What mushrooms can teach us

Mushrooms are having a moment.

There’s mushroom coffee and mushroom documentaries. Some start-ups are using mushroom filaments to develop alternatives to leather and plastic. And then there are scientists who want to create an atlas of all the fungal networks underground beneath our feet, all over the world. Underground fungal networks, they say, can help us cope with the vagaries of the weather.

That’s what Toby Kiers, an Amsterdam-based evolutionary biologist, told me several months ago. It was a bold idea: to probe this vast world that we cannot see but which is right under our feet. I like boldness. I said yes to his invitation to participate in a research trip.

I met Kiers and his team in a forest in southern Chile, under the gaze of volcanoes, on the edge of the Pacific. I wrote about his research here.

What I learned melted my mind a bit.

Because the way these researchers saw the forest was different from the way I had seen forests before. They saw trees not just as trees, nor mushrooms as mushrooms. They saw relationships in the forest. They saw organisms entangled in each other’s existence, sometimes in symbiosis, often out of self-interest.

Fungi were the agents of entanglement.

“When I look at a tree, I don’t remember its name,” said Giuliana Furci, head of the Fungi Foundation, a Santiago-based group that led this expedition with Kiers. “What I see is a symbiotic organism.”

I had earned a glare from Furci on the first day of the expedition. I had mistakenly assumed that mushrooms were plants. I had also called their stipes stems.

Furci was indulgent. I told him that I asked a lot of stupid questions, that it was a work hazard.

Mushrooms, dear reader, are certainly not plants.

Mushrooms are their own realm of life – as are animals and plants. They include microscopic yeasts and large mushrooms, some of which are psychedelic. They are in the bread. They are in medicine. They clean up oil spills. Only a small fraction of fungal species have been identified.

Mushrooms sew things together.

Some types literally combine life and death. They break down dead things – leaves, twigs, giant trunks of ancient trees – and turn them into dirt so that more trees, twigs and leaves can grow. I have come to think of them as agents of reincarnation.

Other types of fungi, such as the mycorrhizal fungi studied by Kiers, sew up the ground. They attach themselves to the roots of plants and spread underground. In doing so, they also entangle the trees in a web. I’ve come to think of this underground fungal network as a secret Silk Road beneath our feet. Nutrients travel up this route into the trees. The carbon goes down to the ground. Without fungi, carbon could not be sequestered in the soil.

Some species of fungi seem to do this exceptionally well. Kiers wants to find these super-sequestrians, decode their genes, make sure the land they’re in is protected.

Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and writer who was also on this expedition, said something that got me thinking. In difficult times, organisms find new relationships in order to survive and grow, he said. Fungi have helped trees adapt to so many environmental shocks. Anthropogenic climate shocks are the latest. “Crisis,” Sheldrake said, “is the crucible for new relationships.”

Inevitably, I thought of this in human terms. I thought about my own relationships, especially over the past few years of crisis, with a global pandemic compounding the global challenges of rising authoritarianism, inequality, and climate vagaries. I thought about the relationships that nurtured me in the midst of these shocks and the relationships that I could no longer bear. I thought about symbiotic relationships and extractive relationships.

I often write in this newsletter about innovations and policies to cope with life on a warmer planet. Learning more about mushrooms made me think more deeply about the relationships we need to cope with life on a warmer planet.

Maybe this helps explain why mushrooms have a moment. Perhaps we are all thinking more about our relationships with each other in a time of heightened isolation. Perhaps mushrooms embody a tangle we dream of.

In his book, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures,” Sheldrake describes how learning about mushrooms changed him. “These bodies interrogate our categories,” he writes, “and thinking about them makes the world different.”

It certainly did the same for me.

How the climate bill was won: Sen. Joe Manchin III won a series of concessions for the fossil fuel industry in exchange for supporting the Democrats’ climate and spending bill.

The future of cars: The climate bill could have far-reaching effects on the types of cars Americans drive, where those cars are made, and how the country generates its energy.

Urban heat monitoring: Researchers in hot and humid Singapore are building a computer model of the city to help policymakers better plan heat-mitigation measures.

Ban on plastics in India: One state, Tamil Nadu, has made solid progress through strict enforcement. Now authorities are tackling the problem nationwide.

Britain’s scorching summer: A study has found that the heat wave in the country last week would have been extremely unlikely without global warming.

Between poison and misery: Water at a California trailer park is contaminated with high levels of arsenic, the Environmental Protection Agency has found. But the inhabitants have nowhere to go.

The surprise climate and energy package announced last week by Senate Democrats would bring the United States much closer to its goal of halving pollution from global warming by 2030, several new independent analyzes have concluded. Here are the projections.

Thanks for reading. We will be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

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