The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015, Princeton University Press) is a classic that is mentioned by activists and researchers in various meetings. Thanks to Tutkijaliitto, the book is available as a Finnish translation by Anna Tuomikoski, who did a fantastic job: Lopunaikojen sieni – elämää kapitalismin raunioissa. Thank you! My reading experience was authentic and I could not “hear” English in the back of my head. Sometimes the latter is the case when the translation is less elegant.
Writing about a book in English when I have read it in Finnish is demanding, especially in this case when the translator has come up with magnificent concepts in Finnish. For reviews in English that capture the English concepts see, for example:
The author follows Matsutake to various places: Oregon (USA), Lapland (Finalnd), Yuannan (China) and Satoyama forests in Japan. The book describes various cultures that intertwine with the mycelium and mushroom that grow out of it. The book narrates the commerce of the mushrooms from these sites to their final destination where they are valued highly: Japan. In addition to this highly fascinating narrative, the book exposes the reasons for the Matsutake fever in Japan. Moreover, it describes how and where Matsutake can thrive. This description highlights the interconnectedness of humans and other-than-humans in the times of late capitalism.
Next follows a confession. It took me 305 pages to realise that Matsutake is herkkutatti. This is a mushroom that all Finns know and gather across locations. Due to, at times, aggressive forest management, there are many forests that provide favourable conditions for this organism. I’m astonished that this mushroom “species” (the notion of species is discussed in the book) is the one that is treated as a treasured gift in Japan. Moreover, having eaten it throughout my life, especially during autumns, I would describe its aroma merely familiar, although quite strong. This is such a powerful example of familiarity and distance. Before seeing an image of Matsutake in the book, I simply could not connect the dots that the mushroom that I associate with forest trips and autumn is the same one that people gather to get by in other locations, including Lapland.
In addition to knowledge about Matsutake and its living conditions, I learned many things that are useful for my research project focusing on postgrowth work.
First, this book portrays getting by on the fringes of capitalism. This is not a new theme to me, due to taking part in the Community Economies Research Network. Yet, Tsing shows, rather than tells, how livelihoods are made possible. The book portrays the various ways in which people come together in order to earn, learn, share, gift and negotiate – among other things. Moreover, the book points the moments when humans’ and other-than-humans’ efforts are translated in a capitalistic commodity that starts to accumulate. Showing this is fascinating.
Second, this book is an example of collaborative scientific work. Tsing is part of a research collective that studies Matsutake: Matsutake Worlds Research Group. Her book is the first one in the series of others. The group has written joint articles, such as A new form of collaboration in cultural anthropology: Matsutake worlds. Such thematic collaboration is inspiring. We can rethink the processes of knowledge production when we come together thematically rather than disciplinary. In these timed of great uncertainty, transdisciplinary collaboration seems like a wise move. What we still need is the institutional support for such work.
Finally, this book is an excellent piece of ethnographic writing. An anthropologist told me that they recommend this book to non-anthropologist due to its approachable writing style. I could not agree more! Although I am an avid reader of research published as books, at times I skim through some pretty heavy stuff. This book was something completely different. Sections were small and contained a limited number of central themes. These sections were punctuated by images, drawings and short snapshots. The titles were descriptive and the book includes repetitions, but in a manner that evokes familiarity, not irritation.
This book is like mycelium: it connects, reconnects, feeds and cultivates various themes, places, lifeforms, and atmospheres. Mushroom at the end of the world is one of those books I wish I had written. I offer this as a heartfelt compliment.