“The Mushroom At The End Of The World” & “What A Mushroom Lives For”

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins,    Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton, June 2021);  What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make, Michael J Hathaway  (Princeton, June 2022) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Princeton, June 2021); What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make, Michael J Hathaway (Princeton, June 2022)

In the early 2000s, a group of anthropologists formed the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (MWRG). Their object of collaborative study was to be the matsutake mushroom and the ways in which humans interact with it. 15 or so years might seem a long time for a scholar (let alone a team of them) to study a single mushroom; nevertheless their project is ongoing, having produced two research monographs so far: Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom At The End Of The World and now Michael Hathaway’s What A Mushroom Lives For, as well as a series of essays. There promises to be at least one more book yet to come. 

The matsutake is a large, but fairly unexciting-looking fungus. In Japan it has long been prized as a symbol of autumn, its evocative aroma documented in poetry as far back as the 8th century. However, although it grows across a broad swathe of the northern hemisphere, it is much less popular outside of Japan: its original Latin name (coined in Finland) was Trichloma Nauseosum, the nauseous mushroom. People in the rest of the world tend to describe its smell as reminiscent not of the changing of the seasons, but as like a sock, turpentine, or mold.

This proved to be to Japan’s benefit. In the post-war era, economic growth drove a democratization of matsutake consumption, with more people eating them and thus many more being eaten. However, domestic production peaked in the 1970s. As its name suggests, the matsutake (“pine mushroom”) grows in the litter beneath pine woods, preferring landscapes that bear the mark of human intervention rather than pristine forest. Changing land use, industrial pollution, and a species of nematode that kills the tree that the matsutake relies upon, all contributed to a decline in the ready supply of domestic Japanese matsutake. As a result, the Japanese looked overseas, bringing mushrooms from places across the world. Both monographs explore the development of these international supply chains. Anna Tsing focuses on matsutake picked in abandoned logging forests in Oregon, USA, whilst Michael Hathaway visits Yunnan province in southern China, as well as taking a deep dive into the place of fungi in ecosystems.

 

Hathaway documents the inherent complexity and diversity of fungi: he says that they are genetically closer to animals than plants, they occupy crucial places within the cycle of life and death—vital for both supplying food to many plants and also responsible for their decay—and the mushrooms that we know and may love are only the reproductive body of much larger mycorrhizal networks threaded through the soil.

He is keen to examine this all from a less anthropocentric perspective. Thomas Nagel famously asked “what is it like to be a bat?” Hathaway explicitly says he is not seeking to make us consider what it is like to be a mushroom; nevertheless he wishes to place the matsutake at the center of his account. There is a tension here: the more we seek to move beyond a human-centered viewpoint, the more we realize that the very language we use—terms such as intention and agency—are built upon human experience and risk misleading as much as they reveal.

The phrase “matsutake worlds” is maybe helpful here. It does less to impute motive or deliberation to the matsutake, but it recognizes a mushroom-centered environment at the very least, starting with the fungus rather than the humans who gather, sell, or eat it. Matsutake are not cultivated or farmed—they have to be foraged and picked where they grow wild, so in a real sense we come into the mushroom’s world, rather than making it a part of ours.

Combing the woods for matsutake is an inherently hit or miss activity—searching can yield sacks full of the best quality matsutake, or nothing. Sometimes the matsutake have already been partially eaten by insects or other mammals; sometimes the specific species of tree that they grow beneath imparts an unpleasant flavor. Regardless, this foraging has to take place in the matsutake world, which is by its very nature on the edges of human society and settlement. This can be a chance for American ex-servicemen and first generation immigrants who have embraced the freedom (and danger) of a workplace beyond conventional regulations and hourly wages, or it can be the excuse for young lovers in Yunnan to steal some time alone together. Either way, it is irregular work at the margins of the conventional world economy, and yet it is the first step on a supply chain through middlemen and brokers, major transnational trading firms, and ultimately Japanese consumers.

Hathaway documents how fortunes have been built upon this trade in Yunnan province, and also how it has changed the ways some peoples have changed the patterns of their lives—moving from a life herding yaks on the move to settling down by the matsutake-rich woodland. In this way, the matsutake worlds in forests across the northern hemisphere find themselves tied into that most human of worlds: 21st-century global capitalism.


Ian Rapley is a lecturer in modern Japanese history at Cardiff University.