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
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