystem. Whether or not this happens will depend on how sophisticated an understanding of this planet’s ecologies we are able to develop. There’s a lot we still don’t understand.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Michel de Montaigne wrote that most cannibalistic cultures were found close to the equator because they were able to observe how quickly death became life. So, eating the flesh of the other was a way of gaining new life. I feel that fungi possess a duality: they have the ability to break down and decompose almost anything, which plays a vital role in creating life. These minute things, these flowers from the underground, have both life and death in them. Do you feel a philosophical lesson from this

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — I think fungi can help us see that life and death are aspects of a continuous cyclical process, in which death gives rise to new life. This is a very ancient wisdom that humans have long understood from participating in the cycles of the living world. One sees this vividly when one finds mushrooms — such as those of the ghoul fungus in Australia — growing around skeletons of animals, in the shadow of where the corpse was. When you die, many of the first things to eat you would be fungi.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you think that the system of communication of mushrooms is expressed through the psychedelic experience and the sense of interconnected oneness? By ingesting the mushroom, we embody the mushroom and gain its knowledge and perhaps its connections.

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Perhaps. But psychedelic states are just one type of mystical experience. One can have mystical experiences from eating plants or from not eating anything at all, from traumatic encounters or even breathing exercises.

ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you feel that your experience with psychedelics have changed your conclusions as a researcher or given you a new perspective?

MERLIN SHELDRAKE — Yes. I’ve found psychedelics very illuminating. And my impressions of many things have changed after taking psychedelics, including my understanding of what it means to be a conscious creature. Perhaps most helpfully, my psychedelic experiences have deepened my fascination with the living world and the many ways there are to be alive.

British biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake published the visionary book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our<br />Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. His research<br />delves into Amazonian ethnobotany, mycology, and ecology.<br />Sheldrake also participates in projects that merge<br />science and art, such as his musical group Cosmo Sheldrake.


[Table of contents]

The Revolutions Issue #40 F/W 2023

Table of contents

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