‘Dark Life’ – Thoughts on Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

In Entangled Life Merlin Sheldrake compares fungi to dark matter. Dark matter makes up 95 per cent of the universe yet remains unknown and more than 90 per cent of fungi remain undocumented. He refers to fungi as ‘biological dark matter, or dark life.’

In this book Sheldrake explores how, beneath the surface of this world, unseen by the human eye, fungi ‘form networks of many cells known as hyphae: fine tubular structures that branch, fuse, and tangle into the anarchic filigee of mycelium.’ This ‘ecological connective tissue’ plays an essential role in the transport of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and water to plants and trees. Mycorrhizae (from rhiza ‘roots’ and mykes ‘fungi’) attach themselves to plant and tree roots. Thus it is impossible to know where a plant ends or a fungus begins in ‘the Wood Wide Web’.

Fungi have the ability not only to manipulate the transfer of nutrients between plants but to control the behaviour of animals. The most striking example is how the ‘zombie fungus’ Ophiocordyceps unilteralis infects ants, compels them, in a syndrome known as ‘summit disease’ to leave their nests, climb the nearest plant, and bite on in a ‘death grip’. Mycelium glues their feet to the plant before fungus ‘digests the ant’s body and sprouts a stalk out of its head’, showering spores on the ants below.

Researchers ‘found that the fungus becomes, to an unsettling degree, a prosthetic organ of ants’ bodies. As much as 40 per cent of the biomass of an infected ant is fungus. Hyphae wind through their body cavities, from head to legs, enmesh their muscle fibres. And co-ordinate their activity via an interconnected mycelial network. However, in the ants’ brains, the fungus is conspicuous by its absence.’ This puts into question ‘how we define intelligence and cognition’ – ‘ the brain-centric is too limited.’

Sheldrake also explores the influence of fungi on humans and human consciousness. He explains Robert Dudley’s ‘drunken monkey hypothesis’. ‘Ten million years ago, the enzyme our bodies use to detoxify alcohol, known as alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH4, underwent a single mutation that left it forty times more efficient. The mutation occurred in the last common ancestor we shared with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.’ This made it possible for our predecessors to digest overripe fruit fermented by fungi and may explain the long relationship between humans and alcohol.

Yeast, a fungus, was central to the Neolithic revolution. ‘Yeasts have domesticated us’. Psilocybin, a hallucinogen produced by psyilocybe mushrooms, has been used by human cultures for millennia to induce visions and to heal and played a major role in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. Experiments show that ‘Following an injection of psilocybin, a tumult of new neuronal pathways arise.’

Such findings break down the boundaries of self and other and pose the question who is thinking who. It is well known that humans are made up of more bacterial cells than human cells. This suggests that we are not separate individuals but holobionts – from Greek holos ‘whole’ – a word which refers ‘to an assemblage of different organisms that behaves as a unit.’ Not ‘you’ but ‘y’all.’

This book feels timely to me at this time when human behaviour is being drastically modified by a virus whose influence is being felt across the entire web of existence – human and other-than-human. It shows that human control over our entangled relationships is an error and reveals a little about the ‘dark life’, the 90 odd per cent that lies beneath the surface, ‘mystifying’, ‘other’, and its hidden influence.

It speaks deeply to me of the Annuvian, of things pertaining to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the Brythonic Otherworld, the abode of the dead and the ‘spirits of Annwn’ or ‘fairies’, who oversee the visible and invisible processes of transformation of matter, of mind, and of soul. One of the kennings for mushrooms is ‘Fruits of Annwn’.

Both fungi and the fay pose a challenge to our imaginations – to think beyond the human – and to understand ourselves not as individuals but parts of a mycelial web stretching into the darkness of unthought. Our capacity to do so, as we experience this virus, and the next, and other inevitable effects of the climate crisis might not save us, but might help us to understand it was never about us, as superior thinking beings, at all.

Year of the Scarlet Elf Cup

On Thursday I was helping to clear windblown trees from the pathway around Horrocks Flash on the Wigan Flashes on a volunteer work party as part of my placement with the Carbon Landscapes Partnership.

Horrocks Flash (a flash is a lake that formed in a hollow after subsidence – in this case caused by coal mining) is surrounded by wet woodland and is an area that I had never visited before.

As we walked the pathway and cleared the fallen trees we noticed scarlet elfcups on the dead branches and twigs and the leaf litter on the woodland floor almost everywhere we looked. When I went to use the natural facilities I could barely take a step without treading on them.

I’d seen scarlet elfcups in local woodlands and on the Wigan Flashes, but never in such density or high numbers. The Project Officer and Assistant Project Officer agreed there were more than in past years. So I decided to do some research to see if I could find an explanation for this remarkable occurrence.

I found out that scarlet elfcups (Sarcoscypha austriaca) are ‘fairly widespread but uncommon in Britain and Ireland’. Sarcoscypha comes from the Greek skyphos ‘drinking bowl’ and austriaca means ‘from Austria’. Their common names ‘scarlet elf cap, scarlet cup, red cup, moss cups, and fairies’ baths’ originate from the widespread European belief that elves and fairies drink from and bathe in them.

They are sacrophytic fungi (from the Latin sapro ‘detritus’ and phage ‘a thing that devours’) which means they gain their nutrition by processing dead matter. The scarlet cup or bowl shaped caps are their fruiting bodies and their ‘barely discernible’ stems attach to leaf litter and dead and decaying wood (particularly willow, alder, hazel, maple, and elm). They usually appear in winter and in early spring and favour ‘areas with high rainfall’ – damp woodland floor, ditches and stream banks.

Here I found clues to the climatic and ecological conditions scarlet elf cups grow best in. Looking further I discovered that for ‘optimal growth’ sacrophytic fungi require the ‘presence of water’, the ‘presence of oxygen’, ‘neutral-acidic pH’ (under 7), and ‘low-medium temperature’ (between 1°C and 35°C).

I conjecture the mildness of this winter, with only a few cold snaps, and the heavy rainfall, are the main causes of such large numbers of scarlet elfcups in this wet woodland, where water and oxygen, and the types of wood they favour are clearly present (the pH of the soil would require testing).

Their appearance in high numbers vividly marks a mild and wet winter brought about by climate change. On a symbolic level their vibrant red bowls speak of both the enchantment and danger of Elfland/Faerieland and its inhabitants, who are renowned for their abilities to curse and bless. Climate change brings curses to some species and blessings to others.

If this is the year of the scarlet elf cup what does this signify for us, for our wet woodlands, for our relationship with the thisworldly and otherworldy persons with whom we share them?

Will these red cups
bring good or bad luck?

SOURCES

‘Scarlet Elfcup’, The Woodland Trust, https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/scarlet-elf-cup/
‘Sarcoscypha austriaca’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarcoscypha_austriaca
‘Sacrotrophic nutrition’, Wikipdia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saprotrophic_nutrition

After the late-night meeting

my head was pale and flashing
a tawdry halo a broken circuit
a worn out lighthouse
behind my eyes.

I went to a hollow tree
and sat myself within it.
In the slow drip of mulch
and closeness of fungus
a full moon overhead.

The ants came inexorably
shiny-black shivering over
my skin. When I clamped
my mouth they lanced
my ears. Clambered in.

Tiny mouths chewing
like an orchestra of saws
they ate the nil-light
and came out glowing.
Pouring from my mouth

in an illuminated stream
crackling legs growing distant.
A million bright footprints
teeming from my head:
an empty mulch, a hollow tree.

Beech Tree, Carr Wood

Winter Kingdom

As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.

Fungi, Greencroft Valley

 

*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood