Entangled Life Part 3: Fun[gi]damental

By Mick Haining

Let me see if I can get this straight. Plants suck CO2 out of the atmosphere – well, everybody knows that, don’t they? Here’s the more complicated bit…

It depends on “symbiotic efficiency”. On what? Let’s go back a bit… say about 300-400 million years. This was a time in the earth’s history when plant life mushroomed – pardon the pun – across the globe. Trees that had grown to around a metre began to reach heights thirty times that over the space of a few million years. It was not a coincidence that CO2 levels in the atmosphere plummeted – by 90%! But how?

Most of us know what it’s like to be ‘in a relationship’ – some of us have been in more than one. They are immensely complicated ‘entanglements’ and their strength, growth and longevity, i.e., their ‘success’, depend on second by second interactions that are affected by fluctuations in elements like mood, energy and communication. No matter how long you’ve been together, the way you might say “I’ll do the cooking tonight” could provoke reactions as extremely different as heart-warming relief and boiling resentment. Relationships prosper the more partners contribute what the other needs, not always what’s wanted.

The strength, growth and longevity of plants, too, depend on the partnerships they develop with the mycorrhizal fungi that embrace their roots. Plants respond to changes, for example, in light, temperature and moisture and there are things that they need as a consequence. They need phosphorous for a start but it’s their fungi partners that mine it from the soil and offer it to them in exchange for carbon. This exchange behaves just as a market might… if there’s a lot of available phosphorous, the fungi don’t get as much carbon per unit and when there’s not much phosphorous in the area, the fungi charge a higher price! Not only that, a Professor Kiers from Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, has discovered that fungi will transfer phosphorous from one area where it’s scarce to another in order to get a better deal! By now – page 152 0f Merlin Sheldrake’s simply marvellous ‘Entangled Life’ – I don’t think I’ll be that surprised if he reveals that some fungi offer deals like ‘Buy Two, Get One Free’ or have a season ticket for Villa Park…

Seriously, though, if we can see how the dynamics of a human relationship can be changed sometimes cataclysmically by the utterance of a single word in a particular tone of voice at a specific time between waking and sleeping and now see that there are equivalently fluctuating relationships where a single factor in all the entanglements that hold the partnerships of different life forms in balance could alter behaviour of one or the other partners, then it must be possible that maybe a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might really cause a tornado in Texas…

This symbiotic relationship between fungi and plant that allows both to thrive is a narrower, tighter example of a fundamental truth – whatever is alive depends on other things that live… except, perhaps for fungi. They can eat rock. But we humans can’t chew granite and that’s why we need to do what we can to repair and preserve this mighty web of life some seem hellbent on tearing apart. We need to become more symbiotically efficient. Fungus is not the bogeyman – we are.

Right, Mr Sheldrake – page 153…

*Photo by Liam Briese on Unsplash

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