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Anna Tsing

The Mushroom at the End of the World

“What do you do when your world starts to fall apart? I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms. Mushrooms pull me back into my senses, not just—like flowers—through their riotous colors and smells but because they pop up unexpectedly, reminding me of the good fortune of just happening to be there. Then I know that there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy.”

All the revolutions in the world started with a de-centralization. With Galileo we discovered we are not the center of the universe, with Freud we discovered we are not even the center of our own selves. Now, we are discovering the limits of the idea of progress, as the global crisis is putting us in front of the limits of an era where the human-kind behaved as if it was the only species alive on the planet.

“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. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us—but it might open our imaginations.”

Anna Tsing is an anthropologist whose work focuses on global entanglement, most of all, inter-species entanglement. In this book, she tells a story about fungi, in particular the matsutake mushrooms. What does this precious mushroom have to do with us, with the ruins of the capitalistic system, and with the future of our species on this Planet we treat like it’s our own?

We must learn from these life-forms how to proliferate, even in the most difficult situations, engaging each other in collective systems of cooperation. “To follow matsutake guides us to possibilities of coexistence with environmental disturbance,” she states.

We live in a dystopian world, full of dystopian narratives. This book tries to show us a way out, distancing itself from the human-centric idea of progress as well as from the capitalist-realistic perspective of no-future. The secret, Tsing states, is to be “vulnerable to each other”, and open to the transformations each encounter with others may bring to ourselves and the system we live in.

“…one could say that pines, matsutake, and humans all cultivate each other unintentionally. They make each other’s world-making projects possible. This idiom has allowed me to consider how landscapes more generally are products of unintentional design, that is, the overlapping world-making activities of many agents, human and not human. The design is clear in the landscape’s ecosystem. But none of the agents have planned this effect. Humans join others in making land-scapes of unintentional design. As sites for more-than-human dramas, landscapes are radical tools for decentering human hubris. Landscapes are not backdrops for historical action: they are themselves active. Watching landscapes in formation shows humans joining other living beings in shaping worlds.”

“the messy assemblages of mushroom foraging might help indicate a new and different way for individuals and societies to engage with that broad assemblage that is our modern world”