Friday, October 16, 2015

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's "The Mushroom at the End of the World"

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, where she codirects Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA). She is the author of Friction and In the Realm of the Diamond Queen.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, and reported the following:
Jobs have disappeared along with hopes for progress; our environment is damaged, perhaps beyond repair. How shall we survive? In my book, I follow a mushroom to look for answers to this question.

Matsutake is a wild mushroom beloved in Japan as a gourmet treat. When prices are right, it is the most expensive mushroom in the world. In the book, matsutake leads us down surprising paths, not only in Japan, but also in matsutake forests in China, Finland, and the US Pacific Northwest. Laotian and Cambodian refugees pick mushrooms in the ruined industrial forests of Oregon. Forests emerge when fungi embrace trees. Through such stories, the mushroom guides us through our economic and ecological dilemmas. What lives in the mess we have made?

On page 99, I’m telling the story of the Japanese Americans who first picked matsutake in the forests of Oregon. Japanese Americans first sent American matsutake to Japan. But by the 1990s, prices had risen and white and Southeast Asian pickers had flocked to the forest. Japanese Americans retreated from commercial picking to hunt mushrooms for family and community. “Perhaps you can catch a glimmer of my disconcertment,” I write, contrasting contemporary Japanese and Southeast Asian American pickers in the Oregon woods. “Japanese American matsutake pickers are quite different from Southeast Asian refugees—and I can’t explain the difference away by ‘culture’ or by ‘time’ spent in the United States, the usual sociological stories of differences among immigrants.” No, since the 1990s, something more basic has changed in the relation between the US state and its citizens, and you can see the historical rift in different kinds of matsutake-picking.

Matsutake offers an unexpected angle on our government, our economy, and our ecology. What was that story we called “progress,” and how did it get away from us? Page 99 also presents the pleasures of the mushroom. I discuss the following poem, which tells of delight in finding mushrooms, a delight expressed by matsutake seekers across culture, class, and history. Dear reader, I felt it too.

Lightly dressed shigin [poetry] friends went up to the mountain,
A shady wilderness crowded with pines.
We parked our cars and went into the mountains to look for mushrooms.
Suddenly, a whistle broke the desolation of the forest.
All rushing there, we shouted for joy.
In the autumn light, being beside ourselves, we felt like children again.

--Sanou Uriuda, “Matsutake Hunting at Mt. Rainer”
Visit the Matsutake Worlds Research Group website, and learn more about The Mushroom at the End of the World at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue