one-hundred-ton fungi -- 6/24/20

Today's selection -- from Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. Fungi are, and have long been, among the largest life forms on earth -- some weighing hundreds of tons. Mushrooms are produced by fungi and play a similar role to a flower or a fruit in plants:

"Fungi are everywhere but they are easy to miss. They are inside you and around you. They sustain you and all that you depend on. As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens, as they have done for more than a billion years. They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. Fungi provide a key to understanding the planet on which we live, and the ways that we think, feel, and behave. Yet they live their lives largely hidden from view, and over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented. The more we learn about fungi, the less makes sense without them.

Prototaxites milwaukeensis (Penhallow, 1908) ---
a Middle Devonian species from Wisconsin

"Fungi make up one of life's kingdoms -- as broad and busy a category as 'animals' or 'plants.' Microscopic yeasts are fungi, as are the sprawling networks of honey fungi, or Armillaria, which are among the largest organisms in the world. The current record holder, in Oregon, weighs hundreds of tons, spills across ten square kilometers, and is somewhere between two thousand and eight thousand years old. There are probably many larger, older specimens that remain undiscovered.

"Many of the most dramatic events on Earth have been -- and continue to be -- a result of fungal activity. Plants only made it out of the water around five hundred million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of million years until plants could evolve their own. Today, more than ninety percent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi -- from the Greek words for fungus (mykes) and root (rhiza) -- which can link trees in shared networks sometimes referred to as the 'wood wide web.' This ancient association gave rise to all recognizable life on land, the future of which depends on the continued ability of plants and fungi to form healthy relationships.

"Plants may have greened the planet, but if we could cast our eyes back to the Devonian period, four hundred million years ago, we'd be struck by another life-form: Prototaxites. These living spires were scattered across the landscape. Many were taller than a two-story building. Nothing else got anywhere close to this size: Plants existed but were no more than a meter tall, and no animal with a backbone had yet moved out of the water. Small insects made their homes in the giant trunks, chewing out rooms and corridors. This enigmatic group of organisms -- thought to have been enormous fungi -- were the largest living structures on dry land for at least forty million years, twenty times longer than the genus Homo has existed.

"To this day, new ecosystems on land are founded by fungi. When volcanic islands are made or glaciers retreat to reveal bare rock, lichens (pronounced LY ken) -- a union of fungi and algae or bacteria -- are the first organisms to establish themselves and to make the soil in which plants subsequently take root. In well-developed ecosystems soil would be rapidly sluiced off by rain were it not for the dense mesh of fungal tissue that holds it together. There are few pockets of the globe where fungi can't be found; from deep sediments on the seafloor, to the surface of deserts, to frozen valleys in Antarctica, to our guts and orifices. Tens to hundreds of species can exist in the leaves and stems of a single plant. These fungi weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help defend plants against disease. No plant grown under natural conditions has been found without these fungi; they are as much a part of planthood as leaves or roots."



Merlin Sheldrake


Entangled Life


Penguin Random House


Copyright 2020 by Merlin Sheldrake


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