Welcome to Scientific American’s Science of Summer Reading. I’m your host Deboki Chakravarti.
Sometimes on Science Talk, we have conversations with authors about their books. But this series is a little different.
What I love as a reader is seeing how books can end up feeling like they’re in conversation with each other, even when they’re not written to do that.
So this month, I’m taking on two science books at a time and just…chat with you about them. I’ll be talking through what the authors made me think and feel.
Maybe you’ve read these books yourself. Maybe you’ve even had some of the same feelings…or maybe not.
And if you haven’t read them, well, maybe this Science Book Talk will inspire you to.
Today we’re going to talk about two books that describe two different parts of nature: fungi and moss. Two forms of life that we’re likely all familiar with, but that some of us (me) have probably overlooked.
But it’s the fact of how easily they’re overlooked that makes fungi and moss useful portals into understanding a wider ecology that they (and we) belong to.
Prologue: The Books
The first book is Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future by Merlin Sheldrake.
The book’s acknowledgement states “with gratitude to the fungi from which I have learned,” and from there continues with an exploration of the life of fungi as we understand it and interact with it, whether that’s in truffles being hunted, psychedelic experiences being had, or scientific investigations being undertaken.
The second book is Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Gathering Moss is a collection of essays that combine scientific descriptions and Kimmerer’s personal experience studying moss. And the essays combine to reflect on how moss fit into the world, both the world around them and the world contained within them.
Chapter 1: Why Fungi and Moss?
It’s easy enough to explain why Sheldrake and Kimmerer choose to write about these subjects. Sheldrake is a mycologist, and Kimmerer is a bryologist, meaning the former studies fungi and the latter studies moss.
But the great fun of reading any scientist’s book about their chosen field of study is to see how they explain the choosing, and to see how they explain their own excitement.
Both Entangled Life and Gathering moss begin with a trek through the forest, describing not just the land the authors walk through, but how they walk through it.
Kimmerer describes her feet on the ground as “like fingers on the piano, playing from memory an old sweet song, of pine needles and sand.”
But the familiar path leads her to an unfamiliar rock formation that she ventures into.
She finds herself surrounded by moss and rock, describing for us the intimacy of the two together in both the present moment and their shared past. When she leaves the cave, she carries with her the task of telling the story of moss beyond just data.
Sheldrake’s hike is more localized, set around the root of a tree. He spends the day tracking the root through the ground, digging and sniffing away as he works to uncover the fungal network entwined with the tree.
He ends his prologue with a sample of these fungi and writes, “I tugged lightly on my root and felt the ground move.”
Both of these introductions set the stage for the explorations we are about to embark on, from the moss as both scientific entity and deeper carrier of story, to the fungi as a hidden tangled foundation to our world.
Using a word like “overlooked” to describe moss and fungi feels a bit presumptive on my part. I don’t know you or your relationship to these parts of the landscape. But I can safely speak for myself when I say that I am happy to see moss and fungi outside, and yet could not tell you much more about them.
And for these authors, who are able to track their lives and interests so much through these subjects, surely most of us must seem a little negligent in our attention.
And so both take on many different angles of their subject’s lives to give us a richer understanding of a thing we might frequently see, but may not spare much thought for.
Kimmerer draws our attention to the relationship between moss and water, the advantages moss draws from their small stature, and the varied lives that different species maintain.
The effect is to turn what might look like a big mass of green lining the forest into a bustling, diverse group of individuals with extraordinary talents.
Sheldrake introduces us to the branching mycelium of fungi along with the chemistry that shapes the interactions of fungi with the outside world, allowing them to respond in a way that may look like a chaotic spread, but that is actually much more directed and intentional.
These are individual subjects that contain their own distinct charms, and over the course of both books, we see the authors’ own curiosity over the mysteries they’re describing.
But while fungi and moss are the subjects of these books, they’re also an entry-point, an earth-hugging gateway into a wider understanding of nature and ecosystems.
We’ll discuss how fungi and moss become windows into a wider world after a word from our sponsor.
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Thank you, Lincoln Nadauld, for joining me today. I'm so excited to hear more about what you've done in the past year.
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Hall: Well, thank you, Lincoln Nadauld for taking the time to talk about what you've been up to in the past year.
Nadauld: My pleasure, thanks for having me. This is my favorite topic, I could talk about it all day.
Hall: Lincoln Nadauld is Vice President and Chief of Precision Health and Academics at Intermountain Healthcare. In 2020, he received the Catalyst for Precision Medicine Award from the Cancer Community Cancer Awards, part of AstraZeneca's Your Cancer program. Your Cancer brings together the community that is working to drive meaningful change in cancer care.
This podcast was produced by Scientific American Custom Media and made possible through the support of AstraZeneca Your Cancer program.
And we’re back with more Science Book Talk.
Chapter 2: Understanding Ecology Through the Spore-Bearers
In one of her essays, titled “In the forest of the water bear,” Kimmerer writes about a trip she took to the Amazon. There, she finds herself overwhelmed.
But she also finds it similar to the mosses she works with. Mosses which house many microscopic organisms, including the famous tardigrade, or water bear.
She writes, “Dwarfed by the green, vulnerable, I felt something in common with the tiny creatures in a moss mat.”
That moss mat is stratified like a forest, with little watery pockets tucked away to house an immense diversity of life.
The seasons the moss experiences translates into seasons that its residents experience, cycles of dry and wet that have shaped the tardigrade’s acclaimed ability to survive extreme conditions.
In this view, the moss shifts from organism to ecosystem, with weather that shapes what can and cannot survive in it.
And it’s easy when talking of ecosystems to treat it as simply a part of a great outdoors that is separate.
But in a later essay titled “City mosses,” Kimmerer describes the ways that mosses are prevalent parts of the city landscape.
These sections tie in with a longer thread that weaves through the book. They show us that mosses respond to their surroundings, but also that those surroundings respond to mosses and use them.
(Not all of those uses are elegant or glamorous. At one point we learn that moss help clog up bears’ digestive systems before they go into hibernation.)
Reading a nature book in the year 2021 is of course to be hit, at some point, with the analysis of just how much we are hurting nature. That realizing is a necessary task, especially when you’re learning about a piece of the world that you may not have paid much attention to before.
And so learning more about moss allows us to see into their exterior and interior ecologies so that we can understand both why they are so important, and why they are so easily lost.
Even those who seem to pay attention to moss can do it damage, as iterated in essays like “The Owner,” which documents Kimmerer’s experience consulting with the rich, anonymous person who wants to build his own mossy garden with little concern for the cost of his methods.
And fungi have their own similar sense of an interior ecosystem as moss, forming both physical and chemical connections between different organisms.
In the case of lichen, for example, which fuse photosynthetic and non-photosynthetic life, Sheldrake notes that their bodies are an embodiment of this planet’s main forms of life wrapped together.
But the assessment of a human-manufactured catastrophe is different when viewed through the eyes of a fungus.
Sheldrake writes, “Fungi are veteran survivors of ecological disruption. Their ability to cling—and often flourish—through periods of catastrophic change is one of their defining characteristics.”
As he explains, fungi have survived five major extinction events and are found in disaster sites. They’re the opportunists at the end of the world, ready to build a new one out of the rubble we leave behind.
And part of why they can do this, and part of why they continue to have such strong effects on our lives, is because of their immense creativity when it comes to forming relationships with other organisms, whether that’s with bacteria, plant or animal.
These interactions vary in the degrees to which they help the fungi’s partner. But the network that arises from them weaves fungi through our world, connecting us to our planet’s past and providing opportunities for the future.
Chapter 3: Knowledge as Its Own Ecology
There is a sort of contradiction to this approach to using a single thing to understand the wider thing. It is inherently limiting, forcing us into a narrow point of view told through whatever that organism is.
It is also a necessity. Understanding complexity requires some degree of simplification first, a narrowing in scope or language that helps nudge the window open.
But like the organisms themselves, there is a sort of ecology built on our shared knowledge. And seeing that ecology allows us to see the complexity we are trying to understand.
Sheldrake writes, “I never behave more like a fungus than when I’m investigating them, and quickly enter academic mutualism based on an exchange of favors and data.”
Those exchanges are echoed in the interdisciplinary research he cites throughout the book to paint fungi from many different angles, whether that’s the chemical, mathematical, or biological.
Through Entangled Life, the mutualism between fungi and other organisms blurs the lines of identity, questioning the boundaries we apply to species that are so entwined.
But this is not unique to fungi.
As Sheldrake notes, “We are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.”
He writes this to describe how our view of our own bodies is shifting in light of research about the microbiome.
But I think it applies just as well to the ways we’ve carved up and divided nature into different areas of study that have complicated, entangled relationships with each other.
In Gathering Moss, Kimmerer, who is a member of the Potawatomi nation, compares how she was trained as a scientist versus how knowledge is shared in indigenous communities.
Kimmerer writes, “Like scientific information, traditional knowledge arises from careful systematic observation of nature, from the results of innumerable lived experiments. Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher.”
But as she notes, there are disconnects. The botany she learns in college seems to strip humans from the plants being studied, shedding the intimacy between us and our surroundings.
And the direct questions of the scientific methods seem more like demands of nature. So there are times when she shifts her perspective from those direct questions for a more patient approach, treating the experiments she’s carrying out as more of a conversation than a demand.
I found her use of the word “conversation” in this context striking in part because it’s an action that comes up in both Gathering Moss and Entangled Life to describe interactions between parts of nature.
Conversations between moss and rocks. Discourse relayed through the smell of fungi.
And it’s a conversation made explicit between these books.
At the start of the episode, I mention that I like reading books to see how they can feel like they’re in conversation with each other, even when they’re not actually written to do that.
But Sheldrake cites Kimmerer’s writing in Entangled Life, directly connecting these works in conversation and ideas.
And from that conversation, there’s a sense that it’s not just our knowledge, but the way we share our knowledge that shapes our relationships to what we know and how we see the world.
In some of her essays, Kimmerer describes her experience as a teacher, sharing her knowledge and excitement with students, who in turn extend the network of this knowledge.
We as readers are brought into this network as we learn.
I read Gathering Moss on a rainy day and thought of moss unfurling on the trees outside my window. And when I went for a walk the next day and tracked the mushrooms growing on the edge of the driveway, I thought of the hyphae I had just learned so much about from Entangled Life.
It’s hard to feel proud for noticing something a bit longer than I did before. But there’s sort of a thill that comes with those moments of recognition, and of knowing that there’s more to know.
It’s the thrill of having read these books that convey the joy of a deep knowledge of something, and of the many questions that remain.
Thank you for joining me this week on Science Book Talk. Next week, join me as we explore what may seem abandoned.