Mushrooms, money, and the end of the world

Tom Monaghan

March 17, 2020

In parts of the Pacific Northwest, mushrooms mean money. “What’s the going rate for dried morels?” asks a man on the Facebook forum for mushroom pickers and buyers in Washington. “$125 a pound normally, more on a crappy year,” someone responds. The mushrooms gathered by these pickers are shipped to markets around the world, especially to Japan, where they are sold at high prices to restaurants that sell them at even higher prices to customers in dimly lit izakaya, or to supermarkets where they are packaged and sold as luxury gifts. Matsutake mushrooms fetch the highest price, with a small box often selling for hundreds of dollars.

Mushrooms may be lucrative for sellers, but they also carry a hint of danger. The notorious death cap, an innocuous-looking brown mushroom with characteristic white gills underneath, is becoming more common in North America. If eaten (apparently they are tasty), the toxin will be absorbed by the liver and will destroy its crucial ability to synthesize protein. Symptoms take up to a day or two to appear, first seem mild, and may go away, only to return later along with multiple organ failure.

Hunting for mushrooms can also be treacherous for the pickers. One Saturday in October last year, a 75-year-old woman went mushroom-picking near Vancouver and disappeared in the forest. Luckily, she was found alive a few days later on her birthday. That same month, a 78-year-old man went picking near Carson and never returned home.

The radical anthropologist Anna Tsing’s poetic and thought-provoking work, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, explores why people take risks to pick mushrooms and what this supply chain reveals about our world. On one level this book is about work, community, and price fluctuations for a commodity in the rural Northwest. On another, it helps us understand global movements of capital and labor through the story of a shared ecology between humans and non-humans.

Why is there such a market for matsutake, and who are the pickers? The answer lies in overlapping histories that link the Vietnam war, the laissez-faire capitalism of the 1980s, and U.S. forestry policies.

Matsutake gathering appears to involve serendipitous encounters with pristine nature, but the mushrooms thrive as a result of human disturbance. In the twentieth century, loggers in the Eastern Cascades cut down valuable ponderosa pines and foresters’ work to suppress forest fires disrupted the pines’ natural protection against small blazes.

The disappearing ponderosa has been replaced by firs and slim lodgepole pines — the perfect trees around which matsutake spring up. In Japan, meanwhile, the forests of red pine that were suitable for matsutake have been ravaged by a nematode. Out of this mismatch — a shortage in Japan and their proliferation in the Pacific Northwest — materialized a lucrative market in matsutake.

This transpacific market has shaped the fortunes, working patterns, and social life of communities in the United States. The jobs associated with logging first attracted people from far and wide and then left them in precarity as the industry collapsed. Matsutake pickers have historically been migrants from Southeast Asia, including the Mien, Hmong, Lao, and Khmer, many of whom brought with them wartime histories of resisting and maintaining a distance from imperial and state power. Having settled in the United States as refugees in the 1980s, they were left vulnerable by the cutting of welfare programs. As a means of survival, they used their skills in forest navigation to pick matsutake.

Like the non-human ecologies of ponderosa, fir, lodgepole, and matsutake, the human histories of these groups are examples of what Tsing calls “contaminated diversity.” Despite clear ethnic distinctions between them, their recent histories of migration and labor are messy and complex and eschew self-contained units. Once entangled in conflicts and alliances during the maelstrom of war and genocide in Southeast Asia, these groups now depend on the same ecosystem to make money. Arriving in the United States as refugees, they learned to use the forest as a resource. They had their own concept of freedom, one which sometimes led them into direct and violent clashes with white veterans of the war who treasured the forests as an escape from urban life, and with whom they once shared a warzone.

For Tsing, these histories contain a kernel of hope: “it is in listening to that cacophony of troubled stories that we might encounter our best hopes for precarious survival.” Instead of comfortable myths about pristine origins and teleologies, Tsing believes that we should listen carefully to and embrace the “contaminated diversity” that surrounds us.

Tsing is not hesitant to name her target as capitalism. In her telling, we learn that matsutake are part of a capitalist system that generates profit from price differentials in global markets. But they cannot grow in a laboratory, or in anything resembling modern industrial processes. Mushroom forests are “anti-plantations,” resisting the infinite scalability of scientific agriculture.

In the matsutake economy, Tsing identifies a process she calls “salvage capitalism.” The practice of picking matsutake resists more efficient, capitalistic forms, since it relies on individual pickers to wander through the forest and hope for chance discoveries. It is not like a Caribbean sugar plantation or an English textile factory, typical historical models of capitalist processes in which slaves or alienated workers labored non-stop to provide material or manufactured goods. Nonetheless, once the matsutake are priced and shipped to Japan, they become capitalist inventory in a transpacific supply chain.

Such noncapitalist forms are everywhere and, Tsing argues, are fundamental to the working of the global economy. Salvage capitalism is the taking advantage of things — labor, skills, goods — produced without capitalist control, like Mexican garment workers learning how to sew at home before getting a job at the factory. This act of translation from noncapitalist to capitalist creates value.

Putting this idea into historical context, Tsing describes how the matsutake supply chain came about as a result of fierce international competition between Japanese and US capital. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan was booming. As Ezra Vogel articulated in 1979 with his work Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, this medium-sized archipelago of 120 million people was threatening to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. The matsutake supply chain is a relic of this period, when the supply chains of salvage capitalism were generating fortunes through the translation of lives, labor, and things into saleable commodities.

Ideas of “contaminated diversity,” “salvage capitalism,” and “acts of translation” are ways for Tsing to describe what she sees in our society and economy, but The Mushroom at the End of the World is fundamentally about how we orient ourselves toward the future. Looking beyond the guilt-laden and technocratic assumptions of environmentalist narratives, Tsing wants to know what happens when all our plans to deal with our contemporary crisis are laid to waste. The capitalism she describes is bleak and all-destructive: in alienating and segregating humans, policing identities, and turning human and non-human souls into exploitable labor and capital, it has prevented us from finding ways to survive together.

Above all, Tsing feels the urgency of liberating the human imagination from its trapped state “in a one-way future consisting only of growth.” Tsing quotes Ursula Le Guin in describing her work as “trying to figure out how to put a pig on the tracks” to halt the patterns of “promise and ruin, promise and ruin.” Matsutake, in demonstrating earthy growth and survival in a devastated landscape, offer a hopeful metaphor for human survival amidst the bleakness of economic precarity and looming environmental catastrophe.

Mushroom prices are not as high as in the boom years, but they continue to provide income for people in the Northwest. Whether we, along with the mushroom pickers, are living in the wake of capitalist devastation, or merely in another cycle of economic change, may depend on our individual success in hunting for opportunities and avoiding danger.

We may not share Tsing’s bleak characterization of present forms of capitalist activity, nor her vision of what the future holds. Nonetheless, Tsing’s book forces us to imagine the life experiences of people separated from us by time and space. It is a reminder of what anthropology can do at its best: recognize diverse ways of seeing the world, reflect philosophically about the meaning of human behavior, and question the forces that shape our own lives.

Tsing’s writing is underpinned by a politics that is radical in a literal sense, seeking to uproot comfortable assumptions and asking us to embrace messier ideas of “contaminated diversity” in the name of solidarity and creating the world anew. It can stun us into rethinking our opinions, and for this reason alone it deserves a wide readership.

Books in this review:
  • The Mushroom at the End of the World
    by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
    Princeton University Press
    September 29, 2015
    352 pages
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Tom Monaghan is a PhD student in history at Yale University. His research looks at how sugarcane transformed island societies in nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan, Ryukyu (Okinawa), and Taiwan.

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