The Wood Wide Web
By Winslow Umberger
One of the joys of walking in the woods is spying a mushroom, its cap a riotous burst of color seemingly squeezed from Earth’s paint box. Or, better yet, happening upon a group of these tiny parasols parading across the forest floor. These delights are the fruiting bodies of mushrooms—nature’s own exclamation point, a punctuation mark boldly announcing the presence of an intricate web called the mycelial network that lies hidden beneath our feet.
Beneath these spongy crowns lies a web of filament that mesh for miles connecting forests, grasslands and ecosystems. These webs, called mycelium, are composed of super-tiny threads called hyphae which grow and extend in all directions. This serves as the fungus’ “root system,” allowing it to gather nutrients and interact with its environment.
However, the importance of the fungal network is largely unknown by most and often misunderstood. As author and biologist Merlin Sheldrake points out in his bestselling book Entangled Life, “Fungi are far more useful and intelligent than we ever thought.” Ninety percent of plant species depend on fungi in some way to survive or to function—be it sharing nutrients, disease control or communicating between different plant species.
Often referred to as the “Wood Wide Web,” these networks “speak to each other with mind-boggling complexity via electrical impulses,” Sheldrake explains. “A mother tree can utilize these to warn its sapling against drought and pests.” It’s like plants have their own secret language underground, and scientists are working hard to understand it better.
Interestingly, fungi are more closely related to humans than plants because fungi don’t photosynthesize. Not only do humans and fungi both use a communications system, they both need to eat to get their energy. Both change and adapt to their surroundings when things around them change. Humans now recycle, but fungi, nature’s clean-up crew, have always done it, breaking down dead plants and animals and turning them into nutrients.
It is safe to say that comparatively few people even know about the mycelial network, let alone its importance to the planet. But that’s changing—this underground world is beginning to see the light of day. It has caught the attention of the marketplace. This is largely due to the way it grows. Wherever there is dead organic matter, fungi will grow. Its spores germinate, grow and spread, weaving an intricate network of hyphae binding particles together. This “mycelial mat” is being utilized as an eco-friendly material for uses across different industries.
Take Ecovative Design based in Green Island, NY. Ecovative uses mycelium to grow environmentally friendly materials such as biodegradable packaging, furniture, building materials and mycelium leather. In 2020, IKEA replaced its Styrofoam packing with mushroom packaging which decomposes within a few short weeks. Fashion designer Stella McCartney recently created the first-ever mushroom leather bag.
Evidence of this magical network abounds in the forests of Western North Carolina, particularly after periods of soaking rain. The “evidence” can be found in those mystical messengers sent up from below, which come in many shapes, sizes and hues. Enjoying them for enjoyment’s sake is fine, but walking the woods with a knowledgeable mycologist will deepen your appreciation of these whimsical treasures. Wild Goods (WildGoods.org) or No Taste Like Home (NoTasteLikeHome.org) offer foraging forays into the forest, and the Asheville Mushroom Club (AshevilleMushroomClub.org) offers a range of courses.
The next time you walk the woods, consider this unseen network, threading through the earth like an intricate tapestry, fostering connections among the forest’s inhabitants, providing life and nourishment. Nature never ceases to amaze whenever we pause to explore.
Winslow Umberger is an outreach volunteer with Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit working to save injured and orphaned wildlife in WNC. Found an animal? Call 828.633.6364. To help, donate at AppalachianWild.org.