The Mushroom at the End of the World:

On the Pos­si­bil­ity of Life in Cap­i­tal­ist Ru­ins by Anna Lowen­haupt Ts­ing, Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 352 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

Val­ued at more than a $100 a pound in Ja­pan, the wild mat­su­take mushroom is for­aged, har­vested, shipped, and sold through a sup­ply chain that in­volves im­mi­grant Hmong jun­gle war­riors in Ore­gon along­side a much broader global net­work of Scan­di­na­vian nat­u­ral­ists, Amer­i­can Viet­nam War vets, Ja­panese gour­mands, and Chi­nese goat herders.

Ts­ing comes from the new crop of an­thro­pol­o­gists who es­sen­tially “per­form” ethno­gra­phies that in­ter­ro­gate their dis­ci­pline’s im­pe­ri­al­ist his­tory and ex­am­ine how Western no­tions of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, free­dom, and mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism af­fect both the an­thro­pol­o­gist and the cul­tural group they study. Her unique nar­ra­tive bor­rows knowl­edge and in­sights from Ja­panese po­etry and de­vel­op­ment eco­nom­ics, as well as el­e­ments of her own bi­og­ra­phy as a mixed-race Asian-Amer­i­can. She has crafted an un­usual ethnog­ra­phy of a mushroom, and the cul­ture that sur­rounds it, which shows how the seem­ingly marginal trade in for­est fungi is built on a highly dis­ci­plined and de­cen­tral­ized sup­ply chain that caters to the wealthy and creates a liveli­hood for war refugees, even as it is built on the back of what most nat­u­ral­ists might call an eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe.

For an aca­demic, she writes clear­headed prose with an ear for lyri­cal phrases. De­scrib­ing her own in­ter­est in the mushroom projects, she writes, “The mushroom tick­led my in­ter­est in Ja­panese aes­thet­ics and cui­sine. The bro­ken for­est, in con­trast, seemed like a sci­ence fic­tion night­mare.”

Bro­ken for­est? It’s a term she uses re­peat­edly to de­scribe Ore­gon tim­ber forests whose mis­man­age­ment has cre­ated the niche eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions that al­low the hardy mat­su­take mushroom to thrive. Af­ter the atomic bomb­ing of Hiroshima, the mat­su­take was the first plant life to emerge in the blasted ru­ins. Due to Ore­gon’s failed pol­icy of fire sup­pres­sion — the only forestry pol­icy lo­cal tim­ber barons would sup­port for much of the 20th cen­tury — many of the state’s so-called wild forests are es­sen­tially mono­cul­ture in­dus­trial tree farms, prone to dis­ease and highly sus­cep­ti­ble to fire. But due to some sick sym­bio­sis be­tween eco­log­i­cal dis­tress and cap­i­tal­ist de­sire, they also hap­pen to pro­duce mat­su­take mush­rooms at a vol­ume seen nowhere else on Earth. In­ca­pable of be­ing do­mes­ti­cated, the wild fungi thrives among highly stressed, nu­tri­ent- de­pleted trees.

Aside from a ten­den­tious chap­ter on Asian iden­tity in the U.S. — in con­trast with the as­sim­i­la­tion­ist de­mands of her own par­ents, she re­mains un­nec­es­sar­ily as­tounded at the Hmong refugees in the U.S. who tightly main­tain their own lan­guage, fam­ily con­nec­tions, and religious prac­tices even decades af­ter em­i­grat­ing — the book is a won­der­ful med­i­ta­tion on how hu­mans shape and dis­tort the nat­u­ral land­scape, and in re­turn, are shaped and dis­torted by a wild­ness of their own mak­ing.

It’s also a model ex­am­ple of col­lab­o­ra­tive aca­demic fund­ing. In 2010, Ts­ing was awarded a Guggenheim Fel­low­ship in the Hu­man­i­ties, which al­lowed her to co-cre­ate the Mat­su­take Worlds Re­search Group. A truly global un­der­tak­ing, it built a con­sor­tium of re­searchers, bi­ol­o­gists, an­thro­pol­o­gists, and oth­ers to study the sci­en­tific, eco­log­i­cal, and mar­ket con­nec­tions that sup­port both the ac­tual growth of the mushroom as well as its con­sump­tion and trade. While this book is the work of a sin­gu­lar an­thro­pol­o­gist with an un­ortho­dox world­view, as the au­thor her­self might re­mind you, it would not be pos­si­ble with­out the col­lec­tive la­bor and re­search of a much larger net­work of con­cerned in­di­vid­u­als.

— Casey Sanchez

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