Merlin Sheldrake, 34, earned a doctorate in tropical ecology from the University of Cambridge for his work on underground fungal networks in the forests of Panama. Tangled life, his first book, won the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize.
What was your childhood or your first ambition?
It changed from hour to hour. Maybe I liked the idea of being an engineer, then at the end of the day I decided I’d rather be a diver or a musician.
Private school or public school? University or straight to work?
Public school, then private school, then university.
Who was or still is your mentor?
I feel blessed to have had so many. One of them was historical ecologist Oliver Rackham, who taught me as an undergrad. Oliver was a wonderful teacher and an accomplished detective. His outings in the field were a traveling one-man show, his staging antique and discreet. He took us into the woods and told us the story of these places and their human inhabitants as he read the twists and splits in the branches of old oak trees, observed where the nettles thrived, noted what plants did or did not grow. did not grow in a hedge. Under Oliver’s influence, the sharp line I had imagined between “nature” and “nurture” began to blur.
Are you in good physical shape?
Movement and physical activity are important parts of my life. I find jumping rope, swimming in cold water and neigong particularly nutritious.
Ambition or talent: what matters more to succeed?
Ambition can generate talent; talent can also generate ambition. I can’t think of a case where someone wouldn’t depend on a dance in between. What kind of dance it is will depend on how one defines success.
How politically engaged are you?
I care how humans treat others, whether human or non-human, and I care how humans behave in their dealings with the living world. It leaves me feeling frustrated and motivated in more or less equal measure.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently own?
An orchard. I would assemble a living library of rare and peculiar apple varieties to ferment into rare and peculiar ciders.
What is your biggest extravaganza?
Where are you the happiest?
Walking, playing the piano with no one around or in a kitchen making fermented hot sauce.
What ambitions do you still have?
I like not knowing. Maybe it’s a bit like sailing: I have to make sure my boat is in good shape, with a working rudder, spare sails, a map and a compass. But exactly where I’m going is hard to say because it depends on the weather. Unexpected winds can encourage a generative change of course.
What motivates you ?
There are many ways to play, explore, understand, create and feel. And many opportunities to stop our ecocidal activities.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
Reaching my age feeling healthy and fulfilled. Although much of the credit goes to everyone who has loved and cared for me, not to mention the non-human creatures whose lives make my life possible.
What do you find most irritating in other people?
dogmatic certainty. Especially if the dogmatist does everything possible to impose his certainty on others.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would it think?
He would be amused and not entirely surprised to discover that I am a biologist and a writer who is interested in subjects that have fascinated me for a long time.
What item you lost would you like to still have?
My grandfather had a pharmacy full of beautiful specimen drawers and medicine bottles that were donated after his death.
What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Can we find a way to compost greed in its various forms? The relentless corporate greed that results in so much psychological, humanitarian and ecological damage, climate change and countless other tangled crises.
Do you believe in life after death?
The matter and microbes that make up our bodies will continue to travel through their earth cycles after we die, a thought I find comforting. As for our souls, I don’t know. I appreciate the mystery.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would your score be?
Seven. I am happy and grateful for everything I have. But we have created so many problems, and so many transformations are needed.
“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures” by Merlin Sheldrake is published by The Bodley Head
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