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Entangled Life - Meeting Merlin Sheldrake at the Hay Literary Festival.

Finding out more about the Amazing World of Fungi

Merlin Sheldrake speaks at the Hay Festival
Merlin Sheldrake on the Global Stage at the Hay Literary Festival 2024

I met Merlin this week - not the wizard in the pointy hat! I attended Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life talk on Fungi at the Hay Literary Festival and it has given me so much to think about.


The topic of Fungi is a huge subject to roam around in a talk. Somehow, Merlin did this entertainingly and with gusto. He clearly has a genuine passion for his subject and a great depth of knowledge. He covered a little of his own childhood where questioning was actively encouraged. This must have been a most interesting upbringing – Merlin’s father is Rupert Sheldrake, a visionary scientist and deep thinker who came up with the idea of morphic resonance and morphic fields – a fascinating topic for delving into another day.

 

Merlin began by clarifying that this is a whole Kingdom in its own right and not a subset of the Plant Kingdom as was once thought. There is an enormous range of species of fungi, a guesstimate of between 2.2 and 3.8 million, which vary between the largest organism on Earth to tiny microscopic fungi that can live on a speck of dust. He told us that as a self-confessed ‘fungus nerd’ he attempts to imagine life from the point of view of the fungi, with his key question being, “What is it like for you?”

 

Merlin used the example of the now popular ‘wood wide web’ concept where trees have widely been regarded as the ‘computer hubs’ in the system and the mycorrhizal network at their roots likened to the ‘wiring’ interconnecting them, a relatively passive role. He asks, “What’s in it for the fungi?” opening the subject up and shifting the perspective to look more holistically at these interconnections.

 

It is fascinating to think how much we still have to learn about fungi, to realise how little attention they have had compared to the Plant and Animal Kingdoms and what might be discovered in the future, including the potential for new medicines and for understanding how the myriad symbiotic relationships that fungi are part of may be key to our health and the health of other plants and animals on this planet.


Crystals and fungi photo
Microscopic fungal growth on gypsum crystals Photograph in Entangled Life

Merlin also touched briefly the interaction of fungi with the Mineral Kingdom which is an angle I had never considered before. Here’s a little thought for you: the phosphorus in your body (essential for building strong bones and teeth, amongst other things) got into your system indirectly via fungi. The plants you ate containing phosphorus acquired this element through the action of fungi. Merlin spoke of fungi as 'chemical wizards'. This small example illustrates that life has evolved to be mindbogglingly complex and interdependent.

 

It is clear Merlin has explored his subject in depth but Entangled Life is no dry account from a dusty academic. He’s made writing this book part of a wide-ranging personal quest, following the aspects that most excite him to form his chapters. His enthusiasm keeps the writing vivid, fresh and engaging. After the talk I picked up a copy of Entangled Life for signing. I was going to go for the cheaper paperback, but seeing the girls next to me turning the pages of the lavishly photographed illustrated edition changed my mind.


Book on Fungi
Entangled Life, the Illustrated Edition

This edition is astonishingly beautiful. I am already a self-confessed mushroom photographer, stopping on my walks to snap any that catch my eye, I do think they are lovely to look at. Anyone with a pulse would be impressed by the gorgeous photography in this book.


The chapters are full of entertaining and poetically worded anecdotes. I opened my copy at random and fell upon Merlin’s account of cider making using the natural yeasts on the skins of Newton’s apples. He’d fermented the pressed juice and tasted it after a few weeks,




“To my amazement it was delicious. The bitterness and sourness of the apples was transformed. The taste was floral and delicate, dry with a gentle fizz. Drunk in larger quantities it elicited elation and light euphoria. I didn’t experience the muddiness of emotion I had felt after drinking some ciders. Nor did I feel clumsy, although yeast had most certainly made a nonsense of me. I was intoxicated with a story, comforted by it, constrained by it, dissolved in it, made senseless by it, weighed down by it. I called the cider Gravity and lay heavy and reeling under the influence of yeast’s prodigious metabolism.”

 

Dunkerton's Black Fox cider
Happy Birthday to my husband, toasted with Dunkerton's Black Fox cider

The Universe is full of interweaving connections just as Merlin's father Rupert might assert. It so happens that I had booked a table at the Cider Barn restaurant in Herefordshire last night. I toasted my husband’s birthday with a drop of their Dunkerton's cider. It was delicious and a long way removed from my memory of the big brand names. As an added bonus I slept a record 9 hours 42 minutes last night and woke refreshed!


As Tim Spector said to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at his Hay talk, 'Cider is virtually a health food.' I may be a convert and will need to test the efficacy of an occasional cider nightcap.



 

As a fungi-related sidebar I have been exploring adaptogenic mushrooms lately as part of my Sacred Vessel approach to holistic wellbeing. First I tried a mushroom coffee blend - which didn't appear to be doing anything apart from costing a lot, however I noticed after a week of drinking a cup each morning that my eczema had been in abeyance, and I’d barely needed to use my steroid treatment cream. Interesting!


I've swapped now to a non-caffeinated cacao and mushroom blend designed for bedtime which contains reishi as its functional mushroom. I am still enjoying the clearest skin I've had in 45 years. I currently have no patches of eczema, which is unusual for me; as a bonus I’m experiencing a noticeably better night's sleep too. This isn't a cheap option, however the results are so good I've put the blend onto a subscription basis. I will keep it going for at least the next few months and then report back to you. I want to make sure this isn’t a co-incidental fluke, but so far so good.

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