Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s 2015 book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, is simply one of the best academic works I have read in years. Tsing examines the matsutake mushroom–a prized food to give as gifts in Japanese culture–as an entrypoint into a ruined, extremely late capitalist world where older ideas of progress cannot be believed, where forests have been decimated by industrial logging, and where populations have been dispersed across the earth. It sounds depressing. But it’s not. The matsutake and the forests it prefers–disturbed forests–provide hope and beauty in dark world. In a book that jumps from Japan to the Pacific Northwest to Yunnan and to Finland in a series of short chapters, Tsing opens our minds to a new way of thinking about the present, one that becomes ever more relevant in the political and environmental catastrophe that is the 21st century.
An anthropologist primarily of southeast Asia, Tsing has sought to understand supply chains, migration, and environmental change through this mushroom. While I am as biased toward History as the field that best explains our world as any academic is biased toward their field, anthropology at its best may do even more to understand the real lives people experience and what they mean for the larger world. While the field often devolves into naval-gazing about the individual doing fieldwork in the community, when it focuses on bigger questions, it can tell us a tremendous amount about the world. This is a fine example of it.
Capitalism has decimated forests around the world. It’s an incredibly depressing topic for those like myself who follow it. Because we have not reduced our desire to consume forest good, each saved forest is made up for by greater exploitation in other forests. Invasive species have simplified forests while unsustainable logging has put the future of forests into question. Much life has been lost. But Tsing notes that if we look a little bit, there’s all sorts of life, both human and not, in these forests ruined by capitalism. The matsutake and the people who harvest it are examples. The mushroom requires disturbed forests. In central Oregon, capitalism demanded ponderosa pine, but lodgepole pine has replaced large parts of it. This drives forest managers crazy, but it has created a whole new world. A variety of people come to the forests during picking season. Some are Japanese, some are local whites, a few are now from Guatemala. But most are southeast Asians, including a lot of mountain and forest peoples displaced by the Vietnam War. They largely live in cities now, at the economic margins, but they and now a younger generation can recreate their culture to some extent in these forest camps. Others come to serve them–pho stands for instance. This all drives the Forest Service nuts too, but it’s now a big part of the 21st century forest economy. None of these people particularly like each other either. The Asians see the whites as racist, Japanese-Americans accuse “the Asians” of destroying their favorite spots, most of the whites want to be left alone entirely, especially from anyone associated with the government. From all of this misery, environmental degradation, and displacement comes a beautiful thing, an antidote to notions of capitalist progress.
What are the politics of Tsing and this book? It is best understood in conversation with the the works of James Scott, particularly in exploring a small “a” anarchist view of the world. Certainly the survival of the people involved in this industry on the margins of society, fleeing to the mountains to escape state control and reconstructing communities after migration halfway around the world are themes Tsing and Scott share. And like Scott, she strongly distrusts master narratives and ideas and symbols of “progress,” a word she hates. For her, the matstutake tells us much more about the world than a big monument or political speech or latest technological innovation coming out of Silicon Valley. The book is certainly not socialist; she celebrates the globalized trade system of this odd commodity and deeply respects the different ways people use or value these mushrooms, whether Hmongs picking in the post-industrial forests of central Oregon or their status as a high end gift in Japan. She’s not celebrating precarity as a great thing in itself. Instead, she’s finding value in the reality of the precarious. Because of all this, it’s a book a certain type of lefty committed to socialism is going to hate. But one of the downfalls of socialism in practice and in thought has always been a certain puritanism about what people will do and how they should act. What Tsing does here is recognize the complexities of how people make a type of market for themselves and celebrates the diversity of people and the values they give to the mushroom. In the end, she’s not making a statement against capitalism, but then I don’t think scholars or writers are required to do that to provide significant insight on the world.
The anarchy is also reflected in the forests themselves. Matsutake grows in many forests, each with their own histories and ways that the the mushroom grows. In Yunnan, China, a major matsutake supplier, the forest is messy in the way that Scott loves. There are all sorts of economic activities going on here, and yet this is also a relatively intact forest. I’ve seen this type of forest in Mexico and it’s a very different world from the industrial production and wilderness preserve model I grew up with. The forests of Finland only have a couple of species, but one is a pine the mushroom requires. In Japan, matsutake grew on peasant forests, constantly used and disturbed by residents. When people migrated from rural Japan to the cities, those forests changed and the matsutake declined. Now people are recreating those forests to bring it back, even if that means cutting a lot of trees. But no matter where you are, finding the mushroom requires the “art of noticing,” a completely different of seeing the natural world than what industrial capitalism has required. But noticing isn’t just about finding mushrooms, it’s about necessary to understand survival in the postcapitalist ruins.
On top of all this, the book is tremendously readable for an educated public like LGM readers. There’s no theory here that would obfuscate the book’s meaning. It’s meant for broad readership and it has largely achieved that, at least for a book by an anthropologist. Depending on how your politics interact with the messiness of how people deal with the world in real life, you may love it or hate it, but you will be better off reading it.