Entangled Life → 2020
Photographs and essay

Primordial networks

The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Life on Earth emerged 3.7 billion years ago and prior to the emergence of life, for about 2 billion years, the terrestrial surface of the planet has remained barren and lifeless. Evidence suggests that about 500 million years ago, communities of small plants and fungi began to colonize the Earths rocky landscapes, scratching the surface and laying the groundwork for the subsequent evolution of land plants. In biology, these communities are commonly referred to as lichen, associations between different fungal species and alga. Lichen exist to this day and are an ever-present occurrence to the waking eye. The relationship that constitutes lichen are a prominent example of symbiosis, a scientific concept that was first formulated in the 1870s and has since been confirmed. The “phenomenon in which dissimilar organisms live together” proves to be a pillar of life and in the case of lichen lays at the bedrock of the evolution of life on land.1

These early organisms were extracting minerals from the rocks they colonized, thus nourishing themselves and their symbionts, paving the path for the growth of terrestrial plants. Another way of putting it is that fungi were essentially mining rocks, enabling sea plants the colonization of the land through a symbiotic relationship that holds true to this day. In order to chemically breakdown rocks, fungi employ mycelial threads, tubular-like branches to penetrate the hard bodies that are rocks. In a more vegetative environment, like a forest, mycelial networks connects different plants in a certain area via underground networks, enabling them to extract and exchange information and nutrients, forming the “ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.”Fungal networks form vast connections between different lifeforms, without which life as we know it wouldn‘t be possible. Even though these networks remain largely invisible to the human eye, they permeate most of the subterranean soil of the Earth. Only the fruiting bodies of fungi, mushrooms, figure as visible hints at the vast web of an underlying entity that is so formative to the biological processes on Earth

Lichens, Ernst Haeckel, 1904Lichens, Ernst Haeckel, 1904

A perspective of entanglement

Since the dawn of civilization, it has been deemed important to be able to control environments for the betterment of the human condition. Within western philosophical traditions, this tendency is based on a way of thinking that results in the isolation of the human being from its origin, a dichotomy with a human sphere on the one hand, and an environmental sphere on the other: culture and nature.  The evolution of modern civilization is in part based on such a way of understanding at the world. Industrial and post-industrial societies bring with them a certain detachment from natural systems, for that technological advancement as it is commonly perceived fundamentally depends on the resources of natural systems. Indeed, humanity has become the primary agent in the transformation of the planet, scratching the surface of the earth not so much with the prospect of symbiotic relationships, but with the ever growing hubris of control over that which is other. Notwithstanding the fact that such detachment invariably leads to the alienation of the biosphere that brought us about.

Fungi engulfing a human-made structure

Can fungi be helpful in enabling a perspective that reveals the futile endeavour of controlling the uncontrollable primordial? Fungi are among the pioneers of life on Earth and have an ability to help bring about an understanding of space and time that otherwise remain difficult to grasp. With the increasing knowledge about the planet and its other-than-human inhabitants, human understanding of the world seems to be circling back to an oftentimes ancient outlook on the world, namely that humans are merely part of a biosphere that gives and takes in constant interaction. Within such a view, the hard boundary that ostensibly separates humans from their environment becomes obsolete. What follows is to understand evolution as a history of constant cross-contamination: humans and their cultural creations live in the entangled connections of a complex system created by other beings. Seeing the world through a fungal lens might open the mind for the realization of something that has always been true; that humans are very much entangled with all life, rather than a detached entity.

The stepping out of ones individual self leads to a witnessing of the dissolving of boundaries. Fungi can help us decentralize humanity and transgress anthropocentric notions of perceiving and being in the world. Instead we might think about our presence on this planet in a symbiotic way, for there is no escaping symbiosis. Rejuvenating an understanding of the interconnectedness between humankind and the wider system might then lead us to realize that there really is no separation between us and nature and to a larger extent in the universe. Even though it is true that we do not know much about being-ness outside of human beings, we better try and imagine it.

Heinrich Anton de Bary, Die Erscheinung der Symbiose (Verlag von Karl J. Trübner, Strassburg, 1879), p. 5
2 Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Bodley Head, 2020), p. 52