Type “the fuzz” into a YouTube search, and you’ll come upon a video by Gil Hedley, a scientist whose interests range from theological ethics to Rolfing to—wait for it—dissections of human cadavers. (And with that, go watch the video—come back when you’re ready.) In it, he describes a most special kind of connective tissue called fascia. Fascia doesn’t get the kind of attention that muscles, fat, and bones do in your typical biology courses, but without fascia, those parts of your body would be pretty useless. That’s because fascia both separates and connects the different structures of our bodies, wrapping around and through them like a giant roll of cellular saran wrap; it provides stability as well as mobility and is the medium through which information, like proprioception, passes between the world outside your body and the world(s) inside your body.
As the video shows, fascia takes on a “fuzzy” quality when it is stiff (i.e., not moving). You experience the fuzz when you reach your arms up overhead in the morning or watch your cat or dog arch its back into a yoga pose after their nap, and feel like dry elastic is shredding inside you. When fascia is fuzzy, the tissues it contains and connects are stuck from sleep, injury, or lack of use, any kind of immobility.
Moving the fascia, like that morning stretch, transforms it into a slippery and smooth surface, allowing free, easy, and expansive movement between the tissues. The ability of fascia to transform like this is not only functional, but it reflects the deep (literally!) intelligence of the system of which it is apart; fuzzy fascia might reflect tension due to stress when the environment poses a threat, whereas smooth fascia is open and relaxed.
Images of the fuzz swirled in my mind all while reading Merlin Sheldrake’s exquisite, best-selling book Entangled Life. His subject and expertise are not in fascia or anything related to humans—at least not directly. The book explores the mysterious world of fungi, which is captivating more and more of our human attention these days, even as it’s been essential to the viability of life on earth for as long as there’s been life on earth.
I was thinking about fascia, especially fuzzy fascia, as I recalled fungi I’d encountered in my life: gray or green mold spores enveloping a forgotten hunk of bread in the drawer or fruit left too long in the back of the fridge; fine fungal clouds spreading through tree branches and blades of grass after a stretch of, particularly hot and humid summer weather. These fuzzes repelled me, signaled that there was something amok, and created distance between me and the decaying beings—like fascia that’s bound up in fear.
What Sheldrake’s book revealed to me, though, is the appearance of fungi—fuzzy or not—is not something to fear. Rather, it’s a sign of an integrated, parasympathetic state of a system. It’s the very thing that connects us, all of us, in an invisible, enormous network of life that’s vibrating right under our feet, on our skin, in our bodies, and in the air we breathe. He describes the mycelium, a network of fungal cells through which electrical communication passes, as “ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation” (46).
In this way, fungi are very much like fascia, in their ability to both affect and reflect the state of the system. Fungi show up when things need to be broken down—like in the case of moldy bread—as well as when things need to be brought to life—as it does when transmitting nutrients from the soil to the roots of trees. Both these processes, like rest and movement, are necessary to the health of the system, and yet we humans tend to favor one-half of the equation to our individual and collective detriment. It seems uncannily appropriate, then, to have a revival of interest in a life form that invites a nonlinear, non-dichotomous symbiotic existence during a time in history when division, fear, and death are so prevalent. Fungi may be the very thing that saves us—as long as we open our eyes to their extraordinarily ordinary magic.
A Kingdom of Their Own
Fungi are not part of most folks’ vocabulary of the forms of life. We know animals since that’s what we are, and plants since that’s what we eat. Minerals are a bit more esoteric but familiar—rocks and salts and the like. But fungi . . . what are they? They sort of look like plants, but they don’t photosynthesize; and they sort of behaving like animals, but they don’t move. Sheldrake does a remarkable job of demystifying the very beings of fungi throughout Entangled Life, drawing on equal parts science and humanities, keeping his language both accessible enough to hold our attention while infusing his descriptions with enough mystery and curiosity to respect the otherness of these beings.
Like other kingdoms of life, fungi appear in many different forms. The mushrooms many of us know are only one manifestation of fungi—the fruiting body, from which the spores (kind of like seeds) of the fungi can be dispersed and proliferate. Mushrooms are the superficial offshoot of a much bigger body of life that lives under the soil: the mycelium, which is built up of a network of cells called hyphae.
Mycelia can range in size from big to bigger; spread from end to end, the network within just 1 gram of soil might cover 100 meters or 10 kilometers. The largest known mycelium is called Armillaria, which comes in at 10 square kilometers, and is estimated to be between 2,000 and 8,000 years old. They get to be so big because of their unique method(s) of sustaining themselves. Unlike plants and animals, which bring their food sources into their bodies, fungi put themselves into the medium of their food—namely, soil—which is why such a large surface area is helpful. The bigger they are, the more they can eat—which, as we learn in the book, is not merely a game of Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
Sheldrake introduces us to a cast of fungi that demonstrate just how vast this kingdom is. There are truffles, the mushrooms with the intoxicating smell and often alarming price tags, that spread themselves through that irresistible aroma. Then there are lichens, the “small biospheres that include both photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic organisms . . . micro-planets—worlds writ small,” as Sheldrake writes (83).
Those flaky, mossy fungi are cosmopolitan creatures, covering 8 percent of the earth’s surface as well as being the test subjects of several missions to outer space. Like fascia, lichens are interstitial beings: “places where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between ‘wholes’ and ‘collections of parts’” (88). Indeed, as one expert in the book explains, “The trouble is that if you look at the parts of the lichen, you don’t see the lichen itself” (83).
Whether mushroom or lichen, algae or yeast (Sheldrake describes his adventures as a homebrewer, including turning some apples from Newton’s tree in England into a cider he named, of course, Gravity), the members of the fungal kingdom represent a different kind of paradigm for “successful” living. While it’s true that all creatures are part of a symbiotic relationship, fungi and other beings thrive in cooperative relationships “because both partners share control of the exchange, [so] neither partner would be able to hijack the relationship for their own exclusive benefit” (136).
The way they thrive as individual organisms takes us out of the typical conversation about how life has come to be on Earth. These creatures have become so dominant not by evolving, a word Sheldrake points out to mean “rolling outward,” but rather by involving, which means “rolling, curling, turning inward” (142). Signs of fungal activity in our daily lives—spoiled food or even diseased body parts—may not, then, be intended to be something that turns us away, that separates us to choose the “healthier,” more alive-looking option for our ostensible longevity and survival. They might be invitations to look closer, to see in death how we will live on in some other form, and appreciate the role we play in the constant alchemy of our environment.
Expanding our Possibilities for Life
Inspiration—poetic or otherwise—is indeed one outcome that Entangled Life predicts of a movement to pay more respect to the fungal community. As Sheldrake notes, there is some evidence that psilocybin mushrooms were at least in part responsible for the evolution of our species, and the more we spend time with them the bigger our minds get—literally.
Mind alteration, in the form of hallucinogens, is perhaps the first and most well-known way we understand fungi to inspire us. In addition to recreational use, mushrooms are called upon to assist with various psychiatric conditions independent from or connected to other diagnoses, like fatal cancers. When people’s minds are stuck (think: fuzzy fascia), mushrooms come in to do their transformative, harmonizing work. At a chemical level, they work by stimulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, which boosts feelings of happiness. They also shut down the default mode network (DMN) in our brains, which makes thinking more free-form: as researcher Matthew Johnson at Johns Hopkins describes, this “open[s] a window of mental flexibility in which people can let go of the mental models we use to organize reality” (111).
In this expansive state, we can see that our pain, suffering, and otherworldly troubles are simply part of a grander ecosystem, a blow to the narrow-minded ego that results in greater calm and acceptance. And unlike other forms of mind-expansion, such as meditation or therapy, one potent hit of a mushroom is enough to radically alter someone’s view of the world and themselves in it. These beings may not offer a cure for the disease that will ultimately kill someone, but they offer a kind of healing that is, perhaps, even more, valuable than a miracle drug that would make us all live forever because they make us see the value in being part of something greater, even if that means letting go of our individuality.
The transactional view of the world we largely live by doesn’t hold up when we look to ways fungi are coming to our aid through innovations across science, health, and business. Mycoremediation is a remarkable development that brings in fungi to clean up environmental disasters like oil spills (and, remember those radiation-tolerant lichen?); they literally digest the toxic waste but without becoming toxic themselves. (This is why it’s safe to eat algae and seaweeds that are farmed in our polluted oceans, by the way).
The ultimate consumers, fungi can also play a role in reducing the damage of our materialist habits. Companies like Ecovative are making mushroom-based packaging for major brands like Dell and IKEA, reducing our reliance on finite resources like paper, styrofoam, and plastics. While humans have been at the helm of these discoveries, some humans are realizing that fungi’s brains (er, non-brains) are just better than ours at solving problems because of their ability to shape-shift and adapt. For instance, slime molds designed the complex transportation system in Tokyo and fire evacuation routes in England—maps that, not ironically, look a whole lot like a fungal network.
Now, knowing that Super Fungus is always hanging out in the soil to save the day is not an excuse (at least in my opinion) for us to perpetuate the myth that unchecked growth is good and possible. Just because we have a way to clean up oil spills and buy things without destroying the rainforest doesn’t mean we should spill oil and fill our homes with junk we don’t need (not even a mushroom lamp). But maybe, just maybe, the increased presence of fungi will rub off on our brains and help us see the bigger picture of our actions. Maybe the real magic of mushrooms isn’t taking us out of this world, but helping us to see this world for the beautiful, magical home it is.
In the 1940s, the founder of the organic farming movement Albert Howard (whom I believe is related to the Lorax), posed a potent question: “Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession—the fertility of the soil—is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends” (143). Our minds are locked in a kind of fuzz where we see this suffering and unregulated affairs as ordinary. We cling desperately to the forms of life we know, unbeknownst to us the life and livelihood are just under our foot– fungi.
And yet, Sheldrake and his book give us hope for a future in which the wars within and among the kingdoms of life on earth cease, and harmony is restored to the land. He does so through the very medium of this book, in which he breaks down divides between scientist and poet through language that casts a kind of spell on the reader: He calls truffles “chemically loquacious, vociferous even” (33), and describes the weaving of hyphae as “streams of embodiment” (55). Introduced to a foreign world by a guide like this, we can’t help but feel entranced to know more about these creatures we might have previously walked over and through without notice.
As an herb-enthusiast, plant-based cook, and Ayurvedic health counselor, I am no stranger to the power of nature to change people’s lives. But rather than encouraging me to go out and buy more cordyceps and reishi for my daily drinks, or seek out a hallucinogenic experience, reading Entangled Life made me more inclined to simply take a step back and observe the workings of the fungal world all around me; to lose myself in the world of “biological dark matter—or dark life” as Sheldrake calls it (17). These are creatures I may not ever understand, yet they understand me.
We can still work together outside a hierarchy of dominance; and in fact, my lack of knowledge may be just the thing that allows me to harmonize with the cosmic symphony. That harmony does not look like perpetual bliss or immortality: Ants’ brains will be invaded, lichens will dry up in the desert sun or in spaceship explosions. You and I will die, but we will live. As Sheldrake asks, “Are we able to stand back, look at the system, and let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria that make up our homes and our worlds be themselves, and quite unlike anything else? What would that do to our minds?” (174). I’m no scientist, but I venture to guess that, by bringing our minds back down to earth, where we begin and where we end, we’d come home to our body, free of fuzz and fear, and dwell therein peace, forever.