Tuning into the ‘wood wide web’ for a bit of calm

If there’s anything that’s helped me through this year, it’s been zoning in on details from the natural world

This Christmas I’m hoping for a few quiet hours by the fireside to read up on the largest living organism on the planet. Even just thinking about the world of complex underground networks of fungi fills me with a kind of calm – a bit like looking up at the stars – and feels nicely removed from the madness of 2020. Yes, if there’s anything that’s helped me through this year, it’s been zoning in on details from the natural world.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed mushrooms growing in a circle in a field – what is known, I discovered, as fairy rings. Underneath, lay a hidden, interconnected mat of tubular threads that was slowly expanding in circles. What I saw – the mushrooms – were only a small part of an organism that can span huge distances. In the Blue Mountains in Oregon, US, for example, one fungi was found to stretch across more than two miles.

While the benefits of this organism – from food to penicillin – are well known, it is only in recent years that research has uncovered the extent of its subterranean connectivity. What's been dubbed the "wood wide web", links plants and transfers water, carbon and other nutrients. For Merlin Sheldrake, the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, fungi represent a "diverse kingdom of organisms" that support and sustain nearly all living things. I immediately went to order his book – and the new Granta: Second Nature collection of writing – when I heard him talking online about the curious, multifaceted nature of this organism: "I always wanted to travel inside a root," he said.

It may not be for the best reasons, but it looks like we’ll all be spending a bit more time outdoors over this Christmas. According to a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency, however, the pandemic has prompted a stronger appreciation for “connectedness to the environment”. Barriers that had existed before 2020 – such as time spent commuting, and people being too busy – diminished, with all age groups “re-engaging with their environment, enhancing their appreciation for nature and benefiting from access to it”.


A quick glance at the amount of photographs taken of the sea or trees and posted on social media would also seem to echo this finding. And with so many shops and businesses closed to the public throughout this tumultuous year, local green spaces have become more popular and more valued by us – here's hoping it stays that way. @SorchaHamilton