The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web

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Originally posted on newyorker.com

Written by Robert Macfarlane

Epping Forest is a heavily regulated place. First designated as a royal hunting ground by Henry II in the twelfth century, with severe penalties imposed on commoners for poaching, it has since 1878 been managed by the City of London Corporation, which governs behavior within its bounds using forty-eight bylaws. The forest is today almost completely contained within the M25, the notorious orbital motorway that encircles outer London. Minor roads crisscross it, and it is rarely more than four kilometres wide. Several of its hundred or so lakes and ponds are former blast holes of the V1 “doodlebug” rockets flung at London in 1944. Yet the miraculous fact of Epping’s existence remains: almost six thousand acres of trees, heath, pasture, and waterways, just outside the city limits, its grassland still grazed by the cattle of local commoners, and adders still basking in its glades. Despite its mixed-amenity use—from golf to mountain biking—it retains a greenwood magic.

Earlier this summer I spent two days there, wandering and talking with a young plant scientist named Merlin Sheldrake. Sheldrake is an expert in mycorrhizal fungi, and as such he is part of a research revolution that is changing the way we think about forests. For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza: itself a growing-together of the Greek words for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). In this way, individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.

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