What Fungi Can Teach Us


Mushrooms are having a moment.

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

That was the pitch I got from Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist based in Amsterdam, several months ago. It was an audacious idea: probing this vast world that we cannot see but that is right under our feet. I like audacious. I said yes to her invitation to join a research trip.

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

What I learned made my mind melt a little.

Because how these researchers saw the forest was different from how I had seen forests before. They saw trees not just as trees, nor fungi as fungi. They saw relationships in the forest. They saw organisms enmeshed in one another’s existence, sometimes symbiotically, often out of self-interest.

Fungi were the agents of enmeshment.

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

I had earned a withering look from Furci on the first day of the expedition. I had mistakenly assumed mushrooms were plants. I had also referred to their stipes as stems.

Furci was forgiving. I told her I ask a lot of dumb questions, that it’s a hazard of the job.

Fungi, dear reader, are definitely not plants.

Fungi are their own kingdom of life — as animals and plants are. They include microscopic yeasts and big mushrooms, some of them psychedelic. They are in bread. They are in medicine. They clean up oil spills. Only a small fraction of fungi species have been identified.

Fungi stitch things together.

Some kinds stitch life and death together, literally. They decompose dead things — leaves, twigs, giant trunks of ancient trees — and turn them into soil so more trees and twigs and leaves can grow. I came to think of them as agents of reincarnation.

Other kinds of fungi, like the mycorrhizal fungi that Kiers studies, stitch the soil together. They attach themselves to plant roots and spread out underground. In so doing, they also entangle trees in a network. I came to think of that underground fungal network as a secret Silk Road under our feet. Nutrients travel up that road into trees. Carbon travels down into the soil. Without fungi, carbon could not be sequestered in the soil.

Some fungi species seem to do that exceptionally well. Kiers wants to find those super-sequesterers, decode their genes, ensure the land they’re in is protected.

Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and writer who was also on this expedition, said something that gave me pause. 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 of new relationships.”

Inevitably, I thought of this in human terms. I thought about my own relationships, especially in the last few years of crisis, with a global pandemic compounding global challenges of rising authoritarianism, inequality, and climate hazards. I thought about the relationships that have nurtured me amid these shocks and the relationships I could no longer endure. I thought about relationships that are symbiotic and the relationships that are extractive.

I often write in this newsletter about innovations and policies to cope with life on a hotter planet. Learning about fungi made me think deeper about the relationships we need to cope with life on a hotter planet.

Maybe this helps explain why fungi are having a moment. Maybe we are all thinking more about our relationships to one another in an age of increased isolation. Maybe fungi embody an enmeshment we crave.

In his book, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures,” Sheldrake describes how learning about fungi altered him. “These organisms make questions of our categories,” he writes, “and thinking about them makes the world look different.”

It certainly did the same for me.


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Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

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

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