The Mushroom at the End of the World

There are certain people in my life that when they recommend a book, I usually just trust them and go for it and start reading it. The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is one such book for me. I had a bit of an idea that it was about supply chains but otherwise didn’t really know what I was starting to read when I began the book.

The book uses a mushroom that is valued in Japan to talk about much, much, much more than just global supply chains; it talks about forests, care taking, what does work mean and look like, the concepts of salvage and latent commons. And it’s those last two concepts that I’m still thinking about, still digesting, and still trying to understand fully.

As Tsing travels to three different areas where matsutake mushrooms are found or where they’re trying to set up the right environment for them to grow, she uses the mushroom as the way to point out a lot about how we live together (or don’t), how we think about forests, how we live with other species and how other species live with each other, how we notice what’s around us, and how we deal with precarity. It’s an unbelievably fascinating book, one that I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. And what I loved most of all is her final chapter, where Tsing doesn’t come to any definitive conclusion, but rather leaves much of her ideas open to continue to change over time.

If you want another perspective on this book, I recoommend heading to the reading notes on A Working Library.

My highlights are from the kindle version and, as you can see, they’re extensive. I highlight and track them here for my own future use; I really recommend reading this entire book.

Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. (loc 88)

Unlike most scholarly books, what follows is a riot of short chapters. I wanted them to be like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after a rain: an over-the-top bounty; a temptation to explore; an always too many. The chapters build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine; they gesture to the so-much-more out there. They tangle with and interrupt each other—mimicking the patchiness of the world I am trying to describe. Adding another thread, the photographs tell a story alongside the text but do not illustrate it directly. I use images to present the spirit of my argument rather than the scenes I discuss. (loc 94)

…[T]he uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift—and a guide—when the controlled world we thought we had fails. (loc 202)

To live with precarity requires more than railing at those who put us here (although that seems useful too, and I’m not against it). We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home. (loc 229)

To follow matsutake guides us to possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance. (loc 235)

Kao handed me the mushroom. That’s when I first experienced the smell. It’s not an easy smell. It’s not like a flower or a mouth-watering food. It’s disturbing. Many people never learn to love it. It’s hard to describe. Some people liken it to rotting things and some to clear beauty—the autumn aroma. At my first whiff, I was just … astonished. (loc 356)

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. (loc 401)

The most convincing Anthropocene time line begins not with our species but rather with the advent of modern capitalism, which has directed long-distance destruction of landscapes and ecologies. (loc 408)

Given the effectiveness of state and capitalist devastation of natural landscapes, we might ask why anything outside their plans is alive today. To address this, we will need to watch unruly edges. (loc 418)

Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. (loc 428)

Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (loc 429)

…[A]gnostic about where we are going, we might look for what has been ignored because it never fit the time line of progress. (loc 446)

Many preindustrial livelihoods, from foraging to stealing, persist today, and new ones (including commercial mushroom picking) emerge, but we neglect them because they are not a part of progress. These livelihoods make worlds too—and they show us how to look around rather than ahead. (loc 454)

Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? (loc 477)

The problem is that progress stopped making sense. More and more of us looked up one day and realized that the emperor had no clothes. It is in this dilemma that new tools for noticing seem so important. (loc 509)

With the logging of ponderosa pines and fire exclusion, lodgepoles have spread, and despite their flammability, fire exclusion allows them a long maturity. Oregon matsutake fruit only after forty to fifty years of lodgepole growth, made possible by excluding fire.7 The abundance of matsutake is a recent historical creation: contaminated diversity. (loc 576)

Transformation through collaboration, ugly and otherwise, is the human condition. (loc 584)

One reason is that contaminated diversity is complicated, often ugly, and humbling. Contaminated diversity implicates survivors in histories of greed, violence, and environmental destruction. The tangled landscape grown up from corporate logging reminds us of the irreplaceable graceful giants that came before. The survivors of war remind us of the bodies they climbed over—or shot—to get to us. We don’t know whether to love or hate these survivors. Simple moral judgments don’t come to hand. (loc 635)

Contaminated diversity is not only particular and historical, ever changing, but also relational. It has no self-contained units; its units are encounter-based collaborations. Without self-contained units, it is impossible to compute costs and benefits, or functionality, to any “one” involved. (loc 640)

Yet assemblages are defined by the strength of what they gather as much as their always-possible dissipation. They make history. This combination of ineffability and presence is evident in smell: another gift of the mushroom. (loc 766)

To understand capitalism (and not just its alternatives), then, we can’t stay inside the logics of capitalists; we need an ethnographic eye to see the economic diversity through which accumulation is possible. (loc 1038)

Some kinds of power are there, but not there; this haunting is a place from which to begin to understand this multiply culturally layered enactment of freedom. (loc 1172)

Matsutake picking is not the city, although haunted by it. Picking is also not labor—or even “work.” (loc 1184)

Sai, a Lao picker, explained that “work” means obeying your boss, doing what he tells you to. In contrast, matsutake picking is “searching.” It is looking for your fortune, not doing your job. (loc 1185)

Matsutake picking is not “labor,” but it is haunted by labor. So, too, property: Matsutake pickers act as if the forest was an extensive commons. (loc 1212)

They are willing to brave the considerable dangers of the matsutake forest because it extends their living survival of war, a form of haunted freedom that goes everywhere with them. (loc 1320)

Pickers navigate the freedom of the forest through a maze of differences. Freedom as they described it is both an axis of commonality and a point from which communally specific agendas divide. (loc 1326)

To speak of Nike evokes the horrors of sweatshops, on the one hand, and the pleasures of designer brands, on the other. Nike has succeeded in making this contradiction seem particularly American. But Nike’s rise from a Japanese supply chain reminds us of the pervasive legacy of Japan. (loc 1848)

As I have explained, no one in Oregon thinks of him- or herself as an employee of a Japanese business. The pickers, buyers, and field agents are there for freedom. But freedom has come to mobilize the poor only through the freeing of American livelihoods from expectations of employment—a result of the transpacific dialogue between U.S. and Japanese capital. (lco 1853)

When humble commodities are allowed to illuminate big histories, the world economy is revealed as emerging within historical conjunctures: the indeterminacies of encounter. (loc 1859)

To explore how capitalism draws from noncapitalist value systems—and how these fare within capitalism—a tool for noticing difference is worth trying out. The gift-versus-commodity distinction can stand in for the absence or presence of alienation, the quality necessary to turn things into capitalist assets. (loc 1897)

Almost no one buys a fine matsutake just to eat. Matsutake build relationships, and as gifts they cannot be separated from these relationships. Matsutake become extensions of the person, the definitional feature of value in a gift economy. (loc 1902)

How are gifts made from commodities? And might those commodities, in turn, have been made earlier along the chain from gifts? (loc 1908)

The ability to properly assess the mushrooms is the necessary ingredient of this flavor; it allows sellers to extend personal advice—not just a generic commodity—to buyers. The advice is the gift that comes with the mushroom, stretching it beyond use or exchange value. (loc 1933)

The value of matsutake then derives not just from use and commercial exchange; it is made in the act of giving. And this is possible because mediators all along the chain are already giving the quality of matsutake to their clients as a personal gift. (loc 1935)

Neither middlemen nor consumers concern themselves with the relations through which their matsutake are procured. (loc 1959)

Personal value and object value are made together in exchanges of freedom: Freedom as personal value is made through money and the search for mushrooms, just as the value of money and mushrooms is assessed by participants through the freedom gained by buyers and searchers. (loc 1972)

Matsutake is then a capitalist commodity that begins and ends its life as a gift. (loc 1998)

The economic system is presented to us as a set of abstractions requiring assumptions about participants (investors, workers, raw materials) that take us right into twentieth-century notions of scalability and expansion as progress. (loc 2025)

Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. (loc 2070)

The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. (loc 2076)

Fungi are thus world builders, shaping environments for themselves and others. (loc 2099)

By leaning on fungal companions, trees grow strong and numerous, making forests. (loc 2113)

Mutualistic relations were interesting anomalies, but not really necessary to understand life. Life emerged from the self-replication of each species, which faced evolutionary and environmental challenges on its own. No species needed another for its continuing vitality; it organized itself. This self-creation marching band drowned out the stories of the underground city. To recover those underground stories, we might reconsider the species-by-species worldview, and the new evidence that has begun to transform it. (loc 2127)

Self-replicating things are models of the kind of nature that technical prowess can control: they are modern things. They are interchangeable with each other, because their variability is contained by their self-creation. Thus, they are also scalable. (loc 2142)

Biological scalability was given a mechanism, strengthening the story of thoroughly modern life—life ruled by gene expression and isolated from history. (loc 2155)

This insight changes the unit of evolution. Some biologists have begun to speak of the “hologenome theory of evolution,” referring to the complex of organisms and their symbionts as an evolutionary unit: the “holobiont.” (loc 2176)

Fungi have always been recalcitrant to the iron cage of self-replication. (loc 2201)

I have been discussing fungal collaborations with plants, but fungi live with animals as well. For example, Macrotermes termites digest their food only through the help of fungi. (loc 2208)

As in capitalist supply chains, these chains of engagement are not scalable. Their components cannot be reduced to self-replicating interchangeable objects, whether firms or species. Instead, they require attention to the histories of encounter that maintain the chain. Natural history description, rather than mathematical modeling, is the necessary first step—as in the economy. Radical curiosity beckons. Perhaps an anthropologist, trained in one of the few remaining sciences that values observation and description, might come in handy. (loc 2217)

Working with forest managers in Japan changed how I thought about the role of disturbance in forests. Deliberate disturbance to revitalize forests surprised me. Kato-san was not planting a garden. The forest he hoped for would have to grow itself. But he wanted to help it along by creating a certain kind of mess: a mess that would advantage pine. (loc 2233)

Restoration requires disturbance—but disturbance to enhance diversity and the healthy functioning of ecosystems. Some kinds of ecosystems, advocates argue, flourish with human activities. (loc 2240)

…[L]andscapes are radical tools for decentering human hubris. Landscapes are not backdrops for historical action: they are themselves active. (loc 2250)

…[W]e forget that collaborative survival requires cross-species coordinations. To enlarge what is possible, we need other kinds of stories—including adventures of landscapes. (loc 2270)

If we are interested in livability, impermanence, and emergence, we should be watching the action of landscape assemblages. Assemblages coalesce, change, and dissolve: this is the story. (loc 2372)

No single standard for assessing disturbance is possible; disturbance matters in relation to how we live. This means we need to pay attention to the assessments through which we know disturbance. Disturbance is never a matter of “yes” or “no”; disturbance refers to an open-ended range of unsettling phenomena. Where is the line that marks off too much? With disturbance, this is always a problem of perspective, based, in turn, on ways of life. (loc 2379)

Precarious living is always an adventure. (loc 2416)

Fossils have been found from 50 million years ago that show root associations between pines and fungi; pines have evolved with fungi.8 Where no organic soil is available, fungi mobilize nutrients from rocks and sand, making it possible for pines to grow. (loc 2476)

By colonizing disturbed landscapes, matsutake and pine make history together—and they show us how history-making extends beyond what humans do. At the same time, humans create a great deal of forest disturbance. (loc 2504)

Matsutake, pines, and humans together shape the trajectories of these landscapes. (loc 2506)

…[A]s soon as the glaciers retreated, some nine thousand years ago, both humans and pines started coming.14 From a human point of view, that was a long time ago, hardly worth remembering. Thinking in terms of forests, however, the time line from the end of the Ice Age is still short. In this clash of perspectives, we see the contradictions of forest management: Finnish foresters have come to relate to forests as stable, cyclical, and renewable, yet the forests are open-ended and historically dynamic. (loc 2515)

Resurgence is the force of the life of the forest, its ability to spread its seeds and roots and runners to reclaim places that have been deforested. (loc 2611)

Satoyama projects reconstitute peasant disturbance to teach modern citizens to live within an active nature. This is not the only kind of forest I want to see on earth, but it is an important kind: a forest within which human household-scale livelihoods thrive. (loc 2623)

The sustainability of nature, he said, never just falls into place; it must be brought out through that human work that also brings out our humanity. Peasant landscapes, he explained, are the proving grounds for remaking sustainable relations between humans and nature. (loc 2684)

Despite all insults, resurgence has not yet ceased. (loc 2820)

At least for a moment, matsutake had entered the Forest Service imagination, and its pact with lodgepole was noticed. To appreciate how strange this is, consider that no other nontimber forest product has attained the status of a management objective, at least in this part of the country. (loc 3007)

Forests are shaped not only in local livelihood practices and state management policies but also by transnational opportunities for the concentration of wealth. (loc 3021)

Matsutake forests in Oregon and central Japan are joined in their common dependence on the making of industrial forest ruin. (loc 3176)

If all our forests are buffeted by such winds of destruction, whether capitalists find them desirable or throw them aside, we have the challenge of living in that ruin, ugly and impossible as it is. (loc 3171)

In thinking about landscapes, spores guide us to in-population heterogeneity. In thinking about science, spores model open-ended communication and excess: the pleasures of speculation. (loc 3351)

For now, it is just the pleasure of thinking: the spore-filled airy stratosphere of the mind. (loc 3368)

In my discomfort, I understand that we are learning to listen—even if we don’t yet know how to have a discussion. (loc 3728)

Brown brought pickers together through a practice of translation that, rather than resolving difference, allowed difference to disturb too-easy resolution, encouraging creative listening. Listening was Brown’s starting point for political work. (loc 3731)

How, for example, shall we make common cause with other living beings? Listening is no longer enough; other forms of awareness will have to kick in. And what great differences yawn! Like Brown, I would acknowledge difference, refusing to paper it over with good intentions. (loc 3745)

We need many kinds of alertness to spot potential allies. Worse yet, the hints of common agendas we detect are undeveloped, thin, spotty, and unstable. At best we are looking for a most ephemeral glimmer. But, living with indeterminacy, such glimmers are the political. (loc 3747)

Latent commons are not exclusive human enclaves. Opening the commons to other beings shifts everything. Once we include pests and diseases, we can’t hope for harmony; the lion will not lie down with the lamb. And organisms don’t just eat each other; they also make divergent ecologies. Latent commons are those mutualist and nonantagonistic entanglements found within the play of this confusion. (loc 3754)

The best we can do is to aim for “good-enough” worlds, where “good-enough” is always imperfect and under revision. (loc 3758)

The latent commons moves in law’s interstices; it is catalyzed by infraction, infection, inattention—and poaching. (loc 3761)

The mushrooms remind us of our dependence on more-than-human natural processes: we can’t fix anything, even what we have broken, by ourselves. (loc 3779)

Muddling through with others is always in the middle of things; it does not properly conclude. (loc 4064)

Precarity means not being able to plan. But it also stimulates noticing, as one works with what is available. To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff. (loc 4078)

The study of neighborliness turns difference into a resource for collaboration. Imagining the interactions among roots, hyphae, charcoal, and bacteria—as well as among Chinese, Japanese, and Finnish scientists—is as good a way as any to refigure our understanding of survival as a collaborative project. (loc 4099)

Without meaning to, most of us learn to ignore the multispecies worlds around us. Projects for rebuilding curiosity, like that of Tanaka-san, are essential work for living with others. (loc 4134)

Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma. (loc 4147)

Work in common creates the possibilities of particular feats of individual scholarship. To encourage the unknown potential of scholarly advances—like the unexpected bounty of a nest of mushrooms—requires sustaining the common work of the intellectual woodland. (loc 4171)

Instead, she proposes that storytelling might pick up diverse things of meaning and value and gather them together, like a forager rather than a hunter waiting for the big kill. In this kind of storytelling, stories should never end, but rather lead to further stories. In the intellectual woodlands I have been trying to encourage, adventures lead to more adventures, and treasures lead to further treasures. When gathering mushrooms, one is not enough; finding the first encourages me to find more. (loc 4198)