Which one is true when you think about the relationship between plants, animals, and human beings: competition or cooperation? In other words, do organisms fight or help each other to survive? As you read Entangled Life, you can’t help but reflect on this question. By the time you reach the end, the answer becomes very clear in your mind.
Compared to plants and animals, fungi attract very little human attention. Most people might know them through the tasty mushroom. As you read the book, you will realize that the mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg. The hidden underground network of fungi is truly amazing. Barbara Mcclintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on maize genetics, once described plants as extraordinary “beyond our wildest expectations.” Fungi are even more amazing. Perhaps, we live in a truly miraculous universe in which everything is amazing if we reflect on it deeply enough.
An estimated 2 to 4 million species of fungi live - in the soil, in the air, in deep ocean floors, and even inside solid rock. Fungi live in a well-connected network. They also connect plants, particularly trillions of trees. The book calls their network the “Wood Wide Web” referring to their role in connecting trees around the world like underground cables. The fungi network can even "solve" maze-like problems although it isn’t clear how they do this since they do not have intelligence. The book mentions that in a small forest, one tree was found to be linked to 47 other trees through the fungal network. The largest and oldest recorded fungal network is found in Oregon, USA. It is thousands of years old stretching four square miles. Fungi find their way to survive in very harsh conditions. For instance, a mushroom that sprouts from the ground after a rainstorm has the ability to make its way through an asphalt road.
What’s more, fungi are not only everywhere; they are doing important work for us by helping our food-makers: plants. Fungi deliver nutrients to plants helping them grow. They even transfer information across plants to help them to take action against danger. For instance, when a plant is attacked by a little bug such as an aphid, they release a chemical signal to other plants using the fungal network. As a result, the plants will emit a chemical to attract wasps which will eat the aphids. The benefit of this symbiotic relationship is mutual. Fungi cannot photosynthesize themselves. Their source of energy is stored in the bonds of organic compounds such as sugar and protein in living (or dead) plants. Fungi directly help us as well through decomposing dead plants. Fungi can eat most rubbish, and even oil spills.
It is hard not to be intrigued when you read the amazing story of fungi in the book. The author himself poses the following puzzling questions: “How did these relationships (between plants and fungi) arise? How do plants and fungi communicate with one another? How does ONE part of a mycelial network “know” what is happening in a distant part of the network? How are mycelial networks able to communicate with themselves? How does information travel across mycelial networks so quickly?”
Though the author does not have answers to the puzzling questions above, he provides many examples for readers to find their own answers. For instance, he cites research showing that fungal networks help plants not only share carbon, but also nitrogen, phosphorus, and water. In fact, a study revealed that “280 kilograms of carbon per hectare of forest could be transferred between trees via fungal connections.” The author finds those behaviors to be perplexing. He invites readers to ask this question: “Why would plants give resources to a fungus that goes on to give them to a neighboring plant—a potential competitor?” He thinks it is not possible to find a satisfying answer without switching perspective. Perhaps, one needs to study fungi through a five-dimensional thinking perspective to find a deeper meaning in their intriguing story.
Though it contains some tedious details, overall, Entangled Life is an amazing depiction of how life on Earth is interconnected. The more we learn about fungi, the more we appreciate the entire web of life as a gigantic network of systems helping each other. We will realize the need for a holistic approach in scientific studies rather the dominant reductionist one. We will see much evidence of this unity and affirm the following concluding remarks by the author: “Many traditional cultures understand life to be an entangled whole. Today, the idea that all things are interconnected has been so well-used that it has collapsed into a cliché. The idea of the “web of life” underpins modern scientific conceptions of nature.”