A fungus offers a complicated lesson in late-capitalist logistics and survival. A review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World
“The timber has been cut, the oil has run out, the…soil no longer supports crops”; global capitalism has stripped the place and abandoned it as “[t]he search for assets resumes elsewhere.” This is the setting for anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World,
To seek out matsutake is to delve into complex histories of damage and disturbance. The mushrooms have been a delicacy in Japan since at least the eighth century, when aristocratic logging activity helped them spread across the rural hillsides near present-day Kyoto and Nara, and a lucrative global commodity since the 1950s and 60s, when the combined effects of urbanization and an invasive nematode mostly killed them off there. A booming Japanese economy, flush with money to spare, helped fuel a worldwide search for matsutake, absorbing far-flung forests into a circuitous network of supply chains. In addition to the Japanese forests, The Mushroom at the End of the World examines three sites along those chains—in Oregon, Finland, and China—each with their own stories to tell about the failures of capitalist progress.
Consider Oregon (the site I’ll refer to most in this review), where matsutake grow in forests stolen from the Klamath tribes through a series of wars, relocations, and expropriations. White expansionists and their US government admired the forests’ great stands of ponderosa, and after stealing the land they took little longer than a century to log them out of existence, in part because they never learned the lessons of stewardship that had nurtured the trees in the first place. The Klamath had periodically set controlled fires that cleaned out the forest floor and encouraged growth; the US Forest Service, charged with managing the forests for timber production, not only halted the practice but actively suppressed naturally occurring fires.
The fire suppression plus aggressive clear cutting meant that, by and large, the ponderosa didn’t grow back. Over-logged and poorly tended, by the 80s they were basically gone. The ascendancy of globalized supply-chains meant it was cheaper to find timber elsewhere than to spend money making the forest profitable again. Most timber companies packed up and moved on, and the Forest Service was left with a dwindling budget and strangled ability to intervene. In 2000, one forester described the remaining forest as resembling “festering sores on the back of a mangy dog.”
But Tsing argues it’s not enough to linger on stories of devastation, because, no matter how festering a landscape appears, people, plants, animals, and fungi still have to live there. The language of ruin can have a perverse way of keeping us caught in the logic that produced it in the first place. “Neither tales of progress or ruin tell us how to think about…survival,” she writes. The Mushroom at the End of the World takes ruin as a given so we can pay attention to that survival and to the species that do it well, like matsutake, which, in addition to tolerating the thin soils of deforested land, is rumored to have been the first living thing to push out of the bombed-out ground at Hiroshima. What else can mushrooms tell us about surviving amid capitalist wreckage?
“In popular American fantasies, survival is all about saving yourself by fighting off others,” Tsing observes early on in The Mushroom. “Please open yourself to another usage.” This other kind of survival involves collaboration as a matter of course—collaboration understood as a fundamentally messy, contingent, and sometimes-violent process. It happens, according to Tsing, in polyphonic assemblages of species that just happen to find themselves together in the same place, getting by according to their various habitual, seasonal, and generational rhythms. At times those rhythms converge in ways that make productive sense; other times they clash; still others they exist together without ever especially crossing paths. There is constant disturbance in any assemblage, which isn’t to naturalize extreme damage but to be realistic about its repair. If notions of the Anthropocene have drawn our attention to the catastrophic levels of disturbance human capitalists have created, looking at the activity in an assemblage reminds us the answer isn’t to look for magical ways to never create disturbances. It also reminds us that fixing human damage can never happen through human action alone.
In the Oregon assemblage Tsing studied, matusutake pair with lodgepole host trees, wrapping around their roots. The mushroom pulls nutrients from the soil, passing them on to the pine, and in return gets carbohydrates. That lodgepole have flourished is also a function of over-logging and Forest Service fire suppression policies. Pine in general do better in the mineral soils and open sunlight of deforested landscapes than in more crowded forests, and while species like ponderosa have suffered in the absence of fire, lodgepole are thin and flammable and thrive because of it. Meanwhile, groups of pickers harvest matsutake and in the process recoup value from the violent disturbances of capitalist political economies. Older Japanese Americans pick the mushrooms recreationally and stay connected to a mainland culture they were intimidated into hiding or assimilating after World War II; Mien, Hmong, Cambodian, and Lao refugees pick them commercially, translating skills learned in war into better money than they’d make at shitty service jobs; Latino migrants pick them, dodging government surveillance before moving on to the next round of outdoor work; and Klamath and handfuls of whites pick them and carve out a space of labor that offers a modicum of independence if not benefits or any other safety net. For the most part, pickers stick within their ethnic communities, setting up separate camps, each with their own (though related and overlapping) approaches to mushroom gathering.
It’s hard to fit such tangles of activity into one paragraph, or even one book. They are, to quote Tsing, “recalcitrant to the kind of ‘summing up’ that has become the hallmark of modern knowledge”: convoluted, ever-shifting, stubbornly local. And so, in addition to describing matsutake assemblages, Tsing also spends a lot of time identifying epistemological tools better suited to studying them. The tools range from ecological modes of analysis to metaphoric engagements with quantum theory and polyphonic music to a political-economic history of conjunctures (marshaled to talk about the sometimes-but-not-always intertwined histories of forests in Japan and Oregon) that is unlike any bit of scholarship I’ve ever read. All share a suspicion of wrapping things up too neatly and an acute appreciation of the painstaking process required to produce knowledge that can honestly account for contingency and change.
Some of these methodologies open up drastically different understandings of how evolution works. In contrast to Selfish Gene-style theories that posit survival as a competitive game waged between genetically pure species, this research has established the ways those species spend their entire lives shaping and being shaped by one another’s development and by the environments around them. Fungi have proven especially good objects of study. Like matsutake, many only develop if they can find host plants, and the symbiotic way the two work together make it difficult to talk about them separately. When matsutake wrap around the roots of a pine, they seep down deep between the tree’s cells, helping direct its growth from within. This isn’t an unusual arrangement, evolutionarily speaking. “‘Almost all development might be codevelopment,’” Tsing writes, quoting the biologist Scott Gilbert and colleagues.
But a person needn’t be an academic to understand something of the collaborative histories that make matsutake. There are amateur proxies to the scholarly methodologies, what Tsing calls the arts of noticing: paying attention, watching, sensing, and telling stories. At these, Oregon pickers are expert practitioners. They watch for the red-striped grasses that tend to grow near matsutake; check for the signs of deer and elk, who love to eat them; and scan the ground for the telltale crack of an underground mushroom pushing up the earth. They follow animals and crawl through underbrush. They keep their nostrils open for the distinctive, pungent matsutake smell that has become part of the fungi’s legend. Pickers often know the smell well enough to determine whether a mushroom has made their lives with lodgepole, oak, or the pungent-in-its-own-right “piss fir.”
Throughout The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing returns again and again to the theme of collaboration and questions about how best to describe it. In her formulation, it’s not a feel-good exercise but a complicated necessity. “In order to survive, we need help,” she says. That help might be big or small, intentional or unintentional, tendered by human or nonhuman actors, and it isn’t always an unalloyed good, but it is constantly changing us. Responding to a world made precarious by capitalism means paying attention to all of it.
“It may seem odd to want to tackle capitalism with a theory that stresses ephemeral assemblages and multidirectional histories,” Tsing writes, and the global matsutake trade is a very specific economic niche indeed. But the supply chains that collect them from around the world for sale in Japan, economically marginal though they may be, can offer a lot of insight into central features of 21st-century global capitalism.
Simply put, a supply chain pulls product or product components from disparate places into a unified inventory stream. Borrowing from ecologists describing heterogeneous spaces within an ecosystem, Tsing calls those disparate places patches. The assemblage of species in a given patch produces all sorts of raw materials and nonhuman and human labor that are useful to capitalism. Supply chains do an especially good job of squeezing value from these resources. Unlike traditional factory discipline, the logic of today’s supply chain allows these things to be gathered without unified standards of production between patches, so long as there is eventually a way to call the product something coherent. In the Oregon patch, underground networks of fungi fruit into mushrooms with the help of trees, which are picked by people who aren’t paid for any of their time spent foraging. Later, at auctions held near picker encampments, the mushroom will be sorted according to size and maturity, usually on a scale from 1 to 5, before being sent on to bulkers, then exporters, each with their part to play in creating a rationalized capitalist product.
According to Tsing, this sort of supply chain emerged in Japan in the 1960s in response to political and economic dynamics that began a century earlier, when the US Navy showed up at the Port of Edo demanding Japan open its markets. The shogunate complied, and the civil war that followed, called the Meiji Restoration, installed a government bent on regaining Japanese power with Western-style economic reforms. They created the yen to compete with dollars and European currencies and put resources into building corporations that could spread globally. Because Japan had relatively limited access to raw resources, one of the important pieces of this work was to direct finance so as to better access them. Japanese firms, called zaibatsu, arose to secure and direct the traffic in foreign resources; that is, they were organized around finance capital rather than production.
The zaibatsu were broken up during the post-World War II US occupation, but eventually a new version, keiretsu, became common. Keiretsu generally paired a bank with a trading company; the bank gave small loans to the trading companies to help finance the operations (through equipment, advice, etc) of foreign trading partners. Producers followed suit, organizing their own supply chains (sometimes called “vertical keiretsu”) to subcontract work and save money, and small businesses developed to meet the demand. In this way, keiretsu prefigured the primacy of the supply chain as we now know it. If that’s generally seen as a US corporate invention, Tsing says it’s because the yen has lost value since its peak in the 80s, when panicked stockholders of US firms forced dramatic corporate restructurings to mimic the keiretsu. Those restructurings, combined with a series of aggressive US economic interventions vis-à-vis the yen, ended in the dollar regaining its prominence. As neoliberal reforms took hold, memory faded of Japan’s role in shaping the supply chains that now dominate the global economic landscape.
To Tsing’s mind, one of the central innovations of Japanese traders was developing translation practices to bridge the gaps between foreign economies. Meiji-era traders spent a significant time training abroad, studying how different markets and cultures operated and nurturing long-term contracts based on what they learned. (Contrast that with the traditional American corporate model, which simply and forcibly imported American ways of doing business wholesale into foreign markets.) They understood themselves as cultural brokers, and that understanding of the work of trading still influences Japanese business practices.
Translation is an important part of today’s matsutake supply chains. In Oregon, the main act of translation on the production side happens at the auctions held to gather mushrooms. The auctions are raucous, full of buyers and pickers trying to outsmart each other as per-pound matsutake prices rise and fall by as much as $10 over the course of the night. Pickers try to bluff their way into better compensation, buyers send spies to scope out the competition, people yell into cell phones and at each other, and at the end of the night everyone boasts of their victories and savvy.
The auctions don’t happen anywhere else but the US. Japanese traders think it’s eccentric but tolerate them, because American pickers produce more when they’re in place. Tsing writes that this has to do with the way pickers think of their work, which, by and large, they don’t. Most told her they don’t consider picking work. Unlike wage jobs, they said, they have the freedom to decide when and how and with whom they do it, and they’re rewarded according to their merit and skill. It was a refrain she heard again and again, particularly from the white and Southeast Asian pickers who dominate the Oregon picking force.
In this rhetoric of freedom, Tsing sees both the reach of capitalism and its limits. On some level, it’s undoubtedly neoliberalism talking. Pickers “choose” the “freedom” of picking in an atmosphere of degraded public safety nets, jobs sent overseas, and the increasing shift of labor’s risks and responsibilities onto workers. But it’s also true that pickers are able to shape the work to suit their needs in ways other jobs wouldn’t allow. For Hmong pickers, for example, ideas about freedom and creating one’s own fortune sit well alongside Hmong values that have historically included independence and ethnic pride (values that might not remain so well preserved in cities or big corporate workplaces). And the structure of the work itself allows older Hmong to draw on forest navigation skills (learned both in histories of migration and, later, in war) that few other jobs have use for—and, more generally, to set up camps and spend time in landscapes that resemble home.
To recognize that people recoup value from precarious situations is not to treat those situations as utopias. Tsing doesn’t consider places like the Oregon matsutake patch precisely capitalist or anti-capitalist and is wary of thinkers who overstate the possibility for resistance in them. Instead, she calls such spaces pericapitalist: at once inside and outside capitalism, with all the ambivalent implications for the future that entails. There are people and other species finding ways to get by there. The ways they do might provide glimpses of something radical. And that something radical will always be allowed to exist, because it’s valuable to capitalism.
“I hardly know how to think about justice without progress,” Tsing writes early in The Mushroom at the End of the World. For me, this discomfort was a central experience of reading the book. Tsing says the most promising collaborations in a given assemblage tend not to institutionalize well, and there are countless real-world examples—I thought a lot about urban resilience planning, with all its useful interventions, problematic baggage, and troubling implications—that bear the point out. Toward the end of the book, Tsing examines a Japanese approach to forest restoration called satoyama, which recognizes the inevitably of human disturbance in any landscape and tries to leverage the kinds that help at least some species (the erosion pine trees like, for instance) to make deforested areas more livable. She also reports back from a long and largely unproductive meeting the Oregon Forest Service had with pickers to talk about racial profiling in ticketing practices (for not having licenses, foraging outside designated picking areas, etc). It’s just one disturbance in a long history of Forest Service disturbances. And yet pickers have become a recognized group of people to be reckoned with, and the meeting was long in part because it was translated into Khmer, Lao, Mien, and Guatemalan Spanish. As Tsing writes, “we are learning to listen.”
It’s terrifying to think that this is the best anyone can hope for, but there it is: the interminably slow work of finding better political arrangements. Against that reality, we can only do our best to maximize it for as many humans and nonhumans as possible. Along the way, as even the title of the last chapter of the book, “Anti-ending,” suggests, the inspirations are small, impartial, and shot through with contradictions.