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The Mushroom at the End of the World

by devnym

By Professor Anna Tsing

On The Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Perhaps you’ve heard of “mushroom fever,” the enthusiasm that comes over some people to get up before dawn and run into the woods despite rain and snow, searching for mushrooms.  I’ve been told about this fever by a surprisingly wide assortment of Oregon enthusiasts: commercial pickers as well as heritage collectors, scientists as well as buyers, Southeast Asian Americans as well as white Vietnam vets.  What all these people had in common was a love of the matsutake mushroom, an aromatic wild mushroom much cherished in Japan and, when prices are right, the most expensive fungus in the world. Mushroom fever is catching, and I felt the draw, not only because I learned to love the search but also because it showed me a way to think about the economic and environmental challenges of our times.  Mushroom fever, I found, can revive our curiosity when our senses are dulled by confusion at the end of progress.  Mushrooms reintroduce us to precarity, that vulnerable condition in which we don’t know what comes next.   In times economic and environmental precarity, mushroom picking is a useful guide.

Matsutake are extraordinary mushrooms.  Their distinctive aroma singles them out; it is sometimes possible to track them by smell alone.  (By smell I found some hidden under a thick carpet of moss.)  The smell draws Japanese gourmets, who associate the mushroom with the delights of autumn.  Japanese matsutake lovers follow matsutake in the autumn with the same devotion as cherry blossoms in the spring.  The association of smell and season accounts for the high price.  As matsutake in Japanese forests have gone into decline, matsutake from around the northern hemisphere are shipped to Japan.  This commerce has made mushroom foraging a livelihood alternative, and it has also drawn the attention not only of pickers but also of scientists, foresters, and conservationists to the lively ecologies of matsutake forests.  Together, mushroom commerce and ecology refocus our skills for knowing the world.  This has some urgency, I think, because of the demise of stories of progress. Progress once guided us toward the future; without that future, we might need mushrooms.

During the 20th century, progress seemed self-evident to most Americans.  After World War II, the United States imagined itself as the powerhouse of progress, bringing growth and development to the world.  New technologies, along with the education of new generations, appeared to lead to “the conquest of nature.” Each generation, it was thought, would have better lives than the last.  By the beginning of the new century, however, much of this formula for the good life stopped making sense.  Jobs disappeared, and, although doing without is hardly an alternative, the purpose of education is less clear.  Meanwhile, all that progress made a mess of our environment, and we don’t even know what can survive.  Which will come crashing down first, my friends worry, the economy or the environment?  But, of course, these destructions are linked—and linked to the ruins of progress. And it’s not just that progress doesn’t make sense now.  Suddenly, it seems, progress never made sense except as a rather strange dream.  We are left with uncertain pasts and indeterminate futures.

What do you do when your imagination of time and fortune fails?  I studied mushrooms and mushroom pickers—and I found them vivid condensations of our economic and environmental dilemmas.  Without what was called “standard employment,” more and more people look for creative ways to make a living: mushroom picking is one of the better options I know.  The wild mushroom trade is the largest legal all-cash economy in the United States; it’s a form of entrepreneurship for those with nothing.  By chance, matsutake come up in the ruins of industrial forests.  Better yet, picking doesn’t destroy fungal bodies, which help forests grow in ruined places.  Without denying our current predicaments, mushrooms show us the most optimistic possibility I can think of for life in the mess that progress has made.  But let me explain.

By the end of the last century, the corporation as a social institution, with some sense of responsibility to workers and the community, was dead.  The new corporate leaders outsourced everything to chase the lowest labor costs and the least careful environmental practices. Formal employment with salaries and benefits has become rare.  Instead, most everyone must look for some supply-chain niche to work its possibilities.  Everyone can be an entrepreneur, with no boss; but some have start-up capital and others do not.  When displaced and marginalized people take on dangerous supply-chain niches with little remuneration, they take all the risks themselves. Wild mushroom foraging is not only a useful index of this predicament; it also looks rather good in comparison to other alternatives.

In the US Pacific Northwest, many wild mushroom pickers are refugees from Laos and Cambodia who left their countries following the destruction and displacements of the US-Indochina War and the civil wars that followed.  After a decade in refugee camps in Thailand, they moved to the United States in the 1980s just as the apparatus of welfare was being dismantled.  Without urban job training, capital, or English, they had to think of alternative livelihoods.  Picking mushrooms in the national forests beckoned.  There they joined traumatized white veterans, displaced loggers, white rural traditionalists, undocumented Latinos, and Native American survivors of federal theft and settler violence.  Mushroom picking is a diverse and cosmopolitan scene—and one that mirrors the cosmopolitanism of political and economic displacement around the world. Finding livelihoods in the cracks and ruins of industrialization and imperial war is what most people do today to get by.  At best, we hope for collaborative tactics of survival in which humans and the resources we need to muddle along do not destroy each other.  This brings me back to the mushrooms.

Matsutake are hard to find: thus the fever.  Despite millions of yen invested in cultivation experiments, no one has successfully produced a matsutake mushroom in a laboratory or a plantation.  Matsutake are found only in forests, where they grow together with the roots of trees.  Even those familiar with the forest have a challenge.  Matsutake hide under the duff; perfect buttons are underground, and the determined forager must search for a thin crack to discover the mushroom coming up below.  Not any forest will do; matsutake are companions with particular host trees, with which they make a living.  Matsutake secrete strong acids, which release nutrients for pioneer trees such as pine, which grow in daunting places. Matsutake and pine are partners on rocky, sandy, and eroded ground; they are survivors of many troubles.  Matsutake make it possible for forests to grow where otherwise no trees might find sustenance. Perhaps they can teach us something about collaborative survival after progress.

In the US Pacific Northwest, matsutake are creatures of ruined industrial forests.  Their prevalence, indeed, seems rather recent, the result of a surprising ecological history. In the eastern Cascades, the great ponderosa pines nurtured by Native American burning were felled for industrial timber.  Without burning, ponderosas did not come back easily; fire exclusion allowed much smaller lodgepoles to take their place.  Anyone who sees photographs of the early-20th-century forest, with its towering giants, cannot but feel the force of progress’ ruin in the scrappy, crowded, and stunted forest that has replaced those giants.  Even when lodgepoles grow tall, their timber is not worth much.

But something new happened as lodgepoles—which burned easily in the frequent, low-intensity fires of the past—began to make it into old age, without fire.  Matsutake popped up, an eager companion to mature lodgepole.  Loggers were no longer much needed; but pickers flocked to the forests. A weed replaced an industrial product.  What a surprising outcome of the “jobs versus the environment” struggles that riveted the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s!  This too tells me something about our times.  It’s only the hardiest weeds that can survive the industrialization of the natural world, with its destruction of ecological relations.  We are going to have to hope that at least a few of those weeds are life-sustaining for us and other creatures—as is matsutake.

Ecological modernists tell us these are wonderful times for re-engineering the world.  Progress, they tell us, is all we need.  They imagine the earth as an uninhabited planet, ready for their feats of terraformation.  Like other progress mavens, they do not think about the ecological relations necessary to sustain life.  “If we need more resources,” they say, “why not add more plantations?”  Yet mushrooms show us: forests are not plantations; they require interspecies collaborations.  Adding more of the destructive practices that put us here—but on a bigger scale—will only make things worse.  What if instead we admit that humans are unable to live without other species? This means we must learn something about what it takes to make places livable, not for humans alone but for ensembles of humans and others.  “What kinds of human disturbance,” we might ask, “maintain interspecies relations?” Instead of 20th-century dreams, in which all growth is good, we will need humbler, more livable ambitions.  We will need to work with precarity.

My starting place, then, is to notice what it takes to sustain a landscape, a community, or an ecosystem.  Without attention to survival as a more-than-human collaborative project, we don’t have much of a chance.  Of course, there is indeterminacy here.  But this is the small thrill of mushrooms: you never know if you will find them.  Picking mushroom lets us consider our best chances at the end of progress.


The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton Univ. Press, 2015)

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