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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Why Fungi Might Really Be Magic (When It Comes to Climate Change)

In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

Toby Kiers, evolutionary biologist, taking soil samples beneath one of the oldest trees in the world.

— Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth.

Dr. Kiers, 45, an evolutionary biologist based at the Free University of Amsterdam, is on a novel mission. She is probing a vast and poorly understood universe of underground fungi that can be vital, in her view, in the era of climate change.

Some species of fungi can store exceptional levels of carbon underground, keeping it out of the air and preventing it from heating up the Earth’s atmosphere. Others help plants survive brutal droughts or fight off pests. There are those especially good at feeding nutrients to crops, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

In short, they are what she called “levers” to address the hazards of a warming climate.


A man stands on a grassy sand dune pointing outward with his arms outstretched. Dr. Kiers wears a cap, carries a handheld G.P.S. device and has a large backpack on her back. The sky is overcast.


Dr. Kiers, right, mapping an area for soil sampling with Merlin Sheldrake.


In a thick wood, small white mushrooms sprout from a branch or vine. Dr. Sheldrake is nearly sideways, craning to observe the mushrooms, and Dr. Kiers seems to be crouching as she looks up at the mushrooms.


Dr. Kiers and Dr. Sheldrake inspecting fungus.

Yet they remain a mystery.

Dr. Kiers wants to know which fungi species are where, what they do, and which should be immediately protected. In short, she wants to create an atlas of all that which we cannot see. And all that is right under our feet.

“It’s seeing Earth’s metabolism,” she said. “Who is there? What is their function? Right now, we are concerned so heavily on the overground, we are literally missing half the picture.”


By one estimate, 5 billion tons of carbon flow from plants to mycorrhizal fungi annually. Without help from the fungi, that carbon would likely stay in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the powerful greenhouse gas that is heating the planet and fueling dangerous weather. “Keeping this fungal network protected is paramount as we face climate change,” Dr. Kiers said.

In addition, the biodiversity of underground fungi is a huge factor in soil health, which is crucial to the world’s ability to feed itself as the planet warms.

Specific knowledge of the power of these networks, said Tim G. Benton, a biologist at Leeds University who isn’t involved in Dr. Kiers’s work, is “very patchy.”

“More information would be very valuable,” he said.

Yet so little is known about fungi that they are not even counted in the Convention on Biodiversity, the global treaty aimed at protecting nature. That treaty is aimed at plants and animals. Fungi are neither. They make up a separate kingdom of life altogether.

Underground, mycorrhizal fungi are crucial trading partners. Trees crave the nutrients they offer. Fungi gobble up the carbon that trees provide in return.

To understand this kingdom, fungi aficionados argue, is to see the natural world differently — less as a collection of individual species, with humans dominating them all, and more as a web of organisms dealing with crises together.



The origin of life


Dr. Sheldrake hammers at one of the metal cylinders for sample collection on a rocky knoll that bears a scraggly tree as Dr. Kiers stands by, carrying surveying tape and wearing a green hat. The ocean stretches in the distance.


Fungi made the world as we know it. As some of the first life forms on the planet, they consumed minerals locked in rocks, creating what we now know as soil. Without them, there would be no plants on land, and therefore, no animals. No us.

Dr. Kiers’s expedition to southern Chile aims to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge about fungi, specifically the mycorrhizal fungi that live symbiotically with plant roots and drive carbon into the soil. That is what gives them such an urgent role on a hotter planet.

“Mycorrhizal networks,” Dr. Kiers said, “are a major global carbon sink.”

The expedition was shaped by Big Data. With the help of scientists in Switzerland, an algorithm had crunched all kinds of above-ground information — temperature, soil moisture, types of trees — and predicted where in the world Dr. Kiers might find high and low levels of underground fungal biodiversity. Then it offered coordinates, as if to say, “Go here, take a soil sample, see if I’m right.”

For their first expedition, in Chile, the researchers arrived at each location, pinpointed by the algorithm, drew a grid 30 by 30 meters, collected spoonfuls of soil, bagged it and sent it to a local lab for genetic analysis. “Once we know who’s there, we can see what they’re good at,” Dr. Kiers said.

Her partner on this expedition was Giuliana Furci, a Chilean environmentalist who, as the head of the Fungi Foundation, an advocacy group, once dressed up like a mushroom in front of Chile’s Parliament building in her effort to include fungi under Chilean environmental law. (It worked.)

Also on the expedition was the biologist and writer Merlin Sheldrake and his musician brother, Cosmo, who stuck microphones into the earth to record the sounds underground. Sometimes he captured the noise of gurgling liquids or the scratching, marching busywork of invisible organisms. Other times, just the thud of the researchers’ boots nearby.


On a mossy, damp forest floor, A man in woven cap sits on the ground with a backpack full of wires and electronic cables. One of the wires connects to a pair of headphones that a woman in a green jacket is putting over her ears. Dr. Kiers and Dr. Sheldrake are to their right and left, respectively, watching.


Cosmo Sheldrake, seated, shared a recording.


Ms. Furci holds a brown clump of what appears to be soil close to her nose with her right hand. Dr. Kiers also smells something, holding it close to her face as Dr. Sheldrake, who is holding a metal cylinder, looks on.


Giuliana Furci, in red, smelled the soil.

They scooped soil from under a volcano, crisscrossed pine and eucalyptus plantations, bushwhacked through brambles, climbed up rocks jutting into the Pacific, coaxed homeowners to let them onto their properties to take a bit of dirt. They rescued an injured parrot one day and a lost hiker on another.

Sometimes, the algorithm led them to peaceful places, where Dr. Sheldrake said the “zen factor” was high. Other times, not so much. One day, they walked into a rainforest full of leeches.

Every day, they smelled the soil they sampled, declared their verdicts.

Ms. Furci: “Peppery.”

Dr. Kiers: “Kind of pondish.”

Dr. Sheldrake: “Bit farty.”

Each sample, representing one square kilometer of land, would be used to identify the genetic properties of fungal species that were storing particularly high levels of carbon in the dirt, or which species might help trees adapt to drought.

Dr. Kiers said she aimed to collect 10,000 samples over 18 months.



Mushroom whisperer


Ms. Furci kneels on the forest floor before a large, white mushroom. In her hands, she holds a smaller, brownish mushroom, which she appears to be examining closely.


“Volva. Volva!” Ms. Furci yelled in excitement.

In her hand she held a thing that looked like an egg cup from which a mushroom had emerged, pale and cloudy like milk — a volva. “A native amanita,” she said, smiling.

“Look at the volva. Volva. With an O.”

Mushrooms are the above-ground avatars of the fungi kingdom, but they represent a fraction of the fungal web underground.

Ms. Furci spots them everywhere. Concealed on the forest floor, wrapped around fallen twigs, attached like luminescent clams on branches. You have to be there in the brief window of time when they are visible. “All mushrooms are magic,” she said.



There’s just a brief window of time when mushrooms are visible.


Ms. Furci, standing between Merlin Sheldrake and Cosmo Sheldrake, holds a large white mushroom in her left hand while she laughs. Cosmo and Merlin Sheldrake smile.


“All mushrooms are magic,” Ms. Furci said.

Ms. Furci was born and raised in England, where her mother, a political dissident, lived in exile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. She came to Chile when her mother returned home, and, a few years later, had what she calls “an encounter.” She saw a striking, rust-orange mushroom in a forest (she later learned it was part of the gymnopilus family) and wanted to know more. An obsession began.

Since then, Ms. Furci has written guidebooks on fungi and named unnamed species (a pitch-black mushroom with white scales she called “galactica”). She has helped persuade the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to include fungi as a category to protect, alongside flora and fauna.

When asked what fungi do, or how they behave, Ms. Furci became visibly annoyed. Their vast biodiversity is not only under-explored, she said, they are misunderstood. They are thought to be just one thing, but they are not.

“A morel and a button mushroom are as closely related as a flea and an elephant,” she said.

In the course of a day, she identified nine different mushrooms. One resembled a hamburger bun top. Another, a witch’s hat. The colors ranged from vanilla to deep raspberry to the speckled back of a fawn.

By the end of a brief trek, she had scooped up two fistfuls of lactarius deliciosus, which grew abundantly alongside the pine trees planted there to harvest timber, one of Chile’s main exports. Without this fungi, Ms. Furci pointed out, pines wouldn’t survive.

For dinner that night, the lactarius were sautéed in butter.



An old tree’s oldest friends


Dr. Kiers looks up at a giant old tree, on whose trunk she is placing her right hand, which also holds between index finger and thumb a mallet.


Dr. Kiers grew up in small towns in Connecticut and Maine. Her parents sent her out with her sister to collect morels in summer. The underground became her passion.

She studied biology at Bowdoin College, worked at a research station in Panama and earned her doctorate at the University of California, Davis. She co-founded a nonprofit advocacy group, the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks.

One Thursday afternoon recently, Dr. Kiers walked through a dark, gnarly rainforest with a fellow underground fungus scholar, César Marín, from the Universidad Santo Tomás in Chile.

How many did you sample so far, Dr. Marín asked.

“Fifteen,” Dr. Kiers said. Far fewer than she had hoped to.

“It always happens,” Dr. Marín replied.

“I knew you’d understand,” said Dr. Kiers.

Taking soil samples is time-consuming, tedious work. Drive for hours. Walk for hours. Bushwhack. Squish around in bogs. Gather a spoonful of dirt. Do it all again.

They were walking in an extraordinary place. A very old, very slow-growing rainforest, this section of the forest potentially holds some of the largest and oldest stores of carbon on Earth. It is home to one of the oldest trees on Earth, a massive Fitzroya, or alerce in Spanish, estimated to be at least 3,500 years old, known here as the great-grandfather alerce.

Dr. Kiers said the data they collect here will signal which mycorrhizal fungi species are doing the work of sequestering so much carbon underground.


An overhead view looking down at the ground. Dr. Kiers holds a metal cylinder in her left hand, and her right hand gently rests on a small, roughly circular patch of brown earth, which is surrounded by moss and other ground cover. Her mallet rests on the ground to her right.


Soil sampling beneath the ancient tree.


Cosmo Sheldrake, with scraggly long brown hair, looks up at a giant old tree. He wears a blue jumpsuit that has a patch on its back which reads, “Protect the Underground.”


Cosmo Sheldrake

Fungi are sensitive to human activity. Chemical fertilizers diminish their volume and diversity. Logging destroys them.

Climate change is the latest stressor, which is why Dr. Marín was keen for Dr. Kiers to sample the same three plots he had tested seven years ago. He wanted to know if the megadrought that has been melting Chile’s glaciers over the past few years has also changed the mycorrhizal networks underground.

Fungi have helped trees adapt on a millennial scale. They could be crucial to helping trees adapt in the climate crisis. “In difficult times, organisms find new symbiotic relationships in order to expand their reach,” said Dr. Sheldrake, the biologist. “Crisis is the crucible of new relationships.”

They walked briskly. Fern fanned out in the understory, along with canelo trees, bamboo, and tall, slender alerce, for which this park is named.

Dr. Kiers approached the great-grandfather tree in silence. She took off her hiking boots, walked gently around the fragile roots.

Cosmo Sheldrake took out a pennywhistle and played.

The tree stood 30 meters tall. Its craggy trunk was half dead. Hundreds of fungal species are associated with its root system, Dr. Marín said.

Being near it, Dr. Kiers said, felt “dizzying.”

“Wouldn’t you want to know about this healthy partnership that’s lasted 5,000 years through so many changes?” she said. It was clearly a rhetorical question.


A close-up view of a small, reddish-capped mushroom with a long white stem sprouting from some forest litter.


A mushroom rises from the forest floor.


A wide view of a dark wooded forest has a small path cut through it which is criss-crossed with tree roots.


Roots rise from shallow soil.

On the last Friday evening of their weeklong expedition, they hiked to a rocky outcropping on the coast. “Zen factor is high,” Dr. Sheldrake said.

An otter played in the water. The sun shone golden on the lapping waves. Some of the boulders were dotted with lichen the color of marigold. As they have for millennia, Dr. Sheldrake observed, fungi were eating rock.

By the end of this one-week outing, they had collected 30 bags of soil. Nearby, over the next several weeks, Dr. Marín’s team would gather 64 more. It’s a drop in the bucket, considering the thousands needed to construct the global map they envision.

This week, Dr. Kiers is on the other side of the world, in the Apennines, the mountain range in Italy. North of the place she planned to collect samples, a glacier has collapsed. Wildfires rage nearby.

“This is a race against time,” she said in an email. “We are nervous these fungal communities are disappearing before we can even document who is there.”


A portrait of Merlin Sheldrake holding between two fingers a small mushroom with a triangular head.


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