• The Good: Are fungi the coolest life form ever?
  • The Bad: High level pop science
  • The Literary: Lots of wide-ranging references linking linguistics, music, anthropomorphism, even The Lord of the Rings

What is alive but is neither plant nor animal, can fit in a petri dish but is also the largest organism ever discovered? What can see color but has no eyes? What lives in the ocean, throughout the forest, and in space? For that matter, what was the first organism to grow back after the nuclear disaster Chernobyl? Fungi!

Fungi can also solve problems without a brain and seem to demonstrate a borg-like hive mind. Zombie fungi infest the brains of ants, taking over their motor functions until their heads split open and a mushroom pops out. The ghost pipe is a wildflower that doesn’t photosynthesize for food, hence it’s pure white color, because of its symbiotic relationship with fungi. Seems like a one-off, but plants were only able to move onto land in the first place because fungi acted as their roots until they evolved some of their own, which took about fifty million years. Also, some fungi have of tens of thousands of mating types.

Lichens encrust as much as eight percent of the planet’s surface. They have evolved independently between nine and twelve times. Today, one in five of all known fungal species form lichens, or “lichenize.” Some fungi (such as Penicillium molds) used to lichenize but don’t anymore; they have de-lichenized.

Side note, let’s just take a second to appreciate author Merlin Sheldrake’s name, which would fit right in as a professor at Hogwarts. Luckily for us, Sheldrake is the sort of academic who finds the magic in the everyday, and his enthusiasm for the subject and penchant for experimentation, philosophical musings, and making connections to other areas of study is what makes this book so enjoyable.

You’ll go along with Sheldrake as he traverses a rainforest to count flowers for a mushroom network, takes a “fermentation bath”, and trips on LSD in a controlled lab environment. Fungi are so vastly different from plants, they are actually more closely related to mammals. But we base a lot of our thought processes on plants, and Sheldrake posits that studying fungi may literally restructure the way you think.

You get it, fungi are amazing. The mushrooms we eat are literally just the fruit of an underground tree. Over ninety percent of their species are undiscovered and undocumented. But what have they ever done for us humans, who are naturally at the center of all life on Earth? To name a few things, fungi have given us—

  • Bread and alcohol by way of yeast
  • Life saving medicines including penicillin and many powerful antiviral and anticancer compounds
  • “Magic mushrooms”, which modern studies are using to treat depression and anxiety
  • Inexpensive and biodegradable mycelium can be used to make furniture, packing materials, and even clothes
  • The potential to clean up our waste, including plastic, explosives, pesticides, and crude oil
  • A new understanding of ecosystems with the discovery of the “wood wide web” that connects plants through underground networks

Recommended as a highly accessible pop science book about the wonderful world of fungi!