Can mushrooms show us a better way of life?

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing can mushrooms show us a better way of life

“I do want to show viewers how fungi, among other things, could tell us a story. It’s a talent, how to do this, and not turn off people.”

I first came across Anna Tsing’s work because everyone was recommending her book to me. I’ve foraged for mushrooms for many years, and my partner Ulli, who produces Spoken Earth, used to trade mushrooms on London’s markets. But suddenly it seemed that everyone, in the activist world, the book world, the art world, was talking about The Mushroom at the End of the World. A book that on the face of it is about the matsutake mushroom. But the subtitle  – On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins – suggests something much more.

Matsutake is traded as a luxury product for vast sums in Japan, but refuses to be cultivated. Instead, it thrives best where old growth forest has been logged out. Tsing explores several such places, including the Pacific Northwest, where she finds a vibrant cash economy.

The mushroom pickers are a diverse crowd of mostly Asian immigrants, many of them former jungle fighters from wars on their home turf, and all of them there for complicated reasons. The thriving of new life in destroyed landscapes, the precarity of people’s lives and of economies, the intermingling of different peoples and ecosystems, is not unusual, she suggests, but is actually our world, if we were only able to see it.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is pictured feeding three bright green parakeets

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing – by Feifei Zhou

By looking at the global supply chain of the matsutake, she is able to examine the ways in which we are able to forge lives in a world that has been both environmentally and economically ravaged. It is not a book about hope; it is not a book about despair either. It is a book about opening our eyes and learning how to see, taking as our guide the very earthy, very grounded, very sensuous matsutake.

A picture of matsutake mushrooms

Matsutake mushrooms – by Noboru Ishikawa

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