The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (英語) ハードカバー – 2015/9/29
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Matsutake is the most valuable mushroom in the worldand a weed that grows in human-disturbed forests across the northern hemisphere. Through its ability to nurture trees, matsutake helps forests to grow in daunting places. It is also an edible delicacy in Japan, where it sometimes commands astronomical prices. In all its contradictions, matsutake offers insights into areas far beyond just mushrooms and addresses a crucial question: what manages to live in the ruins we have made?
A tale of diversity within our damaged landscapes, The Mushroom at the End of the World follows one of the strangest commodity chains of our times to explore the unexpected corners of capitalism. Here, we witness the varied and peculiar worlds of matsutake commerce: the worlds of Japanese gourmets, capitalist traders, Hmong jungle fighters, industrial forests, Yi Chinese goat herders, Finnish nature guides, and more. These companions also lead us into fungal ecologies and forest histories to better understand the promise of cohabitation in a time of massive human destruction.
By investigating one of the world's most sought-after fungi, The Mushroom at the End of the World presents an original examination into the relation between capitalist destruction and collaborative survival within multispecies landscapes, the prerequisite for continuing life on earth.
Winner of the 2016 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, Society for Humanistic Anthropology
Finalist for the 2016 Northern California Book Awards in General Nonfiction, Northern California Book Reviewers
One of Flavorwire's 10 Best Books by Academic Publishers in 2015
One of Times Higher Education's Best Books of 2015
The Mushroom at the End of the Worldevolves into a well-researched and thought-provoking meditation on capitalism, resilience, and survival.---E. Ce Miller, Bustle.com
A beautiful, humble book. . . . [A]nthropology at its best.---Darwin Bond Graham, East Bay Express
This was a year of many of books about the Anthropocene--the name now frequently invoked to describe an era of incalculable human impact on geological and ecological conditions. Few of these books are as focused and useful as Tsing's, which follows the supply chain of the Matsutake, the most valuable mushroom in the world, through 'Japanese gourmets, capitalist traders, Hmong jungle fighters, industrial forests, Yi Chinese goat herders, Finnish nature guides, and more.' How else to negotiate the conditions--if there are any--for our survival?---Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire
A fascinating account of the biology, ecology, genetics and anthropology of the world's most valued mushroom.---Louise O. Fresco, Times Higher Education
The anthropologist Anna Tsing joins a range of scholars exploring the ongoing devastation of our environment and undoing the old binary of 'nature' and 'society'--in this case, taking the charismatic Matsutake mushroom as her protagonist, tracing its existence within ecosystems, markets, and cultures across the globe. I'm interested in this rather remarkable book, both in its empathetic meditations on 'companion species' and in its experimental mode of history writing.---James Graham, Metropolis
[Tsing] writes clearheaded prose with an ear for lyrical phrases. . . . [The Mushroom at the End of the World] is a wonderful meditation on how humans shape and distort the natural landscape, and in return, are shaped and distorted by a wildness of their own making.---Casey Sanchez, Santa Fe New Mexican
I plan to use this book in a college course about sustainability for business majors: I'm looking forward to their grappling with these ideas so contrary to Econ 101. Unlike other reviewers I don't see any evidence that the author (ALT) misunderstands basic economics -- but their view shows how confusing it may be for some readers to have their orthodoxy challenged. That's exactly why I think it's a useful book. In addition, the book has many interesting passages in its own right. For example, before reading this book I didn't know that mushrooms like matsutake are beneficial to the trees on whose roots they grow -- I thought they were "just" parasites. The importance of matsutake to various Southeast Asian immigrant groups in the Pacific Northwest was also something I'd had no inkling of previously.
The main weak point of the book is that it speaks in an overly general way about Japan. The assertion that matsutake serve as gifts in Japanese society is repeated often in the text (e.g., @8, 62, 124-126). The suggestion also seems to be that the matsutake have meaning to those who pick them (as illustrated in the book's ethnographic chapters, set mostly outside Japan); then are turned into commodities farther down in the chain of commerce by participants who are indifferent to the circumstances of the mushrooms' harvesting; and then, when presented as gifts by someone who simply bought them, are meant to take on a more personal meaning again.
There are two problematic aspects of these claims: are matsutake really given as gifts? and if so, are they the same matsutake as described in the ethnographic chapters? It turns out the answers to these questions are: rarely, and no.
It's not at all a common practice in Japan for matsutake to be presented as a gift by someone who bought it as a commodity. I currently live in Iwate Prefecture, a northeastern rural area that is the #2 domestic producer of matsutake; before that I lived for a number of years in a Tokyo neighborhood well-known for preserving old traditions (Kagurazaka, in Shinjuku-ku). In neither place did I ever observe matsutake being used as a gift, unless the giver had picked it himself or herself on the same day (not possible in Tokyo!). My wife, who was born in Iwate but who lived in many areas all over Japan while growing up, had also never heard of matsutake as gifts, and she pointed out that the harvest time of matsutake doesn't coincide with any gift-giving holiday. In Iwate, which produces the highest-quality matsutake, they are either consumed locally or sent to the top restaurants and inns in Tokyo and Kyoto. My family only buys them to eat them.
I contacted ALT about this point, and she very graciously and forthrightly explained that she was most familiar with Kyoto, and that very possibly what she described applies mainly there. Among Japan's 47 prefectures, Kyoto is in 9th rank as a producer of matsutake -- but its output is only around 1% of Iwate's. So it's hardly representative. (BTW the book refers to Kyoto as "central" Japan, which is how it might appear to an outsider who looks at a map, but the Japanese name for the region, Kansai, clearly labels it as "west.") She also mentioned that some expat Japanese families send American matsutake back to relatives in the Kyushu region, though this doesn't relate to Japanese production. Nor is it necessarily anything special: we send Iwate cabbages, cucumbers, and negi (Japanese leeks) as well as matsutake to friends and family in Tokyo, simply because they're cheaper and fresher where we live.
Even in Kyoto and possibly other locales, do gift-givers make presents of matsutake harvested in North American, Finnish and Chinese forests and exported to Japan? From the sequence of chapters and particularly the discussion of intermediate wholesalers in the chapter entitled "From Gifts to Commodities -- and Back" (Ch. 9), you might get the impression that they do, even though ALT doesn't say this explicitly. But that's not at all the case: by the time foreign matsutake arrive in Japan they're too dry to be suitable as gifts. Yet well over 95% of Japanese matsutake consumption is imports, which thanks to their dryness are also much cheaper than domestically-harvested ones. Unfortunately, the book omits to mention the main destination of those fungi: the processed foods industry. They're sometimes sold sliced in cans or other packaging, and freeze-dried matsutake rice mixes are a popular item, as are bowls of matsutake-flavored instant ramen. Again, ALT was gracious in acknowledging this point, and mentioned that a related discussion seems to have been cut from her manuscript during the editing process.
One other somewhat nebulous suggestion in the text is that matsutake grow mainly in forests disturbed by aggressive logging or other human exploitation. That may be true in North America and in some parts of Kyoto, but not at all in Iwate, Nagano or other high-production areas. In those regions, matsutake are harvested from what ALT calls "peasant forests," namely mountain forests that have been subject to a certain amount of maintenance by humans, such as having their undergrowth and debris periodically thinned, an activity known in Japan as satoyama. Although they are mentioned in the book, these forests are much less salient in the narrative than are the "capitalist ruins" of the book's subtitle.
While I very much appreciated ALT's kind and forthcoming responses to my questions, the book's lack of accuracy or clarity on these points does somewhat blunt its most pointed and ironic commentary on capitalism, to the extent that commentary is meant to apply to Japan. But there is still plenty of value in the book. ALT's ironies are still justified by the ethnographic chapters, and the chapters that talk more about mushroom biology also get one to think critically about industrialized agriculture, with its emphasis on monoculture. All in all, a very imaginative approach to real-life economics, and one that pulls the rug, or forest floor, out from under some usual textbook concepts.
In addition to the ethnography, Tsing is thoroughly grounded in the science of mushrooms. In dramatic contrast to those political ecologists and critical thinkers who make it a point of pride not to know any science, Tsing not only knows it but is sharply insightful into what really matters, and shows her usual skill at telling the reader. She starts with basics but goes into some real detail, e.g. on matsutake taxonomy.
The take-home messages of the book include a focus on assemblages--transient or long-term linkages of people, environments, plants, and policies--and on ruined landscapes. In Oregon, matsutakes grow in overcut, undermanaged conifer land that went to lodgepole pine (on whose roots they grow as symbionts). In Japan, similar mismanagement long ago led to matsutake forests, but now those forests are what is wanted, and management is trying to restore them from overgrowth. In China, mismanagement is threatening forests in general. But from the ruins come new assemblages, which will support new lifeways.
All this comes at the end of capitalist expansion and "progress," if not of the whole world.
The book is something of a breathless speed-travel, but you can find full details about much of the stories in her other writings, and especially in articles and forthcoming works by her collaborators, especially Michael Hathaway.
My main complaint is about the startoff. The very first page (vii) tells the old story about western philosophy seeing Nature as just a mechanical, passive backdrop, and says "The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles" of that sort. This is mildly annoying to those of us who have been doing exactly that for 50 years. It rather elides the whole tradition from Thoreau and Emerson through Burroughs and Muir and Leopold and down to Bill McKibben and Gary Snyder. The arrogant nature-as-stuff-to-waste paradigm created its own backlash long ago.
A minor point. More important is that capitalism and socialism may both come to an end as resources run out, so Tsing's book is timely and valuable; more to the point, it will be a classic.