Groeneveldprijs 2022 Merlin Sheldrake laudatio & lezing

Groeneveldlezing Liesje Mommer Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 Dear biodiversity lovers, dear nature conservationists [or: activists], dear scientists, artists and architects, dear Merlin, dear all, We are here to celebrate the book ‘Entangled life’ and it is great to see so many of you here. We, as human beings are entangled, although sometimes we tend to forget that, individual egos as we are. I believe that we are entangled – with each other and with other beings on this planet. In this personal reflection, I will share my thoughts, feelings and amazement on that topic. Many of them I got from working with soil-borne fungi as a scientist working belowground on plant roots which are so entangled with fungi. Reading Merlin Sheldrakes book helped me to find the words. I am deeply grateful for the effort you made to write the book, to make the book, to actually be the book. Working with fungi helped me to better understand who I am: more aligned with myself, my being, my mission for a nature-positive world. For you in the audience to understand that viewpoint, I will have to introduce myself a bit more. This is perhaps a bit impolite on a festive occasion for Merlin – my apologies. Wim van Gelder already mentioned that I work as a professor in Plant Ecology & Nature Conservation at Wageningen University, and that I am considered its ‘figurehead’ (boegbeeld) for biodiversity. I have to admit I feel very uncomfortable with that term. I will explain why, and how it relates to fungi. In the early years of my scientific career, biodiversity experiments in grasslands were ‘hot’, it was a lively field of research. But what is a biodiversity experiment really? In such experiments, scientists grow different plant communities – mostly grassland species – in plots that differ in plant species richness. So, in such experiments, there are many plots established as monocultures, but also 2-species mixtures, 4-species mixtures, even up to 60 species. Biomass is harvested by clipping, then dried, weighed and analysed as a proxy for ecosystem productivity. These experiments have consistently shown: biodiversity matters. Biodiversity improves productivity. Biodiversity enhances ecosystem functioning. I was attracted to this scientific energy – and decided to work in that research field. I had to find my own niche and decided to look where others did not. The standard was measuring aboveground, so I decided to go belowground, where half of the plant biomass is. I investigated rooting patterns of different plant species, and found that they did not really confirm the ecological theory the textbooks suggested in those days. Then, the soil was considered a box full of nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus in particular - and plant roots were considered to just ‘sip’ them up. With my team, I set up experiments that demonstrated that root behaviour cannot be understood without explicitly considering the immense biodiversity in soil; without embracing the myriads of other organisms dwelling around the roots. In particular: soil-borne fungi – the symbiotic ones that form the wood-wide web; the saprophytes that decompose our litter, and also the bad ones – the pathogens. They are so fascinating – I could have been digging treasures all my scientific career. Yet. May 2019. I was sitting behind my desk in my office on the Wageningen campus. Overseeing the pond in the garden, the grassland with its many colourful flowering plants, a green woodpecker on the ground. I was reading the IPBES report: the IPBES is the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – which is the biodiversity equivalent of the IPCC for Climate. The message was: globally, biodiversity is lost at accelerating rates.. We humans are the cause – the way we eat, built, live ... the way we dominate nature. It is our own fault that society is at risk. I was shocked of the scale of the destruction of nature, the alarming rate of species extinction. I have two children! Teenagers. What state of the planet do I leave them? What state of planet do we leave them? My next thought was: What to do? What could possibly be my best action? My most strategic move? What would be my most clever contribution to solving this other crisis, next to climate change? My son said: You work at the best university of the world, so do something! Change it. He was right, he provided clear direction. I mobilised my network. I initiated a group of scientists from all scientific disciplines on the Wageningen campus – ecologists, agronomists, food technologists, geneticists, economists, sociologists to work on

Groeneveldlezing Liesje Mommer Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 a nature-positive future. To break down silos – and work beyond their own hobby horses. Provide the scientific evidence, fill the research gaps, integrate and deliver knowledge in society where it is needed. Work interdisciplinary. Work transdisciplinary: not only a diversity of scientists, but together with society: with farmers, businesses, NGOs, policy makers at different levels – from local to global. We organised dialogues – to meet, listen, and share ideas, desires and... hope. To know of each other, and build on each other. To make better plans from listening to critique rather than build stronger walls. We work evidence-based, but also with the heart, as human beings taking responsibility. I have been wondering since then – why me? What made me the person to do this? As I explained, I have a scientific background in biodiversity experiments in grasslands – but I have to admit I do not recognize all of the 60 plant species... Would it be my social skills, or my personality, my stubbornness? Partly. I only found a satisfying answer, a grassroot answer, since I read Entangled life. I recognised much of what was written in chapter 1: What it is to be a fungus? I am a plant ecologist – for two decades working underground. By being underground for such a long time, I have been changed by my subject: how to be a fungus? I think I can imagine being one. Working with fungi – as Merlin rightly argues - requires being able to imagine their behaviour, because they are so invisible... so different.... beyond our imagination, and therefore triggering it: imagination. I think that that is the essence of leading for change into a nature-positive future: the belief in unimaginably better. I learned that fungi can change our old habits. They bring new perceptions – unimaginable new ones. Completely different worlds exist. Dreaming about different worlds - not being bound by the current rules, laws and busyness or big business - is what is so much needed nowadays. To trigger the change – to lead the change, it is vital that we get ‘tricked’ out of our perspectives – out of our daily routines. We must dream beyond the horizon, and fully decide to go for it. Some of you may think that scientists are bad in dreaming, as they are excelling only in “cold-blooded rationality”, in the words of Merlin. But I know – because I am one myself - scientists are emotional, intuitive whole human beings too. We all are. Entangled, being able to take different roles. Fungi learn us to go beyond the imaginable roles – they do things so differently, that whatever we will dream, it already exists in the fungal world. They tell us it is possible, if we would ‘only’ use our common sense. The hope for the world is in fungi – that we learn to dream unimaginable futures, and wholeheartedly go the pathways towards them. Another insight from the book is that fungal relationships are confusing. To understand what is a relationship, the identities of the ‘things’ that form ‘the relationship’ must be known. The question: ‘What is an individual?’ has always appealed to biologists. But answering it for fungi – what is an individual? Or even framed a bit more general: what is a species - greatly stretches the minds of even our best scientists. The ‘things’ that form ‘the relationship’ may not be necessarily known in the fungal world, but the ‘things’ that make it happen are the fungal tips. They can fuse with other fungal entities – different individuals; different fungal species, and even live intimately with organisms from other kingdoms. For a long time ecologists have been blind for these confusing, entangled ways of forming relationships. Only recently, scientists have started to appreciate the wood-wide web, the ‘collaborative mode’ of fungal relationships. The interesting question is: how does the fungal way of forming entangled relationships translate to our human world? On campus we had a Biodiversity challenge earlier this year with many students, staff and their children. Here, you could see it happening: how relationships were formed, between the little boy and the cool scientist, and also between them and the fish - across species. It appeared that we share the campus with at least 821 species (we did not accurately count the fungal species – just a few mushrooms and rusts), but it is that entanglement that touches me every time I come to the Wageningen campus. It makes me wonder: who are we humans to dominate nature? Can we find a more symbiotic relationship? More collaborative? More humble? I found part of the answer to that question when reflecting on my resistance regarding the term ‘figure head’. First, let me cite from the chapter Living la

Groeneveldlezing Liesje Mommer Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 byrinths: “Fungal lives are lived in a flood of sensory information. And somehow, hyphae, piloted by their tips – are able to integrate these many data streams and determine a suitable trajectory for growth, for the next step”. “Hyphal tips are the part of the mycelium that grow, change direction, branch and fuse. They are the part of the mycelium that do the most”. And – importantly: “They are numerous”. That is a massive encouragement for the world: if we organise ourselves as mycelial networks – collaborative, mycelium networks - change can happen towards a nature-positive future. Maybe I should introduce myself not as a figurehead, but as a ‘mycelial tip’ of the biodiversity movement from now onwards – thank you Merlin, for giving me that perspective. I integrate data streams (i.e. the knowledge from the different disciplines, the opportunities, ....) and then determine the next best step. Not really knowing the step – but going the step. But most importantly: there are many mycelial tips in a mycelium – and fungi have found ways to organise them. I believe we can too. Change starts if we organise ourselves like a collaborative mycelium. Fungi show us the way! Earlier this week at the #COP27 in Egypt, the secretary-general from the United Nations – Antonio Guterres - said: we are on a highway to climate hell. Hearing such quotes, I used to get beyond hope, but now I am fearless and full of courage. Taught by fungi. They are radical, they are unorthodox, and they find solutions. For example, they figured out how to breakdown lignin. They are the only organisms on the planet that can. They are persistent and perseverant. They can even survive in radioactive sites such as Chernobyl, and they seem to thrive in abandoned, polluted, and overexploited habitats. I hope they are generous. I was hiking a few weeks ago in the Netherlands, with Merlin’s book in my backpack – and its many messages in my mind. Often I feel sad when hiking in the Netherlands – I see what is NOT present, even with my positive attitude. Despite all the good work by nature conservation organisations, the patches of nature are so small, fragmented, disturbed. Yet, this time I hiked along our rivers – the Maas, Waal, Nederrijn, and I felt a little hope. There were so many colourful trees, beavers, kingfishers, even a white-tailed eagle. I suddenly saw the rivers as the mycelium of the landscape. This is where change happens, things fuse. Where hope starts for a better future – a nature-positive future. During the hike I recalled the beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson: “Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – I wonder, what Emily Dickinson would have written if she would have read ‘Entangled life’? “Courage” is the mycelial thing – That perches in the soil – And finds [the way] with radical forms – And never stops – at all – I invite you to feel hope, to find courage in the beauty of this musical piece https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGrLL3T0ozE, in a very recent composition of Christopher Tin, sung by the acapella choir Voces8. In the meantime, dream about being a fungus, to radically change the world, together with many mycelial tips. If we decide to trust the network, and act accordingly, we can make this world a better place. Liesje Mommer 10/11/2022

Laudation Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 Dirk Sijmons (on behalf of the Groeneveld Foundation) Dear Merlin Sheldrake, We are very honored to have you in our midst. Your book ‘Entangled Life’ has the touch and feel of an instant classic when it comes to natural history books because it is not just a work of science but also a work of love. Through your fascination and love for the subject the reader feels connected to this unknown world, it is as if your writing connects us with nature through thousands of invisible treads. He wanted to follow up on the hypotheses of the drunken primates eating fermented fallen fruits and collected whole bags of apples from the ground already in fermenting state, pressed them and produced a cider out of it. Nothing special you could say, not a very strong punch line to end a book. It gets more interesting when he tells us that these fruits fell of the apple tree near Trinity College in Cambridge where famously Isaac Newton was hit by one that evoked the idea of universal gravity. Sheldrake thickens the plot by narrating how at least three Apple trees in and around Cambridge claim to be the ‘Newton’ tree or at least be a clone of the original tree. He adds another layer to tell us that although nobody believes this falling apple – emerging genial idea – story really happened, the trees are sacrosanct and highly protected to give visitors/tourists the illusion that they visit the place and touch the tree where it all happened and with any luck see an apple fall. The adventure of letting the brew ferment with natural yeast and the sensation of the unexpected taste spectrum. I quote the very last paragraph: “….to my amazement it was delicious. The bitterness and the sourness of the apples had transformed. The taste was floral and delicate, dry with a gentle fizz. Drunk in larger quantities, it elicited elation and light euphoria. I didn’t feel clumsy, although yeast had most certainly made a nonsense of me. I was intoxicated by a story, comforted by it, constrained by it, dissolved in it, made senseless by it, weighed down by it. I called the cider ‘Gravity’, and lay heavy and reeling under the influence of yeast’s prodigious metabolism.” It’s that kind of book. Biology, ecology, philosophy, nature and culture are being twinned into an homage to the role of fungi and in a unique reading experience. It unlocks the rich diversity of the Kingdom of Fungi and highlights the importance of mycorrhiza, the collaboration between fungi and plants, seen from the perspective of the main figures: the fungi. The book’s structure and your fluid way of writing sucks the reader into a field of fascinating scientific research full of new insights and surprising links. It is not limited to your own research but by highlighting the work of many fellow scientists. Quite rare to find a register, bibliography, and a footnote machine in a popular science book, that is so comprehensive, together filling almost a quarter of the pages. Sounds extremely dull and not quite the criterium to award a prize, but makes the book complete, and I want to add, the notes read like a book in a book But for the few people in the room that didn’t read the book YET let me try to give a short introduction. It was the fungi that crawled ashore about 500 million years ago and 450 million years ago, together with algae, took the first step towards the greening of the planet through a successful symbiosis. This early symbiosis still lives on in the form of lichens. Your research and your writing allows the reader to look at the living world in a different way. You show how the Wood-Wide-Web of underground substances and information exchange can be understood evolutionarily, and how fungi make systems into eco-systems. The book manages in setting the record straight in our mental hierarchy where plants are ranked higher then – what we learned in school as - lower forms of live. Plantcentrism you call this. It even poses the question who is domesticating who. The recent myth that trees communicate between each other is replaced by an even more miraculous hypotheses that the only organism having an evolutionary benefit in keeping the wood as a whole healthy Ladies and gentlemen, Before I start with my laudation for Merlin Sheldrake, I think I owe you an explanation. You might have been a bit bewildered by the invitation the Groeneveld Foundation sent you. Only at a second glance some of you might have guessed what it was: an apple being devoured by a fungus. We chose for this somewhat puzzling illustration because Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled life ends with apples.

Laudation Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 Dirk Sijmons (on behalf of the Groeneveld Foundation) is the giant underground mycelium network. We tend to see this network as a neutral natural infrastructure, you show that it is an active entity abiding to its own laws not just transporting minerals for plants. This network can communicate through info-chemicals and electrical signals and moreover influences its environment and the organisms that are connected to the network. DNA-material of plants, viruses. and bacteria also travels through the mycelium. You show why the metaphor Wood-Wide-Web is inapt and confusing because it suggests that the plants are the sites and the mycelium are the hyperlinks. But in the end, the behavior of the wood wide web is not unambiguous and the comparison with the internet - just like brains or politics - is only partially valid. No matter how much such networks regulate themselves and how many hints - or are they signals? - there are flowing back and forth via fungi and plants, wood wide webs overlap. The frays of their extreme boundaries, which also include other organisms, run through each other. That is beyond the reach of metaphors. This entanglement and multiple symbiosis come closer to the real complexity of our living world. In our times of climate change you highlight that the mycelium networks of our subsurface form the second largest carbon sink – after the oceans – Fascinating too: how fungi in a direct sense can also influence animal (and human) behaviour. How fungi via fermentation and yeasts were also formative for human civilization. You quote Gilles Deleuze that ‘drunkenness is a triumphant eruption of the plant in us’ only to add that it is no less than the triumphant eruption of the fungus in us. You are not only referring to the role yeasts play in changing water into wine but also to the intoxication caused by the psychedelic mushrooms. That the psychedelics from mushrooms play an important role in the culture of indigenous people was not surprising at all for me. My Hippy generation devoured ‘Carlos Castaneda’s books on tripping Yaqui Indian shamans. Lately also in our culture ‘paddo’s’ are beginning to be recognized as an important therapeutic instrument for all kinds of mental illnesses. They seem most effective in the battle against Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Again, you play with the question: who is domesticating who. Are we using the fungi to change our way of seeing or did the fungi produce these chemicals to gain an evolutionary advantage? I started out by characterizing your work as a twinning between science and love. And that is because you use all means at your disposal – both personal and cultural - to come closer to the subject of your study and thereby transcend the cerebral domain. You didn’t shy away from experimenting with the hallucinogenic effect of magic mushrooms to make people look at their own lives and at the world differently. Not only are the illustrations from his book drawn with black ink from the ink fungus, but you have inoculated your book with the spores of the Oyster Mushroom. You recorded the sound of galvanic currents produced by digesting your book, amplified it and accompanied that rhythm on the piano to finally devour your own book with taste - like a true myco-phage. Seeking contact with the non-human life through the agency of scientific, technical, and cultural means is part of a broader post-humanist trend. But that is mostly limited to non-human life that is relatively close to us. Like Charles Foster who - as part of his research for his book ‘Being a Beast’ - tried to live like a badger, otter, fox and swift respectively. That’s hard enough like the book shows in detail. Or your other fellow countryman the artist Thomas Twaithes who, in his goat suit, tried to contact mountain goats for a week or so. This ontological pluralism, that all ways of being are equal, has inspired the late great Bruno Latour to introduce ‘The Parliament of Things’ to give all creatures that don’t have a voice a representation in democratic deliberations. In Holland the most successful example is the Ambassy of the North Sea trying to make our coastal sea a fully fledged political player. Sheldrake shows how, through his evocative mix of science, technique and culture, that one can even construct a relationship with the not so easily (re) knowable and cuddly sides of nature of which we are a part.

Laudation Merlin Sheldrake Groeneveld award 2022 Dirk Sijmons (on behalf of the Groeneveld Foundation) Here we arrive at one of the main reasons to award you with the 2022 Groeneveld prize. We are convinced that we will desperately need these new kinds of empathy with the living nature as a whole to heal our wounded planet. In a way you translated Fungi-language into English (and that was brilliantly translated into Dutch by Nico Groen) that we face the challenge of translating our wishes into fungi language. In other words, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the admiring gaze of post-humanism, but deeper understanding of the fungal word offers the potential to translate back from human language into fungi talk and see whether fungi can help to address problems we face as a human society. You call that ‘radical mycology’ and offer an informed look into the future of how fungi can help us change our mind literary. And, very practical, how fungi by myco-sanitation can help us get rid of – toxic and plastic (!) waste. Moreover how mycelium might become a promising building material. Fungi helped making the world and can also help saving the world. Does that sound outlandish? Please allow me a little sidestep. For the architects in the audience: an article in Nature of 2021 showed that the total weight of the built environment, the weight we added in the last 7.000 years surpassed the total weight of the biomass of the planet. And most alarming that this weight is about to triple before 2040 . It sounds a bit Malthusian, but it is the consequence of living in the Anthropocene’s Great Acceleration and the almost exponential growth of cities in Asia, South America and especially Africa. The map from the Atlas to the End of the World by Richard Weller shows that the places where urbanization will go viral coincide with the biodiversity hotspots of the world. Not only from the angle of natural resources but also from the angle of conservation of biodiversity it is very urgent that we tap from a completely different vessel. This is where radical mycology may be an alternative. You see a new branch of building material research at TU-Delft, ETH Zürich and the design academy in Eindhoven experimenting with mycelium not just as isolation material but as structural building elements. Possibly we will grow our future cities instead of building them with extracted material. ‘Entangled life’ has been acclaimed all over the world, has since been translated into many languages, there even is a strip version now, your galvanic currents will produce a musical version soon I’m sure and it has even inspired our star designer Iris van Herpen’s spring collection. We are a bit latish in our appreciation, but we comfort ourselves that the Nobel prize is also famously late: one already almost forgot what contribution to science one made and then the phone rings showing a Swedish number on your screen. The Groeneveld foundation earned its endowment funds with Forestry and not with the production of gunpowder, so our prize money is proportional lower I’m afraid. Merlin, may I invite you to address this curious and knowledge hungry audience.

Groeneveld Award 2022 document to Merlin Sheldrake Wim van Gelder (Chairman of the Groeneveld Foundation) I’ve always wondered why biologists often write so well. There are also many writing biologists in the Netherlands, some even belong to our writer elite. In Holland we have an award for the best book on Nature, named after the artist and writer Jan Wolkers, that takes stock yearly of newly published 50-150 books on the subject, nominates six of them and finally award one. To our minds your book would certainly have been a winner if – and that is a big if – it had been a Dutch production. The Wolkers price doesn’t apply for translated books. We felt obliged as the Groeneveld foundation to fill this gap! Merlin, awarding you the Groeneveld price makes you the youngest in a line of an illustrious prize winners. Let me hand you the document and light The Festive Fungal Fireworks.

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