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The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins Hardcover – September 29, 2015
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Winner of the 2016 Gregory Bateson Prize, The Society for Cultural Anthropology
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 Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2015 in Science
One of Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2015 in Business and Economics
One of Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015
"Unusually rewarding. . . . Bursting with ideas and observations, Tsing's highly original ethnographic study follows this spicy smelling mushroom's global commodity chain. . . . Consistently fascinating, [Tsing's] story of the picking and selling of this wild mushroom becomes a wonderful window on contemporary life."--Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Tsing weaves an adventurous tale. . . . Her engrossing account of intersecting cultures and nature's resilience offers a fresh perspective on modernity and progress."--Publisher's Weekly
"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 (One of Flavorwire's Ten Best Books by Academic Public of 2015)
"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
"Provocative. . . . Beginning with an account of the matsutake mushroom, Tsing follows the threads of this organism to tease out an astonishing number of insights about life in the Anthropocene."--Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory
From the Back Cover
"Scientists and artists know that the way to handle an immense topic is often through close attention to a small aspect of it, revealing the whole through the part. In the shape of a finch's beak we can see all of evolution. So through close, indeed loving, attention to a certain fascinating mushroom, the matsutake, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing discusses how the whole immense crisis of ecology came about and why it continues. Critical of simplistic reductionism, she offers clear analysis, and in place of panicked reaction considers possibilities of rational, humane, resourceful behavior. In a situation where urgency and enormity can overwhelm the mind, she gives us a real way to think about it. I'm very grateful to have this book as a guide through the coming years."--Ursula K. Le Guin
"If we must survive in the ‘ruins of capitalism'--what some call the Anthropocene--we need an example of how totally unexpected connections can be made between the economy, culture, biology, and survival strategies. In this book, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing offers a marvelous example with the unlikely case of a globalized mushroom."--Bruno Latour, author of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence
"This is a thoughtful, insightful, and nuanced exploration of the relationships between people and landscapes, landscapes and mushrooms, mushrooms and people. Anthropologists, historians, ecologists, and mushroom lovers alike will appreciate the depth and sensitivity with which Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing follows this modern global commodity chain, from the forests of North America and China to the auction markets of Japan."--David Arora, author of Mushrooms Demystified
"It isn't often that one discovers a book that is at once scholarly in the best sense and written with the flowing prose of a well-crafted novel. Speaking to issues of major concern, The Mushroom at the End of the Worldis a brilliant work, superbly conceived, and a delight to read."--Marilyn Strathern, emeritus professor of social anthropology, University of Cambridge
"This book uses the matsutake mushroom as a lens through which to examine contemporary environmental history, global commodity production, and science. With soaring prose, penetrating intellect, and sustained creativity and originality, it links disparate topics in new and profound ways. Spanning an astonishing number of fields, this work is destined to be a classic."--Michael R. Dove, Yale University
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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.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
“When Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, it is said, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom.” So begins the Prologue of a very well-researched and equally well-written book about matsutake mushrooms. And I mean everything about matsutake. Well, not so much the science … though that’s in there too. Mostly about the love affair (fanaticism? addiction?) that many have, especially in Japan, for this unassuming-looking mushroom. (It’s even got a “common” common name, simply: pine mushroom.)
I should state right up front that while I really loved this book, and learned a LOT, The Mushroom at the End of the World is no mere mushroom fact book or desk reference familiar to mycophiles, mushroom mavens, and weekend wild mushroom foragers. If you’re looking for a quick read with pretty photos of “matsis” and recipes, this book is not for you.
The Mushroom at the End of the World is dense. The Prologue sets the tone: the world is changing; our populations are changing; our forests are changing. The Japanese were the first to revere the matsutake: everyone could look for them in the forests during the season; everyone could enjoy them. The forests changed; the matsutake became rare; then valuable; then a commodity. (“Individuals who buy matsutake are almost always thinking about building relationships.”) Gunboat diplomacy opened the door to Japan (if only a crack) to Western ideas and trade; the end of World War II ripped the door off its hinges. Japanese society changed dramatically, with peasants moving from the farms to the cities. The forests, scoured of firewood and edibles, went fallow. The overgrowth of species (a return to the forests’ wild state) crowded out the pines, the natural hosts for matsutake in Japan.
While the return to peace in Japan had the effect of swelling the populations of her cities, future wars in Asia (most notably, the war in Vietnam) had the opposite effect in those places. Refugees from ravaged Southeast Asian countries arrived in North America. And needed employment. Foraging came natural and so people from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam created a pipeline from the Pacific Northwest, where supplies of wild matsutake mushrooms grow in abundance, to Japan where demand is high (and where prices can be staggering: $50, even $100 for a single mushroom is no exaggeration!).
The Mushroom at the End of the World is a story about past turmoil and hope for a better future. And all along the way author Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing conveys many personal stories of people with very strong ties to the matsutake, from researchers who study the mushroom’s enigmatic physiology to wild mushroom pickers who seek the elusive and cryptic fruit bodies. As a mycologist, I’m already pretty familiar with the science of the mushroom. The ethnographical focus of the book was revelatory. The author is a professor of anthropology at UC-Santa Cruz (and a Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark where she co-directs Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene) and very well-researched in Asian history and socioeconomics. There was not too much science to bog down the reader; mostly it was very concise and informative. The brief overview of the mushroom’s confusing taxonomy was, for the most part, accurate. The discussions of natural selection and fungal genetics (also very concise) were very well written and sure to pique further interest in the topic for most readers. There were a few scientific missteps, like repeatedly misspelling a common wild mushroom: Gynomitra esculenta (it’s actually Gyromitra and a reviewer probably should have caught that). When discussing the European species of matsutake, Tsing says, “A Norwegian gave the Eurasian species its first scientific name, Tricholoma nauseosum, the nauseating Trich. (In recent years, taxonomists made an exception to usual rules of precedence to rename the mushroom, acknowledging Japanese tastes, as Tricholoma matsutake.).” Well, that’s not entirely true. Originally, the mushroom in question was called Armillaria nauseosa then renamed T. nauseosum. More recently, the latter name was synonymized with T. matsutake when researchers found, using DNA sequence analysis, that both were actually the same mushroom. Throughout the book Tsing discusses matsutake species from all over the world—Asia, Europe, even Africa—and focuses, of course, on North America, specifically the Pacific Northwest. I found it ironic that there was barely any mention of the mushroom being well-known from other parts of North America—indeed, the “North American matsutake” (Tricholoma magnivelare) was originally described from New York by mycologist C. H. Peck. Likewise, much is repeated about the preference of the mushroom to fruit in poor habitat, denuded of vegetation, exhausted from human over-use and that the mushroom quickly vanishes from forests that return to more pristine conditions. While this is partly true, I have many firsthand observations of matsutake in beautiful mature forests, along with woods choked with near-impenetrable vegetation, roadsides, public parks, and even wooded sand dunes in the Great Lakes region near my home. Matsutake is an enigmatic mushroom not easily pigeonholed. But these are very small quibbles that will mostly go unnoticed by the reader. All in all, The Mushroom at the End of the World is an excellent and informative book.
-Britt A. Bunyard
(Review originally published in FUNGI magazine, 2015, vol 8, no.4.)