some reading notes
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.
The chapters build an open-ended assemblage, not a logical machine; they gesture to the so-much-more out there. They tangle with and interrupt each other—mimicking the patchiness of the world I am trying to describe. Adding another thread, the photographs tell a story alongside the text but do not illustrate it directly. I use images to present the spirit of my argument rather than the scenes I discuss.
Imagine “first nature” to mean ecological relations (including humans) and “second nature” to refer to capitalist transformations of the environment. This usage—not the same as more popular versions—derives from William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis.1 My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead. Like virtual particles in a quantum field, multiple futures pop in and out of possibility; third nature emerges within such temporal polyphony. Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this book sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. My experiment in form and my argument follow each other.
Matsutake Worlds Research Group: Timothy Choy, Lieba Faier, Elaine Gan, Michael Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka, and myself.
Multispecies storytelling was one of our products
Because this book relies on such motley sources, I have included references in notes rather than compile a unified bibliography. For Chinese, Japanese, and Hmong names in the citations, I put the first letter of the family name in bold for the first usage. This allows me to vary surname order, depending on where the author’s name happened to enter my research.
The spectre that many try not to see is a simple realisation—the world will not be “saved.” … If we don’t believe in a global revolutionary future, we must live (as we in fact always had to) in the present.2
This book tells of my travels with mushrooms to explore indeterminacy and the conditions of precarity, that is, life without the promise of stability. I’ve read that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thousands of Siberians, suddenly deprived of state guarantees, ran to the woods to collect mushrooms.1 These are not the mushrooms I follow, but they make my point: the uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift—and a guide—when the controlled world we thought we had fails
This book is not a critique of the dreams of modernization and progress that offered a vision of stability in the twentieth century; many analysts before me have dissected those dreams. Instead, I address the imaginative challenge of living without those handrails, which once made us think we knew, collectively, where we were going. If we open ourselves to their fungal attractions, matsutake can catapult us into the curiosity that seems to me the first requirement of collaborative survival in precarious times.
Modernization was supposed to fill the world—both communist and capitalist—with jobs, and not just any jobs but “standard employment” with stable wages and benefits. Such jobs are now quite rare; most people depend on much more irregular livelihoods. The irony of our times, then, is that everyone depends on capitalism but almost no one has what we used to call a “regular job.”
To live with precarity requires more than railing at those who put us here (although that seems useful too, and I’m not against it). We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.
Matsutake also illuminate the cracks in the global political economy. For the past thirty years, matsutake have become a global commodity, foraged in forests across the northern hemisphere and shipped fresh to Japan. Many matsutake foragers are displaced and disenfranchised cultural minorities. In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, for example, most commercial matsutake foragers are refugees from Laos and Cambodia. Because of high prices, matsutake make a substantial contribution to livelihood wherever they are picked, and even encourage cultural revitalizations.
This book takes up the story of precarious livelihoods and precarious environments through tracking matsutake commerce and ecology. In each case, I find myself surrounded by patchiness, that is, a mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, with each further opening into a mosaic of temporal rhythms and spatial arcs. I argue that only an appreciation of current precarity as an earthwide condition allows us to notice this—the situation of our world. As long as authoritative analysis requires assumptions of growth, experts don’t see the heterogeneity of space and time, even where it is obvious to ordinary participants and observers. Yet theories of heterogeneity are still in their infancy. To appreciate the patchy unpredictability associated with our current condition, we need to reopen our imaginations
How might capitalism look without assuming progress? It might look patchy: the concentration of wealth is possible because value produced in unplanned patches is appropriated for capital.
In this time of diminished expectations, I look for disturbance-based ecologies in which many species sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest.
Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.6 This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut; the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere
Our first step is to bring back curiosity. Unencumbered by the simplifications of progress narratives, the knots and pulses of patchiness are there to explore. Matsutake are a place to begin: However much I learn, they take me by surprise
The mushroom became common around Nara and Kyoto, where people had deforested the mountains for wood to build temples and to fuel iron forges. Indeed, human disturbance allowed Tricholoma matsutake to emerge in Japan. This is because its most common host is red pine (Pinus densiflora), which germinates in the sunlight and mineral soils left by human deforestation. When forests in Japan are allowed to grow back, without human disturbance, broadleaf trees shade out pines, preventing their further germination.
The mushroom joined the celebration of the four seasons as a marker of autumn
The Edo period was ended by the Meiji Restoration—and Japan’s rapid modernization. Deforestation proceeded apace, privileging pine and matsutake. In the Kyoto area, matsutake became a generic term for “mushroom.” In the early twentieth century, matsutake were particularly common. In the mid-1950s, however, the situation began to change. Peasant woodlands were cut down for timber plantations, paved for suburban development, or abandoned by peasants moving to the city. Fossil fuel replaced firewood and charcoal; farmers no longer used the remaining woodlands, which grew up in dense thickets of broadleaf trees. Hillsides that had once been covered by matsutake were now too shady for pine ecologies. Shade-stressed pines were killed by an invasive nematode. By the mid-1970s, matsutake had become rare across Japan.
I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks. —Ursula K. Le Guin
What emerges in damaged landscapes, beyond the call of industrial promise and ruin? By 1989, something else had begun in Oregon’s cutover forests: the wild mushroom trade. From the first it was linked to worldwide ruination: The 1986 Chernobyl disaster had contaminated Europe’s mushrooms, and traders had come to the Pacific Northwest for supplies. When Japan began importing matsutake at high prices—just as jobless Indochinese refugees were settling in California—the trade went wild. Thousands rushed to Pacific Northwest forests for the new “white gold.” This was in the middle of a “jobs versus the environment” battle over the forests, yet neither side noticed the mushroomers. Job advocates imagined only wage contracts for healthy white men; the foragers—disabled white veterans, Asian refugees, Native Americans, and undocumented Latinos—were invisible interlopers. Conservationists were fighting to keep human disturbance out of the forests; the entry of thousands of people, had it been noticed, would hardly have been welcome. But the mushroom hunters were mainly not noticed. At most, the Asian presence sparked local fears of invasion: journalists worried about violence
We hear about precarity in the news every day. People lose their jobs or get angry because they never had them. Gorillas and river porpoises hover at the edge of extinction. Rising seas swamp whole Pacific islands. But most of the time we imagine such precarity to be an exception to how the world works. It’s what “drops out” from the system. What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time—or, to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity? What if precarity, indeterminacy, and what we imagine as trivial are the center of the systematicity we seek?
Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible
Each living thing remakes the world through seasonal pulses of growth, lifetime reproductive patterns, and geographies of expansion. Within a given species, too, there are multiple time-making projects, as
organisms enlist each other and coordinate in making landscapes. (The regrowth of the cutover Cascades and Hiroshima’s radioecology each show us multispecies time making.) The curiosity I advocate follows such multiple temporalities, revitalizing description and imagination. This is not a simple empiricism, in which the world invents its own categories. Instead, agnostic about where we are going, we might look for what has been ignored because it never fit the time line of progress
Making worlds is not limited to humans. We know that beavers reshape streams as they make dams, canals, and lodges; in fact, all organisms make ecological living places, altering earth, air, and water. Without the ability to make workable living arrangements, species would die out. In the process, each organism changes everyone’s world. Bacteria made our oxygen atmosphere, and plants help maintain it. Plants live on land because fungi made soil by digesting rocks. As these examples suggest, world-making projects can overlap, allowing room for more than one species. Humans, too, have always been involved in multispecies world making. Fire was a tool for early humans not just to cook but also to burn the landscape, encouraging edible bulbs and grasses that attracted animals for hunting. Humans shape multispecies worlds when our living arrangements make room for other species. This is not just a matter of crops, livestock, and pets. Pines, with their associated fungal partners, often flourish in landscapes burned by humans; pines and fungi work together to take advantage of bright open spaces and exposed mineral soils. Humans, pines, and fungi make living arrangements simultaneously for themselves and for others: multispecies worlds.
The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible; still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. As semblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making
Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?
Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages
Other authors use “assemblage” with other meanings.8 The qualifier “polyphonic” may help explain my variant
When I first learned polyphony, it was a revelation in listening; I was forced to pick out separate, simultaneous melodies and to listen for the moments of harmony and dissonance they created together. This kind of noticing is just what is needed to appreciate the multiple temporal rhythms and trajectories of the assemblage.
The polyphonic assemblage also moves us into the unexplored territory of the modern political economy. Factory labor is an exemplar of coordinated progress time. Yet the supply chain is infused with polyphonic rhythms
The farther we stray into the peripheries of capitalist production, the more coordination between polyphonic assemblages and industrial processes becomes central to making a profit.
How DOES A GATHERING BECOME A “HAPPENING,” that is, greater than a sum of its parts? One answer is contamination. We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds—and new directions—may emerge.1 Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option. One value of keeping precarity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival.
staying alive—for every species—requires livable collaborations. Collaboration means working across difference, which leads to contamination. Without collaborations, we all die
At the heart of each is the self-contained individual actor, out to maximize personal interests, whether for reproduction or wealth. Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” gets across the idea, useful at many life scales: It is the ability of genes (or organisms, or populations) to look out for their own interests that fuels evolution.2 Similarly, the life of Homo economicus, economic man, is a series of choices to follow his best interests.
neoclassical economics and population genetics
The assumption of self-containment made an explosion of new knowledge possible. Thinking through self-containment and thus the self-interest of individuals (at whatever scale) made it possible to ignore contamination, that is, transformation through encounter. Self-contained individuals are not transformed by encounter. Maximizing their interests, they use encounters—but remain unchanged in them
The problem of precarious survival helps us see what is wrong. Precarity is a state of acknowledgment of our vulnerability to others. In order to survive, we need help, and help is always the service of another, with or without intent.
If survival always involves others, it is also necessarily subject to the indeterminacy of self-and-other transformations. We change through our collaborations both within and across species. The important stuff for life on earth happens in those transformations, not in the decision trees of self-contained individuals. Rather than seeing only the expansion-and-conquest strategies of relentless individuals, we must look for histories that develop through contamination.
Collaboration is work across difference, yet this is not the innocent diversity of self-contained evolutionary tracks. The evolution of our “selves” is already polluted by histories of encounter; we are mixed up with others before we even begin any new collaboration. Worse yet, we are mixed up in the projects that do us the most harm. The diversity that allows us to enter collaborations emerges from histories of extermination, imperialism, and all the rest. Contamination makes diversity.
The great ponderosa stands were logged out by the 1980s. It turned out that they could not reproduce without the periodic fires the Forest Service had stopped. But firs and spindly lodgepole pines were flourishing with fire exclusion—at least if flourishing means spreading in ever denser and more flammable thickets of live, dead, and dying trees
Surprisingly, in this ruined industrial landscape, new value emerged: matsutake. Matsutake fruit especially well under mature lodgepole, and mature lodgepole exists in prodigious numbers in the eastern Cascades because of fire exclusion. With the logging of ponderosa pines and fire exclusion, lodgepoles have spread, and despite their flammability, fire exclusion allows them a long maturity. Oregon matsutake fruit only after forty to fifty years of lodgepole growth, made possible by excluding fire.7 The abundance of matsutake is a recent historical creation: contaminated diversity.
Mien are not known for their respect for national boundaries; communities have repeatedly crossed back and forth, especially when armies threaten. (Kao’s uncle learned Chinese and Lao from cross-border movement.) Yet, despite this mobility, Mien are hardly an autonomous tribe, free from the control of the state. Hjorleifur Jonsson has shown how Mien lifeways have repeatedly changed in relation to state agendas. In the first half of the twentieth century, for example, Mien in Thailand organized their communities around the opium trade. Only large, polygynous households controlled by powerful senior men could keep hold of the opium contracts. Some households had one hundred members. The Thai state did not mandate this family organization; it arose from the Mien encounter with opium. In a similarly unplanned process in the late twentieth century, Mien in Thailand came to identify as an “ethnic group” with distinctive customs; Thai policy toward minorities made this identity possible. Meanwhile, along the Laos/Thailand border, Mien slipped back and forth, evading state policy on both sides even while being shaped by it
Those cross-boundary Asian hills have known many peoples, and Mien sensibilities have developed in engagement with these shifting groups as all have negotiated imperial governance and rebellion, licit and illicit trade, and millennial mobilization. To understand how Mien came to be matsutake pickers requires considering their relationship with another group now in the Oregon forests, Hmong. Hmong are like Mien in many ways. They also ran south from China; they also crossed borders and occupied the high altitudes suited to commercial opium farming; they also value their distinctive dialects and traditions. A mid-twentieth-century millennial movement started by an illiterate farmer produced a completely original Hmong script. This was the time of the U.S.-Indochina
War, and Hmong were in the thick of it. As linguist William Smalley points out, discarded military ordnance in the area would have exposed this inspired farmer to English, Russian, and Chinese writing, and he might also have seen Lao and Thai.10 Emerging from the trash of war, this distinctive and multiply derivative Hmong script, like that of the Mien, is a wonderful icon for contaminated diversity.
General Vang Pao
In the 1980s, Mien who had crossed from Laos to Thailand joined U.S. programs to bring anticommunists from Southeast Asia to the United States and allow them, through refugee status, to become citizens. The refugees arrived in the United States just as welfare was being cut; they were offered few resources for livelihood or assimilation. Most of those from Laos and Cambodia had neither money nor Western education; they moved into off-the-grid jobs such as matsutake picking. In the Oregon woods, they use skills honed in Indochinese wars. Those experienced in jungle fighting rarely get lost, since they know how to find their way in unfamiliar forests. Yet the forest has not stimulated a generic Indochinese—or American—identity. Mimicking the structure of Thai refugee camps, Mien, Hmong, Lao, and Khmer keep their places separate. Yet white Oregonians sometimes call them all “Cambodians,” or, with even more confusion, “Hong Kongs.” Negotiating multiple forms of prejudice and dispossession, contaminated diversity proliferates
I hope that at this point you are saying, “This is hardly news! I can think of plenty of similar examples from the landscape and people around me.” I agree; contaminated diversity is everywhere. If such stories are so widespread and so well known, the question becomes: Why don’t we use these stories in how we know the world? One reason is that contaminated diversity is complicated, often ugly, and humbling. Contaminated diversity implicates survivors in histories of greed, violence, and environmental destruction. The tangled landscape grown up from corporate logging reminds us of the irreplaceable graceful giants that came before. The survivors of war remind us of the bodies they climbed over—or shot—to get to us. We don’t know whether to love or hate these survivors. Simple moral judgments don’t come to hand.
Worse yet, contaminated diversity is recalcitrant to the kind of “summing up” that has become the hallmark of modern knowledge. Contaminated diversity is not only particular and historical, ever changing, but also relational. It has no self-contained units; its units are encounter-based collaborations. Without self-contained units, it is impossible to compute costs and benefits, or functionality, to any “one” involved. No self-contained individuals or groups assure their self-interests oblivious to the encounter
No, no, you are not thinking; you are just being logical. —Physicist Niels Bohr defending “spooky action at a distance”
TO LISTEN TO AND TELL A RUSH OF STORIES IS A method. And why not make the strong claim and call it a science, an addition to knowledge? Its research object is contaminated diversity; its unit of analysis is the indeterminate encounter
A rush of stories cannot be neatly summed up. Its scales do not nest neatly; they draw attention to interrupting geographies and tempos. These interruptions elicit more stories. This is the rush of stories’ power as a science. Yet it is just these interruptions that step out of the bounds of most modern science, which demands the possibility for infinite expansion without changing the research framework. Arts of noticing are considered archaic because they are unable to “scale up” in this way. The ability to make one’s research framework apply to greater scales, without changing the research questions, has become a hallmark of modern knowledge
thinking with mushrooms
The expectation of scaling up is not limited to science. Progress itself has often been defined by its ability to make projects expand without changing their framing assumptions. This quality is “scalability.” The term is a bit confusing, because it could be interpreted to mean “able to be discussed in terms of scale.” Both scalable and nonscalable projects, however, can be discussed in relation to scale. When Fernand Braudel explained history’s “long durée” or Niels Bohr showed us the quantum atom, these were not projects of scalability, although they each revolutionized thinking about scale. Scalability, in contrast, is the ability of a project to change scales smoothly without any change in project frames. A scalable business, for example, does not change its organization as it expands. This is possible only if business relations are not transformative, changing the business as new relations are added.
Scalability requires that project elements be oblivious to the indeterminacies of encounter; that’s how they allow smooth expansion. Thus, too, scalability banishes meaningful diversity, that is, diversity that might change things.
Scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature. Making projects scalable takes a lot of work. Even after that work, there will still be interactions between scalable and nonscalable project elements
A theory of nonscalability might begin in the work it takes to create scalability—and the messes it makes.
One vantage point might be that early and influential icon for this work: the European colonial plantation
Sugarcane plantations expanded and spread across the warm regions of the world. Their contingent components—cloned planting stock, coerced labor, conquered and thus open land—showed how alienation, interchangeability, and expansion could lead to unprecedented profits. This formula shaped the dreams we have come to call progress and modernity
The success of expansion through scalability shaped capitalist modernization. By envisioning more and more of the world through the lens of the plantation, investors devised all kinds of new commodities. Eventually, they posited that everything on earth—and beyond—might be scalable, and thus exchangeable at market values. This was utilitarianism, which eventually congealed as modern economics and contributed to forging more scalability—or at least its appearance.
Contrast the matsutake forest: unlike sugarcane clones, matsutake make it evident that they cannot live without transformative relations with other species.
Matsutake mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus associated with certain forest trees. The fungus gets its carbohydrates from mutualistic relations with the roots of its host trees, for whom it also forages. Matsutake make it possible for host trees to live in poor soils, without fertile humus. In turn, they are nourished by the trees. This transformative mutualism has made it impossible for humans to cultivate matsutake. Japanese research institutions have thrown millions of yen into making matsutake cultivation possible, but so far without success. Matsutake resist the conditions of the plantation. They require the dynamic multispecies diversity of the forest—with its contaminating relationality
Matsutake had stimulated a nonscalable forest economy in the ruins of scalable industrial forestry
The challenge for thinking with precarity is to understand the ways projects for making scalability have transformed landscape and society, while also seeing where scalability fails—and where nonscalable ecological and economic relations erupt. It is key to take note of the careers of both scalability and nonscalability.
But it would be a huge mistake to assume that scalability is bad and nonscalability is good. Nonscalable projects can be as terrible in their effects as scalable ones. Unregulated loggers destroy forests more rapidly than scientific foresters. The main distinguishing feature between scalable and nonscalable projects is not ethical conduct but rather that the latter are more diverse because they are not geared up for expansion. Nonscalable projects can be terrible or benign; they run the range
WHAT IS THE STORY OF A SMELL? NOT AN ETHNOGRAPHY of smelling, but the story of the smell itself, wafting into the nostrils of people and animals, and even impressing the roots of plants and the membranes of soil bacteria? Smell draws us into the entangled threads of memory and possibility.
Indeterminacy has a rich legacy in human appreciation of mushrooms. American composer John Cage wrote a set of short performance pieces called Indeterminacy, many of which celebrate encounters with mushrooms.1 Hunting wild mushrooms, for Cage, required a particular kind of attention: attention to the here and now of encounter, in all its contingencies and surprises. Cage’s music was all about this “always different” here and now, which he contrasted to the enduring “sameness” of classical composition; he composed to get the audience to listen as much to ambient sounds as composed music
Fungi are famous for changing shape in relation to their encounters and environments. Many are “potentially immortal,” meaning they die from disease, injury, or lack of resources, but not from old age. Even this little fact can alert us to how much our thoughts about knowledge and existence just assume determinate life form and old age. We rarely imagine life without such limits—and when we do we stray into magic.
Our daily habits are repetitive, but they are also open-ended, responding to opportunity and encounter. What if our indeterminate life form was not the shape of our bodies but rather the shape of our motions over time? Such indeterminacy expands our concept of human life, showing us how we are transformed by encounter. Humans and fungi share such here-and-now transformations through encounter.
First, she showed me how she tore apart each mushroom, not touching it with a knife. The metal of the knife changes the flavor, she said, and, besides, her mother told her that the spirit of the mushroom doesn’t like it. Then she grilled the matsutake on a hot pan without oil. Oil changes the smell, she explained. Worse yet, butter, with its strong smell. Matsutake must be dry grilled or put into a soup; oil or butter ruins it. She served the grilled matsutake with a bit of lime juice
Matsutake lovers in Japan know this scorn and cultivate a defensive exuberance about the mushroom. The smell of matsutake, they say, recalls times past that these young people never knew, much to their detriment. Matsutake, they say, smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell. It brings to mind the paper dividers on village interior doors, one woman explained; her grandmother would change the papers every New Year and use them to wrap the next year’s mushrooms. It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.
the elder statesman of matsutake science in Kyoto
Matsutake and red pine are partners in central Japan, and both grow only where people have caused significant deforestation. All over the world, indeed, matsutake are associated with the most disturbed kinds of forests: places where glaciers, volcanoes, sand dunes—or human actions—have done away with other trees and even organic soil. The pumice flats I walked in central Oregon are in some ways typical of the kind of land matsutake knows how to inhabit: land on which most plants and other fungi can find no hold
It is not surprising, perhaps, that U.S. scientists have studied the smell of matsutake to see what it repels (slugs), but Japanese scientists have studied the smell to consider what it attracts (some flying insects).10 Is it the “same” smell if people bring such different sensibilities to the encounter? Does that problem stretch to slugs and gnats as well as people? What if noses—as in my experience—change? What if the mushroom too can change through its encounters?
Yet there was something not at all cosmopolitan about the scene as well: A rift separated these pickers and buyers from shops and consumers in Japan. Everyone knew that the mushrooms (except for a small percentage bought for Japanese American markets) were going to Japan. Every buyer and bulker longed to sell directly to Japan—but none had any idea how. Misconceptions about the matsutake trade both in Japan and in other supply sites proliferated. White pickers swore that the value of the mushrooms in Japan was as an aphrodisiac. (While matsutake in Japan do have phallic connotations, no one eats them as a drug.) Some complained about the Chinese Red Army, which, they said, drafted people to pick, which depressed global prices. (Pickers in China are independent, just as in Oregon.) When someone discovered extremely high prices in Tokyo on the Internet, no one realized that these prices referred to Japanese matsutake. One exceptional bulker, of Chinese origin and fluent in Japanese, whispered to me about these misunderstandings—but he was an outsider. Except for this man, Oregon pickers, buyers, and bulkers were completely in the dark about the Japanese side of the trade. They made up fantasy[…]
IT MAY SEEM ODD TO WANT TO TACKLE CAPITALISM with a theory that stresses ephemeral assemblages and multidirectional histories. After all, the global economy has been the centerpiece of progress, and even radical critics have described its forward-looking motion as filling up the world. Like a giant bulldozer, capitalism appears to flatten the earth to its specifications. But all this only raises the stakes for asking what else is going on—not in some protected enclave, but rather everywhere, both inside and out.
Impressed by the rise of factories in the nineteenth century, Marx showed us forms of capitalism that required the rationalization of wage labor and raw materials. Most analysts have followed this precedent, imagining a factory-driven system with a coherent governance structure, built in cooperation with nation-states. Yet today—as then—much of the economy takes place in radically different scenes. Supply chains snake back and forth not only across continents but also across standards; it would be hard to identify a single rationality across the chain. Yet assets are still amassed for further investment. How does this work?
A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.1
Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth.
The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces
Capitalism is a system for concentrating wealth, which makes possible new investments, which further concentrate wealth. This process is accumulation. Classic models take us to the factory: factory owners concentrate wealth by paying workers less than the value of the goods that the workers produce each day. Owners “accumulate” investment assets from this extra value.
Raw materials can no longer be taken for granted. In our food procurement system, for example, capitalists exploit ecologies not only by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities. Even in industrial farms, farmers depend on life processes outside their control, such as photosynthesis and animal digestion. In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are coopted for the concentration of wealth. This is what I call “salvage,” that is, taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control.
“Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works
Sites for salvage are simultaneously inside and outside capitalism; I call them “pericapitalist.”4 All kinds of goods and services produced by pericapitalist activities, human and nonhuman, are salvaged for capitalist accumulation
Salvage accumulation through global supply chains is not new, and some well-known earlier examples can clarify how it works.
Wal-Mart pioneered the required use of universal product codes (UPCs), the black-and-white bars that allow computers to know these products as inventory.7 The legibility of inventory, in turn, means that Wal-Mart is able to ignore the labor and environmental conditions through which its products are made: pericapitalist methods, including theft and violence, may be part of the production process.
As inventory moves increasingly under control, the requirement to control labor and raw materials recedes; supply chains make value from translating values produced in quite varied circumstances into capitalist inventory. One way of thinking about this is through scalability, the technical feat of creating expansion without the distortion of changing relations. The legibility of inventory allows scalable retail expansion for Wal-Mart without requiring that production be scalable. Production is left to the riotous diversity of nonscalability, with its relationally particular dreams and schemes. We know this best in “the race to the bottom”: the role of global supply chains in promoting coerced labor, dangerous sweatshops, poisonous substitute ingredients, and irresponsible environmental gouging and dumping. Where lead firms pressure suppliers to provide cheaper and cheaper products, such production conditions are predictable outcomes. As in Heart of Darkness, unregulated production is translated in the commodity chain, and even reimagined as progress
Pericapitalist economic forms can be sites for rethinking the unquestioned authority of capitalism in our lives. At the very least, diversity offers a chance for multiple ways forward
Critics who stress the uniformity of capitalism’s hold on the world want to overcome it through a singular solidarity
Is capitalism a single, overarching system that conquers all, or one segregated economic form among many?14 Between these two positions, we might see how capitalist and noncapitalist forms interact in pericapitalist spaces. Gibson-Graham advise us, quite correctly I think, that what they call “noncapitalist” forms can be found everywhere in the midst of capitalist worlds—rather than just in archaic backwaters. But they see such forms as alternatives to capitalism. Instead, I would look for the noncapitalist elements on which capitalism depends. Thus, for example, when Jane Collins reports that workers in Mexican garment assembly factories are expected to know how to sew before they begin their jobs, because they are women, we are offered a glimpse of noncapitalist and capitalist economic forms working together.15 Women learn to sew growing up at home; salvage accumulation is the process that brings this skill into the factory to the benefit of owners
It takes concrete histories to make any concept come to life. And isn’t mushroom collecting a place to look, after progress? The rifts and bridges of the Oregon-to-Japan matsutake commodity chain show capitalism achieved through economic diversity. Matsutake foraged and sold in pericapitalist performances become capitalist inventory as they are sent to Japan a day later. Such translation is the central problem of many global supply chains
Americans don’t like middlemen, who, they say, just rip off value. But middlemen are consummate translators; their presence directs us to salvage accumulation. Consider the North American side of the commodity chain that brings matsutake from Oregon to Japan. (The Japanese side—with its many middlemen—will be considered later.) Indepen dent foragers pick the mushrooms in national forests. They sell to independent buyers, who sell, in turn, to bulkers’ field agents, who sell to other bulkers or to exporters, who sell and ship, at last, to importers in Japan. Why so many middlemen? The best answer may be a history
Alliances between exporters and importers formed a basis for the transpacific trade. But the exporters—experts in fish, or fruit, or timber—knew nothing about how to get the mushrooms. In Japan, matsutake come to the market via an agricultural cooperative, or from individual farmers. In North America, matsutake are scattered across enormous national (U.S.) or commonwealth (Canadian) forests. This is where the small companies that I call “bulkers” come in; bulkers gather mushrooms to sell to exporters. Bulkers’ field agents buy mushrooms from “buyers” who buy from pickers. Field agents, like buyers, must know the terrain and the people likely to search it.
For it is not just language that separates pickers, buyers, and bulkers in Oregon from Japanese traders; it is the conditions of production. Oregon mushrooms are contaminated with the cultural practices of “freedom.”
Might performance be part of the point? Competition and independence mean freedom for all. Sometimes pickers have been known to wait, sitting in their pickup trucks with their mushrooms, because they are dissatisfied with everyone’s prices. But they must sell before the evening is over; they cannot keep the mushrooms. Waiting too is part of the performance of freedom: freedom to search wherever one pleases—holding propriety, labor, and property at arm’s length; freedom to bring one’s mushrooms to any buyer, and for the buyers, to any field agent; freedom to put the other buyers out of business; freedom to make a killing or lose it all.
Because the place is self-consciously off the map, I decided to make up a name to protect people’s privacy, and to add some characters from the up-and-coming matsutake trading spot down the road. My composite field site is “Open Ticket, Oregon.”
Most wild mushrooms carry a stable price. But the price of matsutake shoots up and down. Within the night, the price may easily shift by $10 per pound or more. Within the season, price shifts are much greater. Between 2004 and 2008, prices shifted between $2 and $60 per pound for the best mushrooms—and this range is nothing compared with earlier years. “Open ticket” means that a picker may return to the buyer for the difference between the original price paid and a higher price offered on the same night. Buyers—who earn a commission based on the poundage they buy—offer open ticket to entice pickers to sell early in the evening, rather than waiting to see if prices will rise. Open ticket is testimony to the unspoken power of pickers to negotiate buying conditions. It also illustrates the strategies of buyers, who continually try to put each other out of business. Open ticket is a practice of making and affirming freedom for both pickers and buyers. It seems an apt name for a site of freedom’s performance
This is not the freedom imagined by economists, who use that term to talk about the regularities of individual rational choice. Nor is it political liberalism. This mushroomers’ freedom is irregular and outside rationalization; it is performative, communally varied, and effervescent. It has something to do with the rowdy cosmopolitanism of the place; freedom emerges from open-ended cultural interplay, full of potential conflict and misunderstanding. I think it exists only in relation to ghosts. Freedom is the negotiation of ghosts on a haunted landscape; it does not exorcise the haunting but works to survive and negotiate it with flair.
Matsutake picking is not the city, although haunted by it. Picking is also not labor—or even “work.” Sai, a Lao picker, explained that “work” means obeying your boss, doing what he tells you to. In contrast, matsutake picking is “searching.” It is looking for your fortune, not doing your job. When a white campground owner, sympathetic to the pickers, talked to me about how the pickers deserved more because they work so hard, getting up at dawn and staying through sun and snow, something nagged at me about her view. I had never heard a picker talk like that. No pickers I met imagined the money they gained from matsutake as a return on their labor. Even Nai Tong’s time babysitting was more akin to work than mushroom picking.
Lao-Su works in a Wal-Mart warehouse in California when he is not picking matsutake, making $11.50 an hour. To get that pay rate, however, he had to agree to work without medical benefits. When he hurt his back on the job and was unable to lift merchandise, he was given a long leave to recover. While he hopes the company will take him back, he says he gets more money from matsutake picking than from Wal-Mart anyway, despite the fact that the mushroom season is only two months long. Besides, he and his wife look forward to joining the vibrant Mien community in Open Ticket every year. They consider it a vacation; on weekends, their children and grandchildren sometimes come up to join them in picking.
Matsutake picking is not “labor,” but it is haunted by labor. So, too, property: Matsutake pickers act as if the forest was an extensive commons. The land is not officially a commons. It is mainly national forest, with some adjacent private land, all fully protected by the state. But the pickers do their best to ignore questions of property.
But what is “public property” if not an oxymoron? Certainly, the Forest Service has trouble with it in these times. Legislation requires that public forests be thinned for fire protection for a square mile around private inholdings; this requires a lot of public funds to save a few private assets.3 Meanwhile, private timber companies do that thinning, making further profits from public forests. And, while logging is allowed within Late Successional Reserves, pickers are forbidden—because no one has found funds for an environmental impact assessment. If pickers have trouble sorting out which kinds of lands are off-limits, they are not alone in their confusion. The difference between the two kinds of confusion is also instructive. The Forest Service is asked to uphold property, even if it means neglecting the public. The pickers do their best to hold property in abeyance as they pursue a commons haunted by the possibility of their own exclusion.
This is a performance of competition—not a necessity of business. The point is the drama
But there are clearly “market mechanisms”: or are there? The whole point of competitive markets, according to economists, is to lower prices, forcing suppliers to procure goods in more efficient ways. But Open Ticket’s buying competition has the explicit goal of raising prices. Everyone says so: pickers, buyers, bulkers. The purpose of playing with prices is to see if the price can be increased, so that everyone at Open Ticket benefits
Frontier romanticism runs high in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is common for whites to glorify Native Americans and identify with the settlers who tried to wipe them out. Self-sufficiency, rugged individualism, and the aesthetic force of white masculinity are points of pride. Many white mushroom pickers are advocates of U.S. conquest abroad, limited government, and white supremacy. Yet the rural northwest has also gathered hippies and iconoclasts. White veterans of the U.S.-Indochina War bring their war experiences into this rough and independent mix, adding a distinctive mixture of resentment and patriotism, trauma and threat. War memories are simultaneously disturbing and productive in forming this niche. War is damaging, they tell us, but it also makes men. Freedom can be found in war as well as against war.
I was not surprised by his endorsement of American freedom as a military quest. Yet our conversation took turns that I don’t imagine the field agent would have expected, and yet it echoed other Cambodians in the forest. First, in the confusions of the Cambodian civil war, it was never quite clear on which side one was fighting. Where white vets imagined freedom on a starkly divided racial landscape, Cambodians told stories in which war bounced one from one side to the other without one’s knowledge. Second, where white vets sometimes took to the hills to live out war’s traumatic freedom, Cambodians offered a more optimistic vision of recovery in the forests of American freedom.
Hmong mushroom pickers are comfortable in the forest because of hunting. Hmong rarely get lost; they use the forest-navigation skills they know from hunting. The forest landscape reminds older men of Laos: Much is different, but there are wild hills and the necessity of keeping your wits about you. Such familiarity brings the older generation back to pick each year; like hunting, this is a chance to remember forest landscapes. Without the sounds and smells of the forest, the elder told me, a man dwindles. Mushroom picking layers together Laos and Oregon, war and hunting. The landscapes of war-torn Laos suffuse present experience. What seemed to me nonsequiturs shocked me into awareness of such layers: I asked about mushrooms, and Hmong pickers answered by telling me of Laos, of hunting, or of war.
It’s just like Laos,” Tou said, telling us of his home. His next comment made no sense to me: “But it’s important to have insurance.” It took me the next half hour to figure out what he meant. He offered a story: A relative of his had gone back to Laos for a visit, and the hills had so drawn him that he left one of his souls behind when he returned to the United States. He soon died as a result. Nostalgia can cause death, and then it’s important to have life insurance, because that allows the family to buy the oxen for a proper funeral
As Buddhists, ethnic Lao tend to object to hunting. Instead, Lao are the businessmen of the mushroom camps. Most Southeast Asian mushroom buyers are Lao. In the campgrounds, Lao have opened noodle tents, gambling, karaoke, and barbeque shops
What is freedom? U.S. immigration policy differentiates “political refugees” from “economic refugees,” granting asylum only to the former. This requires immigrants to endorse “freedom” as a condition of their entry
Lao strategies for enacting freedom contrast sharply with those of the other picker group that vies for the title “most harassed by the law”: Latinos. Latino pickers tend to be undocumented migrants who fit mushroom foraging into a year-round schedule of outdoor work. During mushroom season many live hidden in the forest instead of in the legally required industrial camps and motels where identification and picking permits might be checked. Those I knew had multiple names, addresses, and papers. Mushroom arrests could lead not just to fines but also to loss of vehicles (for faulty papers) and deportation. Instead of sassing the law, Latino pickers tried to stay out of the way, and, if caught, juggle papers and sources of legitimation and support. In contrast, most Lao pickers, as refugees, are citizens and, embracing freedom, hustle for more room
Among commercial matsutake pickers in Oregon, freedom is a “boundary object,” that is, a shared concern that yet takes on many meanings and leads in varied directions.4 Pickers arrive every year to search out matsutake for Japanese-sponsored supply chains because of their overlapping yet diverging commitments to the freedom of the forest. Pickers’ war experiences motivate them to come back year after year to extend their living survival. White vets enact trauma; Khmer heal war wounds; Hmong remember fighting landscapes; Lao push the envelope. Each of these historical currents mobilizes the practice of picking mushrooms as the practice of freedom. Thus, without any corporate recruitment, training, or discipline, mountains of mushrooms are gathered and shipped to Japan
something huge and perplexing had happened to U.S. citizenship between early- and late-twentieth-century immigrations. A wild new cosmopolitanism has inflected what it means to be an American: a jostling of unassimilated fragments of cultural agendas and political causes from around the world. My surprise, then, was not the ordinary shock of cultural difference. American precarity—living in ruins—is in this unstructured multiplicity, this uncongealed confusion. No longer a melting pot, we live with unrecognizable others
The first people to go “matsutake crazy” in Oregon were Japanese who came to the region in that short window of opportunity between the banishment of the Chinese in 1882 and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” stopping Japanese immigration in 1907.2 Some of the first Japanese immigrants worked as loggers and found matsutake in the forest. When they settled into farming, they returned to the forest every season: for warabi ferns in the spring, fuki shoots in the summer, and matsutake in the fall. By the early twentieth century, matsutake outings—picnic lunches with matsutake foraging—were a popular leisure activity, as celebrated in the poem that opens this chapter
But even as it was possible to pursue Japanese hobbies, the camps changed what it meant to be Japanese in the United States. When they came back after the war, most had lost access to their possessions and their farms. (Juliana Hu Pegues notes that the same year Japanese American farmers were sent away to camps, the United States opened the Bracero program to bring in Mexican farm laborers.)3 They were treated with suspicion. In response, they did their best to become model Americans.
Japanese American matsutake pickers are quite different from Southeast Asian refugees—and I can’t explain the difference away by “culture” or by “time” spent in the United States, the usual sociological stories of differences among immigrants. Second-generation Southeast Asian Americans are nothing like Japanese American Nisei in their performance of citizenship. The difference has to do with historical events—indeterminate encounters, if you will—in which relations between immigrant groups and the demands of citizenship are formed. Japanese Americans were subject to coercive assimilation. The camps taught them that to be an American required serious work in transforming oneself from inside out. Coercive assimilation showed me its contrast: Southeast Asian refugees have become citizens in a moment of neoliberal multiculturalism. A love for freedom may be enough to join the American crowd.
My mother came to study in the United States from China just after World War II, when the two countries were allies; after the triumph of communism in China, the U.S. government did not let her go home. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, our family, like other Chinese Americans, was under FBI surveillance as possible enemy aliens. Thus my mother, too, learned a coercive assimilation. She learned to cook hamburgers, meatloaf, and pizza, and when she had children, she refused to allow us to learn Chinese, even though she was still struggling with English. She believed that if we spoke Chinese, our English might show the trace of an accent, revealing us as not quite American. It was unsafe to be bilingual, to carry one’s body in the wrong way, or to eat the wrong foods.
The other Southeast Asian groups in Open Ticket are less dedicated to recreating village life; some are from cities, not villages. Still, they have one thing in common with these Mien: a lack of interest in—even an unfamiliarity with—the kind of American assimilation with which I grew up. I wondered, How did they get away with this? At first, I was awed, and perhaps a little jealous. Later, I recognized that they had been asked to assimilate too, in a different mode. This is where freedom and precarity come back into the story: freedom coordinates wildly diverse expressions of American citizenship, and it provides the only official rudder for precarious living. But this means that between the arrival of Japanese Americans and the coming of Lao and Cambodian Americans something important has changed in the relationship of the state and its citizens.
The pervasive quality of Japanese American assimilation was shaped by the cultural politics of the U.S. welfare state from the New Deal through the late twentieth century
It is the erosion of this apparatus of state welfare that most simply helps to explain why the Southeast Asian Americans of Open Ticket have
developed such a different relationship to American citizenship. Since the mid-1980s, when they arrived as refugees, all kinds of state programs have been dismantled. Affirmative action has been criminalized, funds cut for public schools, unions chased out, and standard employment has become a vanishing ideal for anyone, much less entry-level workers.
Everyone I talked to dreamed about livelihood strategies self-consciously tied to their ethnic and political stories. No one in Open Ticket thought immigration meant erasing one’s past to become an American. An ethnic Lao from northeastern Cambodia would like to run trucks between Cambodia and Laos. An ethnic Khmer from Vietnam, whose family crossed the border to defend Cambodia, thought his family’s patriotism made him a good candidate for a military career. While many of these dreams would remain unfulfilled, they told me something about dreaming: these were not the new start we still call “the American dream.”
The more you stare at it, the more the idea that you should start over to become an American seems strange. What was this American dream then? Clearly, it was more than an effect of economic policy. Might it have been a version of Christian conversion, American-style, in which the sinner opens up to God and resolves to banish his former sinful life? The American dream requires relinquishing one’s old self, and perhaps this is one form of conversion
Contrast Open Ticket’s Southeast Asian refugees. Thinking through cosmological politics, they were also “converted” to American democracy. They each had a conversion ritual in a Thai refugee camp—the interview that allowed them to enter the United States. At this interview, they were required to endorse “freedom” and to show their anticommunist credentials. Else they would be enemy aliens: outside the fold. To enter the country, a rigorous assertion of freedom was necessary. The refugees might not know much English, but they needed one word: freedom
the area to commercial picking. The buyer went back to Open Ticket. But without enforcement, commercial pickers still sneak in, and hostilities between Japanese and Southeast Asian Americans still smolder. Clearly, they are different kinds of Asian Americans. As one Japanese American picker unself-consciously quipped, “The forests were great until the Asians came.” Who?
One of the best-loved matsutake forests of this community is a pine-studded, moss-covered valley, as smooth and clean as the grounds of a Japanese temple. Japanese Americans are proud of how carefully they maintain the area for both people and plants. Even the foraging areas of the deceased are remembered and respected. In the mid-1990s, a bold, white bulker-buyer from Open Ticket brought a load of commercial pickers to this area. The commercial pickers were not used to careful harvesting; they needed to cover a lot of ground to make the day’s pick. They tore up the moss and left the place a mess. A confrontation ensued. Japanese Americans brought in the Forest Service, who advised the buyer that commerce inside national forests is prohibited. The buyer accused the agency of racial discrimination. “Why should Japanese have special rights?” he reminisced to me, still sore. Finally, the Forest Service closed
I am sure I am not the only product of integration who was taken by surprise by the strength of twenty-first-century resentment of this program, particularly by rural whites, who feel left out and left behind. Some white pickers and buyers call their position “traditionalism.” They oppose integration; they want to savor their own values, without contamination from others. They also call this “freedom.” This is not a multicultural plan. And yet, ironically, it has helped bring to life the most cosmopolitan cultural formation the United States has ever known. The new traditionalists reject racial mixing and the muscular legacy of the welfare state that made mixing possible—through coercive assimilation. As they dismantle assimilation, new formations emerge. Without central planning, immigrants and refugees hold on to their best chances to make a living: their war experiences, languages, and cultures. They join American democracy through that single word, “freedom.” They are free, indeed, to continue transnational politics and trade; they may plot to overthrow foreign regimes and stake their fortunes on international fashions. In contrast to earlier immigrants, they need not study to become American from inside out. In the wake of the welfare state, this concurrence[…]
But how did we get into a situation in which so few jobs with wages and benefits are available, even in the world’s richest country? Worse yet, how did we lose the expectation and taste for such jobs?
But isn’t matsutake economically negligible? Shouldn’t it offer only the view from a frog in a well? On the contrary: the modest success of the Oregon-to-Japan matsutake commodity chain is the tip of an iceberg, and following the iceberg to its underwater girth brings up forgotten stories that still grip the planet. Things that seem small often turn out to be big. It is the very negligible quality of the matsutake commodity chain that hid it from the view of twenty-first-century reformers, thus preserving a late-twentieth-century history that shook the world. This is the history of encounters between Japan and the United States that shaped the global economy. Shifting relations between U.S. and Japanese capital, I argue, led to global supply chains—and to the end of expectations of progress aimed toward collective advancement.
Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm; commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world
In the mid-nineteenth century, U.S. ships threatened Edo Bay in order to “open” the Japanese economy for American businessmen; this sparked a Japanese revolution that overturned the national political economy and pushed Japan into international commerce. Japanese refer to the indirect upending of Japan through the icon of the “Black Ships” that carried the U.S. threat. This icon is useful in considering what happened—in reverse—150 years later, at the end of the twentieth century, when the threat of Japan’s commercial power indirectly upended the U.S. economy. Scared by the success of Japanese investments, American business leaders destroyed the corporation as a social institution and propelled the U.S. economy into the world of Japanese-style supply chains. One might call this “Reverse Black Ships.” In the great wave of mergers and acquisitions of the 1990s, with their corporate reshufflings, the expectation that U.S. corporate leaders ought to provide employment disappeared. Instead, labor would be outsourced elsewhere—into more and more precarious situations. The matsutake commodity chain linking Oregon and Japan is just one of many global outsourcing arrangements inspired by the success of Japanese capital between the 1960s and the 1980s.
Trading was among the most successful Meiji enterprises, and it became associated with rising new industries such as the production of cotton thread and textiles. Meiji-era traders saw their job as mediating between Japan and foreign economic worlds. Traders were trained through experience in foreign countries, gaining the doubled cultural agility that allowed them to negotiate across radical difference. Their work exemplifies Satsuka’s concept of “translation,” in which learning another culture both bridges and maintains difference
In contrast to twentieth-century U.S. corporate giants, these conglomerates, the zaibatsu, were coordinated by finance capital, not production: Banking and trading were central to their mission. From the first they were involved with government business (Mitsui, for example, had provided the money to overthrow the shogunate)
Soon enough, however, the American occupiers arranged for the rehabilitation of once-disgraced nationalists and rebuilt the Japanese economy as a bulwark against communism. It was in this climate that associations of banks, industrial enterprises, and specialists in trade formed again, although less formally, as keiretsu “enterprise groups.”8 At the heart of most enterprise groups was a general trading company in partnership with a bank.9 The bank transferred money to the trading company, which, in turn, made smaller loans to its associated enterprises. The bank did not have to monitor these small loans, which the trading company used to facilitate the formation of supply chains. This model is well made to stretch across national borders. Trading companies advanced loans—or equipment, technical advice, or special marketing agreements—to their supply chain partners overseas. The trading company’s job was to translate goods procured in varied cultural and economic arrangements into inventory. It is hard not to see in this arrangement the roots of the current hegemony of global supply chains, with their associated form of salvage accumulation
First, it avoided political risk. Japanese businessmen were aware of the political difficulties of Chinese Indonesians who, resented for their wealth and willingness to cooperate with the more ruthless policies of the Indonesian government, were targets in periodic riots. Japanese businessmen evaded such difficulties for themselves by advancing money to Chinese Indonesians, who made the deals with Indonesian generals and took the risks. Second, the arrangement facilitated transnational mobility. Japanese traders had already deforested the Philippines and much of Malaysian Borneo by the time they got to Indonesia. Rather than adapting to a new country, the traders could merely bring in agents willing to work with them in each location. Indeed, Filipino and Malaysian loggers, financed by Japanese traders, were ready and able to go to work in cutting down Indonesian trees. Third, supply-chain arrangements facilitated Japanese trade standards while ignoring environmental consequences. Environmentalists looking for targets could find only a grab bag of varied companies, many Indonesian; no Japanese were in the forests. Fourth, supply-chain arrangements accommodated illegal logging as a layer of subcontracting, which harvested trees protected by environmental regulations. Illegal loggers sold their logs to the larger contractors, who passed them on to Japan[…]
During Japan’s building boom in the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese imported Indonesian trees to make plywood construction molds. But no Japanese cut down Indonesian trees. Japanese general trading companies offered loans, technical assistance, and trade agreements to firms from other countries, which cut logs to Japanese specifications. This arrangement had many advantages for Japanese traders
these arrangements were emerging to see how this system developed. Some of the first postwar supply chains from Japan made use of ties with Japan’s former colony, Korea. At this time, the United States was the world’s richest country and the best destination for every country’s wares, but it had imposed a strict quota on goods imported from Japan. Historian Robert Castley tells the story of how Japan helped build South Korea’s economy to avoid U.S. quotas
According to this model, which Japanese proponents later graced with the image of “flying geese,” Korean businesses would always be one cycle of innovation behind Japan.16 But all would be flying forward, in part because Koreans could then transfer their own outdated manufacturing sectors to the poorer countries of Southeast Asia, allowing Koreans to inherit new rounds of Japanese innovation. South Korean elites were happy to benefit from Japanese capital—some of it transferred as war reparations. The resulting business networks formed models for the transnational expansion of capital in Japan, including the work of the Japanese-controlled Asian Development Bank.
Empowered by public fears of U.S. decline, a small group of activist stockholders and business school professors, who might otherwise have never gained a hearing, were allowed to dismantle American corporations.19 The activists of the 1980s “shareholders’ revolution” reacted to what they saw as the erosion of U.S. power. To regain it, they aimed to take back corporations for their owners, the stockholders, rather than leaving them in the hands of professional managers. They began to buy up corporations to strip them of assets and resell them. By the 1990s, the movement had won; the radical chic of “leveraged buyouts” became the mainstream investment strategy of “mergers and acquisitions.” As corporations rid themselves of all but their most profitable sectors, most of what had once been inside those corporations was contracted to distant suppliers. Supply chains, and thus commitment to their distinctive form of salvage accumulation, took off as the dominant form of capitalism in the United States. This worked so well for investors that by the turn of the century, U.S. business leaders had forgotten that this shift was part of a struggle for position and had recast it as the leading edge of an evolutionary process[…]
Learning from their Japanese experience, however, it never occurred to them to manufacture shoes. “We don’t know the first thing about manufacturing. We are marketers and designers,” explained one Nike vice-president.25 Instead, they contracted with the proliferating supply networks developing across Asia, making good use of the post-1985 profusion of “low-price supplier networks” mentioned above. By the early twenty-first century, the company had contracts with more than nine hundred factories, and it had become a symbol of both the excitement and the terrors of supply-chain capitalism. To speak of Nike evokes the horrors of sweatshops, on the one hand, and the pleasures of designer brands, on the other. Nike has succeeded in making this contradiction seem particularly American. But Nike’s rise from a Japanese supply chain reminds us of the pervasive legacy of Japan
In the matsutake commodity chain, then, we see the history I have been describing: Japanese traders, searching for local partners; American workers, released from the hope for regular jobs; translations across aspirations, allowing American freedom to assemble Japanese inventory. I have been arguing that the organization of the commodity chain allows us to notice this history, which otherwise might be obscured by hype about U.S. global leadership. When humble commodities are allowed to illuminate big histories, the world economy is revealed as emerging within historical conjunctures: the indeterminacies of encounter
In capitalist logics of commodification, things are torn from their lifeworlds to become objects of exchange. This is the process I am calling “alienation,” and I use the term as a potential attribute of nonhumans as well as humans. The surprising thing about the search for matsutake in Oregon is that it does not involve alienation in the relation between foragers and mushrooms. The mushrooms are indeed torn from their fungal bodies (although, as fruit, this is their goal). But instead of becoming alienated commodities, ready for conversions between money and capital, they become trophies of the hunt—even as they are sold
For generations of social analysts, kula exchange has inspired thoughts about the varied ways value is created. The amazing thing about these ornaments is that they are not particularly useful, nor tokens of general exchange, nor interesting in themselves; they have value only because of their role in kula. As gifts, they make relations and reputations; that is their value. This kind of value upsets economic common sense—and that is why it’s good to think with.
In kula, things and persons are formed together in gifts through which things are extensions of persons and persons are extensions of things. Kula valuables are known through the personal relations they make; people of note, in turn, are known through their kula gifts. Things, then, do not just have value in use and commodity exchange; they may have value through the social relationships and reputations of which they are part.3
Kula reminds us that things as well as people are alienated under capitalism. Just as in factories workers are alienated from the things they make, allowing those things to be sold without reference to their makers, so too, things are alienated from the people who make and exchange them. Things become stand-alone objects, to be used or exchanged; they bear no relation to the personal networks in which they are made and deployed
To explore how capitalism draws from noncapitalist value systems—and how these fare within capitalism—a tool for noticing difference is worth trying out. The gift-versus-commodity distinction can stand in for the absence or presence of alienation, the quality necessary to turn things into capitalist assets.
Matsutake in Japan is almost always a gift
Almost no one buys a fine matsutake just to eat. Matsutake build relationships, and as gifts they cannot be separated from these relationships. Matsutake become extensions of the person, the definitional feature of value in a gift economy
How are gifts made from commodities? And might those commodities, in turn, have been made earlier along the chain from gifts?
Individuals who buy matsutake are almost always thinking about building relationships
matsutake is an ideal gift to give to someone with whom one needs a long-term relationship. Suppliers give matsutake to the firms that give them business. One grocer commented that religious converts had begun to purchase matsutake for presentation to their spiritual leaders. Matsutake signals a serious commitment.
The grocer told me, too, that he thinks this is key to “Japanese” ways of life. “You can understand France without knowing about truffles,” he quipped, “but you can’t understand Japan without knowing matsutake.” He was referring to the relational quality of the mushroom. It wasn’t just the smell or the taste, but the ability of the mushroom to build personal ties that made it so powerful. This is where his work as a matchmaker comes in, too; he must make matsutake relational long before they are ready to be eaten
The value of matsutake then derives not just from use and commercial exchange; it is made in the act of giving. And this is possible because mediators all along the chain are already giving the quality of matsutake to their clients as a personal gift. Perhaps this personalization is reminiscent of other aristocratic goods, in other places. The gentleman wants a suit made to fit him, not one off the rack. But this parallel makes the conversion between commodity and gift even more telling. Across many sectors and cultures, mediators are poised to convert capitalist commodities into other value forms. Such middlemen are engaged in the acts of value translation through which capitalism comes to cohabit with other ways of making people and things.
in Open Ticket, mushrooms and money are as much tokens and trophies of an exchange of freedom as valuables in themselves. They gain value through their connections to freedom. They are not isolated objects to own but person-making attributes
A COLLEAGUE WHO STUDIES PEOPLE AND FORESTS IN Borneo told me the following story: The community he worked with lived in and around a great forest. A timber company came and cut down the forest. When the trees were gone, the company left, leaving a pile of disintegrating machines. The residents could no longer make a living either from the forest or from the company. They took apart the machines and sold the metal as scrap
The story, for me, encapsulates the ambivalence of salvage: On the one hand, I am full of admiration for the people who figured out how to survive despite the destruction of their forest. On the other hand, I can’t help but worry when the scrap metal will run out, and whether there will be enough other stuff in the ruins to make continuing survival possible. And while not all of us enact such a literal figuration of living in ruins, we mostly do have to work within our disorientation and distress to negotiate life in human-damaged environments. We follow salvage rhythms, whether of the market for scrap or of the entangled histories of foraging for matsutake mushrooms. By “rhythms,” I mean forms of temporal coordination. Without the singular, forward pulse of progress, the unregularized coordination of salvage is what we have.
During most of the twentieth century, many people—perhaps particularly Americans—thought that business carried forward the pulse of progress. Business was always getting bigger. It seemed to be increasing the world’s wealth. It was effectively reshaping the world according to its goals and needs, so that people could be empowered by money and things for use and commercial exchange
Thinking through salvage rhythms changes our vision. Industrial work no longer charts the future. Livelihoods are various, cobbled together, and often temporary. People come to them for diverse reasons, and only rarely because they offer the stable wages-and-benefits packages of twentieth-century dreams. I have suggested we watch patches of livelihood come into being as assemblages. Participants come with varied agendas, which do their small part in guiding world-making projects
In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements, turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended
alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their lifeworlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human.2
Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the “latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans.
an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements.
The results of the replication of DNA can be tracked at every biological scale (protein, cell, organ, organism, population, species). Biological scalability was given a mechanism, strengthening the story of thoroughly modern life—life ruled by gene expression and isolated from history. Yet DNA research has led in unexpected directions. Consider the trajectory of evolutionary developmental biology.
MUSHROOM TRACKS ARE ELUSIVE AND ENIGMATIC; following them takes me on a wild ride—trespassing every boundary. Things get even stranger when I move out of commerce into Darwin’s “entangled bank” of multiple life forms.1 Here, the biology we thought we knew stands on its head. Entanglement bursts categories and upends identities.
Many people think fungi are plants, but they are actually closer to animals. Fungi do not make their food from sunlight, as plants do. Like animals, fungi must find something to eat. Yet fungal eating is often generous: It makes worlds for others. This is because fungi have extracellular digestion. They excrete digestive acids outside their bodies to break down their food into nutrients. It’s as if they had everted stomachs, digesting food outside instead of inside their bodies. Nutrients are then absorbed into their cells, allowing the fungal body to grow—but also other species’ bodies. The reason there are plants growing on dry land
(rather than just in water) is that over the course of the earth’s history fungi have digested rocks, making nutrients available for plants. Fungi (together with bacteria) made the soil in which plants grow. Fungi also digest wood. Otherwise, dead trees would stack up in the forest forever. Fungi break them down into nutrients that can be recycled into new life. Fungi are thus world builders, shaping environments for themselves and others
Endophytic” and “endomycorrhizal” fungi live inside plants. Many do not have fruiting bodies; they gave up sex millions of years ago. We are likely never to see these fungi unless we peer inside plants with microscopes, yet most plants are thick with them. “Ectomycorrhizal” fungi wrap themselves around the outsides of roots as well as penetrating between their cells. Many of the favorite mushrooms of people around the world—porcini, chanterelles, truffles, and, indeed, matsutake—are the fruiting bodies of ectomycorrhizal plant associates.
Mycorrhizas form an infrastructure of interspecies interconnection, carrying information across the forest. They also have some of the characteristics of a highway system. Soil microbes that would otherwise stay in the same place are able to travel in the channels and linkages of mycorrhizal interconnection. Some of these microbes are important for environmental remediation.5 Mycorrhizal networks allow forests to respond to threats.
The discovery of the stability and self-replicating properties of DNA in the 1950s was the jewel in the crown of the modern synthesis—but also the opening to its undoing
In studying development, however, researchers could not avoid the history of encounters between an organism and its environment. They found themselves in conversation with ecologists, and suddenly they realized they had evidence for a type of evolution that had not been expected by the modern synthesis. In contrast to the modern orthodoxy, they found that many kinds of environmental effects could be passed on to offspring, through a variety of mechanisms, some affecting gene expression and others influencing the frequency of mutations or the dominance of varietal forms
One of their most surprising findings was that many organisms develop only through interactions with other species. A tiny Hawaiian squid, Euprymna scolopes, has become a model for thinking about this process.7 The “bob-tailed squid” is known for its light organ, through which it mimics moonlight, hiding its shadow from predators. But juvenile squid do not develop this organ unless they come into contact with one particular species of bacteria, Vibrio fischeri. The squid are not born with these bacteria; they must encounter them in the seawater. Without them, the light organ never develops. But perhaps you think light organs are superfluous. Consider the parasitic wasp Asobara tabida. Females are completely unable to produce eggs without bacteria of the genus Wolbachia.8 Meanwhile, larvae of the Large Blue butterfly Maculinea arion are unable to survive without being taken in by an ant colony.9 Even we proudly independent humans are unable to digest our food without helpful bacteria, first gained as we slide out of the birth canal
As biologist Scott Gilbert and his colleagues write, “Almost all development may be codevelopment. By codevelopment we refer to the ability of the cells of one species to assist the normal construction of the body of another species.”11 This insight changes the unit of evolution. Some biologists have begun to speak of the “hologenome theory of evolution,” referring to the complex of organisms and their symbionts as an evolutionary unit: the “holobiont.”12
Gilbert and his colleagues use the term “symbiopoiesis,” the codevelopment of the holobiont. The term contrasts their findings with an earlier focus on life as internally self-organizing systems, self-formed through “autopoiesis.” “More and more,” they write, “symbiosis appears to be the ‘rule,’ not the exception…. Nature may be selecting ‘relationships’ rather than individuals or genomes.”14
Fungi are ideal guides. Fungi have always been recalcitrant to the iron cage of self-replication. Like bacteria, some are given to exchanging genes in nonreproductive encounters (“horizontal gene transfer”); many also seem averse to keeping their genetic material sorted out as “individuals” and “species,” not to speak of “populations.”
Working with forest managers in Japan changed how I thought about the role of disturbance in forests. Deliberate disturbance to revitalize forests surprised me. Kato-san was not planting a garden. The forest he hoped for would have to grow itself. But he wanted to help it along by creating a certain kind of mess: a mess that would advantage pine.
Today, the most valuable product of the satoyama woodland is matsutake. To restore woodlands for matsutake encourages a suite of other living things: pines and oaks, understory herbs, insects, birds. Restoration requires disturbance—but disturbance to enhance diversity and the healthy functioning of ecosystems. Some kinds of ecosystems, advocates argue, flourish with human activities.
What distinguishes satoyama revitalization, for me, is the idea that human activities should be part of the forest in the same way as nonhuman activities. Humans, pines, matsutake, and other species should all make the landscape together, in this project. One Japanese scientist explained matsutake as the result of “unintentional cultivation,” because human disturbance makes the presence of matsutake more likely—despite the fact that humans are entirely incapable of cultivating the mushroom. Indeed, one could say that pines, matsutake, and humans all cultivate each other unintentionally
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. Matsutake and pine don’t just grow in forests; they make forests. Matsutake forests are gatherings that build and transform landscapes
As an analytic tool, disturbance requires awareness of the observer’s perspective—just as with the best tools in social theory. Deciding what counts as disturbance is always a matter of point of view
A major reason for the current rarity of matsutake in Japan is the demise of pines that results from the habits of pine wilt nematodes. Just as whalers catch whales, pine wilt nematodes catch pines and kill them and their fungal companions. Still, nematodes were not always involved in this way of making a living. Just as for whalers and whales, nematodes become killers of pines only through the contingencies of circumstance and history. Their voyage into Japanese history is as extraordinary as the webs of coordination they weave.
Pine wilt nematodes are only minor pests for American pines, which evolved with them. These nematodes became tree killers only when they traveled to Asia, where pines were unprepared and vulnerable. Amazingly, ecologists have traced this process rather precisely. The first nematodes disembarked at Japan’s Nagasaki harbor from the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, riding in American pine.7 Timber was a resource for industrializing Japan, where elites were hungry for resources from around the world
the unfortunate wall we have built between concepts and stories.
For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do.
The new alliance I propose is based on commitments to observation and fieldwork—and what I call noticing
Human-disturbed landscapes are ideal spaces for humanist and naturalist noticing
Disturbance is a change in environmental conditions that causes a pronounced change in an ecosystem. Floods and fires are forms of disturbance; humans and other living things can also cause disturbance. Disturbance can renew ecologies as well as destroy them. How terrible a disturbance is depends on many things, including scale. Some disturbances are small: a tree falls in the forest, creating a light gap. Some are huge: a tsunami knocks open a nuclear power plant. Scales of time also matter: short-term damage may be followed by exuberant regrowth. Disturbance opens the terrain for transformative encounters, making new landscape assemblages possible
Species are not always the right units for telling the life of the forest. The term “multispecies” is only a stand-in for moving beyond human exceptionalism. Sometimes individual organisms make drastic interventions. And sometimes much larger units are more able to show us historical action.
The lines have blurred. A natural forest in northern Finland looks a lot like an industrial tree plantation. The trees have become a modern resource, and the way to manage a resource is to stop its autonomous historical action. As long as trees make history, they threaten industrial governance. Cleaning the forest is part of the work of stopping this history. But since when do trees make history?
“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes
History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human.
If you ever wanted to be impressed by the historical force of plants, you might do well to start with pines. Pines are among the most active trees on earth. If you bulldoze a road through a forest, pine seedlings will likely spring up on its raw shoulders. If you abandon a field, pines will be the first trees to colonize it. When a volcano erupts, or a glacier moves back, or the wind and sea pile sand, pines may be among the first to find a foothold
Pines live in extreme environments because of the help they get from mycorrhizal fungi. Fossils have been found from 50 million years ago that show root associations between pines and fungi; pines have evolved with fungi.8 Where no organic soil is available, fungi mobilize nutrients from rocks and sand, making it possible for pines to grow. Besides providing nutrients, mycorrhizas protect pines from harmful metals and other, root-eating, fungi. In return, pines support mycorrhizal fungi. Even the anatomy of pine roots has been formed in association with fungi. Pines put out “short roots,” which become the site of mycorrhizal association
Humans spread pines in two different ways: by planting them, and by creating the kinds of disturbances in which they take hold. The latter generally occurs without any conscious intent; pines like some of the kinds of messes humans make without trying. Pines colonize abandoned fields and eroded hillsides. When humans cut down the other trees, pines move in. Sometimes planting and disturbance go together.
In some of its most extreme environments, pine wants not just any fungal partner, but matsutake. Matsutake secretes strong acids that break down rock and sand, releasing nutrients for the mutual growth of pine and fungus.11 In the harsh landscapes where matsutake and pine grow together, there are often few other fungi to be found. Besides, matsutake forms a dense mat of fungal filaments, excluding other fungi and many soil bacteria. Japanese farmers and, following them, scientists call this mat shiro, a “castle,” and thinking of matsutake’s castle allows us to imagine its wards and guards.12 Its defense is also offense. The mat is water-repellent, allowing the fungus to concentrate the acids it needs to break down rock.13 Together turning rock into food, matsutake-pine alliances stake out places with little organic soil.
Humans and pines (with their mycorrhizal allies) have about the same length of history in Finland: as soon as the glaciers retreated, some nine thousand years ago, both humans and pines started coming.14 From a human point of view, that was a long time ago, hardly worth remembering. Thinking in terms of forests, however, the time line from the end of the Ice Age is still short. In this clash of perspectives, we see the contradictions of forest management: Finnish foresters have come to relate to forests as stable, cyclical, and renewable, yet the forests are open-ended and historically dynamic.
In 2007, a nature guide in Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, claims to have personally found one thousand kilograms of matsutake. He heaped it up in great pyramids or left it lying on the ground. The next year, he found nothing, and the following year only one or two caps. This fruiting habit resembles what for trees is called “masting,” in which trees allocate resources for fruiting only sporadically—but then, triggered by long-term cycles and environmental cues, fruit massively and all together across an area.26 Masting refers to more than tracking weather changes from year to year; it requires multiyear strategic planning so that carbohydrates stored up one year might be expended in later fruiting. Furthermore, mast fruiting occurs in trees with mycorrhizal partners; the storage and expenditure necessary for masting appears to be coordinated between trees and their fungi. Fungi store carbohydrates for the future fruiting of trees. Might trees also accommodate the uneven fruiting of fungi? I know of no research that tracks how fungal fruiting is coordinated with tree masting, but there is an enticing mystery here. Might the boom-and-bust fruiting of matsutake tell us about the historicity of pine forests[…]
Most mushrooms in Finland are picked in privately owned forests. However, many people besides the owners have access to those mushrooms. Pickers are allowed access to private forests under ancient common law, jokamiehenoikeus, translated into English as “everyman’s rights.” As long as one does not disturb residents, the forest is open for hiking and picking. Similarly, state forests are open to pickers. This expands the terrain in which foragers get to know mushrooms.
Japanese researchers suggest that matsutake fruits best—at least in central Japan—with forty- to eighty-year-old pines.28
Unlike premodern European peasants, premodern peasants in Japan did not raise milk or meat animals, and so they could not fertilize their fields with manure as Europeans did. Gathering plants and forest duff for green manure was a major occupation of peasant life. Everything on the forest floor was taken, leaving it cleared to the bare mineral soils favored by pine. Some areas were opened up to favor grass. The pillars of this disturbed forest were coppiced oaks; the most common was Quercus serrata, known as konara. Oak wood was useful for all kinds of things, from firewood to growing cultivated shiitake mushrooms. Periodic coppicing kept the oak trunk and branches young, allowing oaks to dominate the forest, as they grew back faster than other species could become established. On ridges, in open meadows, and on denuded hillsides grew akamatsu red pine, Pinus densiflora, with its partner matsutake. Japanese red pine is a creature of peasant disturbance
We might think of this as resilience, or as ecological remediation, and I find these concepts useful. But what if we pushed even further by thinking through resurgence? Resurgence is the force of the life of the forest, its ability to spread its seeds and roots and runners to reclaim places that have been deforested. Glaciers, volcanoes, and fires have been some of the challenges forests have answered with resurgence. Human insults too have been met with resurgence. For several millennia now, human deforestation and forest resurgence have responded to each other. In the contemporary world, we know how to block resurgence. But this hardly seems a good enough reason to stop noticing its possibilities.
satoyama revitalization projects make human disturbance look good in allowing for the continual resurgence of ever-young forest. Satoyama projects reconstitute peasant disturbance to teach modern citizens to live within an active nature. This is not the only kind of forest I want to see on earth, but it is an important kind: a forest within which human household-scale livelihoods thrive
Here resurgence follows blasting: The resilience of pine-and-oak woodlands remediates the excesses of human-caused deforestation, regenerating the more-than-human peasant landscape.
Oaks and peasants have long histories in many parts of the world. Oak is useful. Above and beyond its strength as a building material, oak (unlike pine) takes its smooth time in burning; it makes some of the best firewood and charcoal. Better yet, felled oaks (unlike pines) tend not to die; they sprout back from roots and stumps to form new trees. The peasant practice of felling trees in the expectation that they will grow back from their stumps is called “coppicing,” and coppiced oak woodlands are exemplary peasant forests.3 Coppiced trees are ever young and quick growing even as they live for a long time. They outcompete new seedlings, thus stabilizing the forest’s composition. Since coppice woods are open and bright, they sometimes find room for pines. Pines (with their fungi) colonize denuded spaces, and thus they also take up other parts of the continuum of peasant disturbance. Yet without human disturbance, pine may give way to oak and other broadleaf trees. It is this pine-oak-human interaction that gives the peasant forest its integrity: As the quick growth of pine on repeatedly human-denuded hillsides yields to long-living stands of coppiced oak, forest[…]
Yet history is always at work, both generating the terrarium and undermining it
Grey-faced Buzzards have adapted their migration patterns to the Japanese peasant landscape. Meanwhile, all their foods are equally dependent on this disturbance regime. Without maintenance of the irrigation system, the frog population declines.6 And so many insects have evolved just to live with peasant trees! Konara oak (Quercus serrata) has at least eighty-five specialist butterflies that depend on it as food. One colorful butterfly, Sasakia charonda, requires the sap of young oaks—kept young by peasant coppicing; when coppicing is not maintained, the oaks grow old, and the butterfly declines.
The sustainability of nature, he said, never just falls into place; it must be brought out through that human work that also brings out our humanity. Peasant landscapes, he explained, are the proving grounds for remaking sustainable relations between humans and nature.
Sugi, called “cedar” but actually a distinctive Cryptomeria, grows straight and tall like a California redwood, producing a glorious, decay-resistant wood for boards, paneling, posts, and pillars. Hinoki, Japanese cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), is even more impressive. The wood is sweetly scented and can be planed to a beautiful texture. It resists rot. It is the perfect wood for temples. Both hinoki and sugi can grow to enormous sizes, allowing awe-inspiring posts and boards. No wonder that Japan’s early rulers did their best to cut down all the sugi and hinoki in the forest for their palaces and shrines.
Iriai rights are common-land rights shared by villagers, allowing enrolled households to gather firewood, make charcoal, and use all the products of village lands. In contrast to common forest rights in many other places, iriai rights in Japan were codified and enforceable in courts of law
iriai can operate as a layer of use rights on land owned by others
In central Yunnan, in southwest China, peasant forests are not nostalgic reconstructions but are actively used by peasants. They are not considered objects of ideal beauty but disasters that need to be cleaned up. They do not look like reconstructions. They are messy at best, and sometimes provocatively so. This is the peasant landscape in motion, not recreated through nostalgia. Despite its offending disorder, in many ways this ever-young and open forest has a striking resemblance to central Japan’s peasant woods. Although the species are different, coppiced oak and pine form the forest’s architecture.15 Yunnan matsutake has different proclivities than its Japanese sibling: it grows with oaks as well as pines. But this makes the peasant-oak-pine-matsutake complex even more evident. Perhaps here, too, it is great cataclysms rather than only peasant ingenuity that allowed this forest resurgence
The messy peasant forest does little to satisfy foreign conservationists, who have flocked to Yunnan to save endangered nature, and they are quick to blame the excesses of communism for deviations from their wilderness dreams. Young Chinese scholars and students follow the foreign lead. More than one young city person told me that Yunnan’s hills were deforested by Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution, although this story seems unlikely. The Cultural Revolution is an easy scapegoat for everything that seems wrong. To attribute forest damage to this period mainly indicates that the faults of this young and open forest are easy for everyone to see. It is in this context that it seems striking to note similarities between peasant forests in central Yunnan and central Honshu, Japan. Perhaps Japan’s oak-pine forests, in their prime, were less aesthetically and ecologically perfect than they are imagined by advocates now. Perhaps Yunnan’s oak-pine forests are better than critics imagine. Those eroded hillsides are the site of a lively regeneration in which oak, pine, and matsutake have a good thing going—not just for peasants but also for many kinds of life.
Although historians rush to differentiate the modernization achieved by Japan’s Meiji Restoration and the failures of China’s Great Leap Forward, from the perspective of a tree, there may not have been much difference. If peasant forests are viewed differently in each context, it may be in part be contrast between close and distant, and forward- and backward-looking views.
Small eddies of interlocking lives within great rivers of disturbance
the 1970s, replanting after cutting became standard practice. Aerial spraying against “weeds” was also used in some areas.13 As one eastern Cascade forester recalled, in the vision of that period, “Forests of the future would be dominated by a mosaic of 25 to 40 acre even-aged stands of healthy and intensively managed young-growth.”14 What went wrong with the postwar vision? Ponderosa was increasingly logged out, and it did not grow back, at least not readily. It was missing fire. The great ponderosas in their open parks had emerged together with Native American fire regimes, in which frequent burning of the underbrush encouraged browse for deer and berries for fall picking. Fire burned out competing conifer species while allowing the ponderosas to thrive. But whites drove out Native Americans in a series of wars and relocations. The Forest Service stopped not only their fires but all fires. Without fire, flammable species such as white fir and lodgepole grew up under the ponderosas. When the ponderosas were removed through logging, these other species took over. The open character of the landscape disappeared as small trees grew in. Pure stands of ponderosa became rare. The landscape looked less[…]
Critics describe the eastern Cascades forest as “festering sores on the back of a mangy old dog,”and even its foresters admit that management has been a series of mistakes. Yet for pickers, this forest is “ground zero.” In the contingency of error, sometimes mushrooms pop.
neither wilderness nor civilization
Social scientists often stress the bureaucratic assertiveness of the U.S. Forest Service. Yet the foresters I met in the eastern Cascades were humble in their explanations of forest management. Their programs, they said, were a series of experiments, and most all of them had failed
Matsutake grows with many host trees in Oregon. In the wet, mixed conifer forests found at high altitudes, matsutake is abundant with Shasta red fir, mountain hemlock, and sugar pine. On western Cascade slopes, it is sometimes found with Douglas fir; on the Oregon coast, matsutake grows with tanoak. On the dry eastern slopes of the Cascades, matsutake lives with ponderosa pines. In each of these sites, there are other fungi. Where the relationship between tree and fungus starts to get exclusive is the lodgepole pine forests. Foraging in lodgepole, one only occasionally spots another mushroom species. This is not a sure sign of lack of underground diversity: many fungi rarely send up fruiting bodies. Still, it seems clear that an especially intimate companionship has formed between matsutake and lodgepole in the eastern Cascades
The mix of public and private land shaped the timing of logging. Before World War II, timber companies pressured the government to keep national forests closed, to keep prices high. By the end of the war, private lands were depleted, and the same voices then called for opening the national forests. Only this, they said, could keep the mills open, preventing unemployment and national wood shortages. Afterward, national forests increasingly bore the brunt of logging
The Klamath Tribes were by every measure not only no burden, but a significant contributor to the local economy. Their strength and wealth were, however, no match for determined efforts of the federal government to eradicate their culture and acquire their most valuable natural resources—a million acres of land and ponderosa pine. The stage was set for the dispossession of the Klamaths in the early 1950s when the Tribe was subjected to the worst of many disastrous experiments in federal-Indian policy—termination.
Fungi are choosy about forest succession. Some are quick to establish themselves with new trees, while others let the forest mature before they take hold. Matsutake seems to be a mid-successional fungus. In Japan, research suggests that matsutake first begin to produce fruiting bodies in pine forests after forty years.23 Fruiting continues for more than forty years thereafter.24 No one has gathered clear data on this issue in Oregon, but foragers and foresters agree: matsutake does not fruit with young trees. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, pine plantations established in the 1970s and 1980s did not yet produce matsutake. In naturally regenerating forest, perhaps only forty-to-fifty-year-old trees begin to support matsutake fruiting
But forty-to-fifty-year-old lodgepole might not even exist except for Forest Service fire exclusion. The budding presence of matsutake mushrooms, their mycelia entwined with lodgepole roots, is an unintended consequence of the most famous Forest Service mistake in the interior forests of the American West: the exclusion of fire.
Without the dominance of big timber money, foresters have increasingly seen their job as one of balancing various interests—among different forest users (e.g., wildlife vs. loggers), among different forestry approaches (e.g., sustainable yield vs. sustainable ecosystem services), and among different patch ecologies (e.g., even- vs. uneven-aged management). Missing a singular path to progress, they juggle alternatives.
Given that a major government bureaucracy faces off here with rather powerless forest foragers, it is amazing to me that foresters listen to such complaints at all. Perhaps it is a sign of the newly equivocal Forest Service. In any case, something extraordinary happened during the matsutake season of 2008: one Forest District decided to officially experiment with lodgepole management for matsutake. What this meant was not thinning, even where other Forest Service mandates, such as fire protection, would warrant thinning. At least for a moment, matsutake had entered the Forest Service imagination, and its pact with lodgepole was noticed. To appreciate how strange this is, consider that no other nontimber forest product has attained the status of a management objective, at least in this part of the country. In a bureaucracy that sees only trees, a mushroom companion has made a splash appearance.
THE MATSUTAKE FORESTS OF JAPAN AND OREGON ARE different in almost every possible way except one: they would probably be converted to more profitable industrial forests if the price of timber were higher
Precarity is a globally coordinated phenomenon, and yet it does not follow unified global force fields. To know the world that progress has left to us, we must track shifting patches of ruination.
Because its goals were to manage forests for states, modern forestry took hold in relation to peculiarities of state making. Early-twentieth-century Japan and the United States had different state-making styles. Yet in both countries, for different reasons, state foresters were concerned with how to work with private interests. In the United States, corporations were already then more powerful than any state bureaucracy; foresters could only propose rules with which at least some timber barons agreed.7 In Japan, Meiji-era reforms deeded more than half of the forest to small private owners. State standards of forestry were relayed and negotiated with forest owners through forest associations.8 Despite these differences, in both countries, fire exclusion became the connecting point between public and private interests in the forest. Within divergent forest histories, common ground emerged.
Oregon’s matsutake forests, then, also owe their flourishing to the low price of global timber. Matsutake forests in Oregon and central Japan are joined in their common dependence on the making of industrial forest ruin.
Perhaps you imagine that I am trying to dress up this ruin or to make lemonade from lemons. Not at all. What engages me is the wholesale, interconnected, and seemingly unstoppable ruination of forests across the world such that even the most geographically, biologically, and culturally disparate forests are still linked in a chain of destruction. It is not just forests that disappear that are affected, as in Southeast Asia, but also the forests that manage to remain standing. If all our forests are buffeted by such winds of destruction, whether capitalists find them desirable or throw them aside, we have the challenge of living in that ruin, ugly and impossible as it is.
AS WITH CAPITALISM, IT IS USEFUL TO CONSIDER science a translation machine. It is machinic because a phalanx of teachers, technicians, and peer reviewers stands ready to chop off excess parts and to hammer those that remain into their proper places. It is translational because its insights are drawn from diverse ways of life. Most scholars have studied the translational features of science only as they contribute to the machinic ones.1 Translation helps them watch the elements of science come together into a unified system of knowledge and practice. There has been less attention to the messy process of translation as jarring juxtaposition and miscommunication. In part this is because science studies has only too rarely been willing to stray outside of that imagined entity, the West. Science studies needs postcolonial theory to extend itself beyond the common sense of this self-imposed box. In postcolonial theory, translation shows us misfits as well as joins
Modern matsutake science began in Japan in the early twentieth century; after World War II its champion was Kyoto University’s Minoru Hamada.8 Dr. Hamada saw how matsutake could enlarge science through its position at key intersections between applied and basic research—and between vernacular and expert knowledge. Matsutake’s economic value generated government and private support; it also opened barely explored biological research trajectories involving interspecies interactions
Thinking of matsutake in relation to the decline of satoyama led the researchers of this school to emphasize matsutake’s relationality, not only with other species but also with the nonliving environment.13 Researchers investigated the plants, slopes, soils, light, bacteria, and other fungi in matsutake environments. Matsutake is never seen as self-contained, but always in relation—and thus site specific. To promote matsutake, these researchers advise attention to the site—and to a regime of human disturbance to favor pine. In neglected forests, more disturbance is needed. One pair of researchers called this the “orchard method.”14 Through favoring pine, matsutake becomes a hoped-for weed.
What was the block? One Pacific Northwest researcher told me that Japanese studies are not very useful because they are “descriptive.” In untangling what “descriptive” might mean, and what is wrong with it, the cultural and historical specificity of U.S. forestry research comes into focus. Descriptive means site-specific, that is, attuned to indeterminate encounters and thus nonscalable. U.S. forestry researchers are under pressure to develop analyses compatible with the scalable management of timber trees. This requires that matsutake studies scale up to timber. Site selection in Japanese research follows patches of fungal growth, not timber grids.
One of the key questions of U.S. matsutake research concerns pickers: Are pickers destroying their resource? This question draws from U.S. forestry history, with its central query: Are loggers destroying their resource? This legacy suggested research on pickers’ techniques. As with loggers, the point of impact is imagined as the harvest. Studies have found that raking the ground lessens future mushroom production; if mushrooms are gently removed, future production is unharmed.23 Pickers must be trained to harvest properly. The effect of other forms of human disturbance on mushroom harvests—e.g., thinning, fire suppression, or silviculture—has not been studied; it does not jump to the minds of researchers worried about overharvesting. This is U.S. sustainability: a defense against greed-based popular destruction.
In contrast to Japan, in the U.S. foresters are concerned about dangerous human disturbance. Too much, not too little human activity destroys the forest. By chance, “raking” is symbolic of disturbance in both sciences—but with opposite valences. Raking destroys matsutake forests in the U.S. by disturbing underground fungal bodies. Raking makes productive matsutake forests in Japan by uncovering mineral soil for pine
Despite the hegemony of American frameworks among scientists, there are audiences for Japanese matsutake research in Yunnan. Matsutake export businesses have ties to Japan because that is where the mushrooms go. Furthermore, Japanese science explores how humans can manage forests to increase the yield of matsutake mushrooms. In contrast, Americans explore how the mushroom harvest should be regulated to keep harvesters from destroying their resource. Japanese forest management promises more mushrooms for the market; American science promises fewer. Yunnan matsutake businesses have reason to prefer the Japanese paradigm. When a prominent Japanese scientist had his book on matsutake management translated into Chinese, it was the matsutake business association in Yunnan, not the scientists, who translated it, and even after its translation, the scientists did not know about it
the first international matsutake studies conference held in Kunming in September 2011
Most of the Chinese participants hoped to promote Chinese matsutake, and so they spoke of cultural values, new processing techniques, and efforts by the government to protect the mushroom. The Japanese participants, in contrast, were excited by the opportunity to see non-Japanese varieties of matsutake, which might have better potential for cultivation. (Some Chinese objected; they didn’t want to be data.) The North Koreans begged for copies of international scientific articles, blocked to them at home. And dancing around this were the North American anthropologists, with our metacommentary on science and society.
Both in forests and in science, spores open our imaginations to another cosmopolitan topology. Spores take off toward unknown destinations, mate across types, and, at least occasionally, give rise to new organisms—a beginning for new kinds. Spores are hard to pin down; that is their grace. In thinking about landscapes, spores guide us to in-population heterogeneity. In thinking about science, spores model open-ended communication and excess: the pleasures of speculation. Why spores?
Dr. Murata had been studying the genetics of matsutake populations. It was a painstaking process, since matsutake is not an easy research subject. Figuring out how to get spores to germinate was itself a problem; they germinated, he found, in the presence of other matsutake parts, for example, mushroom gills. This suggested that spores might germinate best on living shiros, that is, mycelial mats, including that of the parental body that gave rise to the mushroom.18 And what happened then, when they germinated? This is where his research revealed something wondrous. Matsutake spores are haploid, that is, bearing only one series of chromosomes, rather than paired sets. We might expect them to mate with other haploid spores, thus making full pairs; they do. Human eggs and sperm join that way. But matsutake spores are capable of something else. They can join with body cells that already have chromosomal pairs. This is called “di-mon” mating, from the prefixes for “two”—the number of chromosome copies in fungal body cells—and “one”—the number in the germinating spore.19 It’s as if I decided to mate with (not clone) my own arm: how queer. The spore brings new genetic[…]
Many species that used to be seen as uniformly found across the global north turn out to be different species
DNA sequencing, which offers a new way to define “species.” Mycologists examine particular DNA sequences—e.g., the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region—that tend to be conserved within species but show variations across them. Jean-Marc Moncalvo, Dr. Knudsen’s counterpart at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, explained that more than a 5 percent divergence in the ITS sequence indicates a new species.4 DNA sequencing does not reject the materials and methods of herbaria; most comparisons across species use herbarium samples. But there is a new material here in circulation: the DNA sequences themselves. Databases have made it possible for scientists around the world to consult DNA sequenced by others. The simple precision of DNA sequencing has taken the scientific world by storm: there are no alternatives. It seems so powerful that scientists keep making up questions based on the availability of this answer.
Species has always been a slippery concept, and DNA sequencing—despite its precision—has not made it easier to handle
Classically, species boundaries were defined by the inability of individuals on each side to mate and produce fertile offspring. That’s easy enough to figure for horses and donkeys. (They mate but do not produce fertile offspring.) But what about fungi?
All this matters in getting to know matsutake across its diasporic locations. Twenty years ago, there were many, many species of matsutake scattered around the northern hemisphere, with more emerging constantly as scientists found them. Now there are just a few—and growing fewer. This is not because of extinction. DNA sequencing in the ITS region has allowed scientists to argue that most of those kinds of matsutake are really just one kind: Tricholoma matsutake. T. matsutake now appears to spread across most of the northern hemisphere, not just across Eurasia but into North and Central America. Only Tricholoma magnivelare, the matsutake of the North American Pacific Northwest, is continuing to stand clearly as a separate species, and even it is very close, in its DNA signature, to T. matsutake.5
In Japan, matsutake are associated with pines; only false matsutake are found with broadleafs. The association between matsutake and conifers seemed part of its species definition. DNA studies showing the close relation between China’s oak-loving matsutake and Japan’s exclusively pine-loving ones caught researchers by surprise. Dr. Suzuki brought his younger colleague from Tokyo University, Dr. Matsushita, to our meeting to tell me the news himself: His examination of the ITS sequence had shown no species difference between oak and pine lovers.7 But Dr. Suzuki, who had worked with matsutake for many years, did not accept this finding as the whole story. “It depends on what question you ask,” he explained
He told me about Armillaria root rot, a complex of species in which clear species boundaries may not be relevant. Armillaria root rot spreads across whole forests, stimulating boasts of “the largest organism in the world.” Differentiating “individuals” becomes difficult, as these individuals contain many genetic signatures, helping the fungus adapt to new environmental situations.8 Species are open-ended when even individuals are so molten, so long-lived, and so unwilling to draw lines of reproductive isolation. “Armillaria root rot is fifty species in one species,” he said; “it depends on what you are dividing species for.”
Ignatio Chapela, a forest pathologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was even more adamant that the idea of “species” limits the stories we can tell about kinds. “This binomial system of naming things is kind of quaint, but it is a complete artifact,” he told me. “You define things with two words and they become an archetypal species. In fungi, we have no idea what a species is. No idea…. A species is a group of organisms that potentially can exchange genetic material, have sex. That applies to organisms that reproduce sexually. So already in plants, where out of a clone you can have change as time goes by, you have problems with species…. You move out of vertebrates to the cnidarians, corals, and worms, and the exchange of DNA, and the way groups are made, are very different from us…. You go to fungi or bacteria, and the systems are completely different—completely crazy by our standards. A long-lived clone can all of a sudden go sexual: you can have hybridization in which whole big chunks of chromosomes are brought in; you have polyploidization or duplication of chromosomes, where a completely new thing comes out; you[…]
Nobody will be the same as this, but you compare and see how close they are to this ideal…. If it becomes too different—by whatever measure, and the measures are completely arbitrary—you say, ‘oh this must be a different species.’” To avoid a false “scientific cover,” he speaks of “matsutakes” as all the varied kinds that enter the Japanese trade. His study did, however, find distinct genetic groupings by region. That means, he said, that genetic materials are not freely exchanged across those regions. “If you see good patterning, if you see good separation, that tells you that there is not much exchange between these groups.” These data show that cross-regional exchange of spores is unlikely on a regular basis.
Many new species came into being with the rise of the Himalayas, which forcefully threw old kinds into new environments, stimulating difference. At the time of Chapela and Garbelotto’s research, the evidence of host differentiation among matsutake in southwest China was not readily available, at least in California. It turns out that Chinese matsutake associate not just with conifers but with Quercus as well as Castanopsis and Lithocarpus, which find their center of species diversity in the Himalayas. (Dr. Yamanaka reminds me that the major broadleaf host of North America’s T. magnivelare is tanoak, the only non-Asian Lithocarpus.12 Might this be a clue?) Dr. Yamanaka found matsutake shiro in China associating with both conifer and broadleaf hosts. He argues for Himalayan origins, based in part on the sheer variety of mycorrhizal arrangements in that area. Diversity is often a sign of time in place
It’s the ecosystem that moves; it’s not the fungus that moves.
It’s the ecosystem that moves: No wonder humans move so many other species without meaning to; we create new ecosystems all the time
The ITS region of fungal DNA is fine for studying big blocks of regional difference, but it is useless to study local populations. There, a completely different clump of DNA is needed to judge the variations that separate one group from another. Dr. Xu has found that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) are good for population-level differentiations.14 With this tool, he studied matsutake populations in China, finding little genetic difference between oak- and pine-loving matsutake but a significant geographic separation across sampled regions. Most important, perhaps, this separation added evidence that sexual reproduction is important in matsutake populations. Spores rise again.
For matsutake, however, the evidence suggests that sexual spores are important. This is investigated by examining the genetic composition of clonal patches: Are they mutating independently or exchanging genetic materials? For example, do you find more genetic diversity in older forests rather than in younger ones, where you would expect a “founder effect” rather than free spore dispersal? For matsutake, the answer to this last question is yes; spores appear to be exchanged among patches of mycelial growth.15 However, landscape features can block the exchange of spores; researchers found that ridges, for example, block genetic exchange among matsutake populations
Dr. Murata explains that he was able to ask these questions because of his unusual background for a mycologist: He was originally trained in bacteriology. Most mycologists come from botany, where they see one organism at a time, or ecology, where they see interactions across organisms. But bacteria are too small to care about one at a time; we know them in patterns and masses. As a bacteriologist, he knew about “quorum sensing,” the ability of each bacterium to chemically sense the presence of others and to behave differently en masse. From his very first studies of fungi he found quorum sensing there: in fungal mosaics, each cell line can sense the others, forming mushrooms in unison. By examining fungi differently, a new object came into sight: the genetically diverse fungal body, the mosaic
Searching has a rhythm, both impassioned and still. Pickers describe their eagerness to get into the forest as a “fever.” Sometimes, they say, they didn’t plan to go, but the fever catches you. In the heat of the fever, one picks in the rain or snow, even at night with lights. One gets up before dawn to be there first, lest others find the mushrooms. Yet no one can find a mushroom by hurrying through the forest: “slow down,” I was constantly advised. Inexperienced pickers miss most of the mushrooms by moving too fast, for only careful observation reveals those gentle heaves. Calm but fevered, impassioned but still: the picker’s rhythm condenses this tension in a poised alertness.
Matsutake is unlikely to be found in fertile, well-watered places; other fungi will grow there. If there are dwarf huckleberries, the ground is probably too wet. If heavy machinery has been through, this spells death for the fungus. If animals have left droppings and tracks, this is a place to look. If moisture has found a place to hide next to a rock or a log, this too is good
mushrooms re-inserts the ill and the widowed into the communal landscape. Sometimes, however, memory fails, and then, for better or worse, all the world becomes mushrooms
For Moei Lin and Fam Tsoi, matsutake picking is both a livelihood and a vacation. Every matsutake season since the mid-1990s, they have made their way with their husbands from Redding, California, to the central Cascades; on weekends their children and grandchildren sometimes join them. When the season is over, Moei Lin’s husband stacks crates at Wal-Mart; Fam Tsoi’s husband drives a school bus. In a good year, matsutake picking is a better living than either of these alternatives. Still, they look forward to the season for multiple reasons, including the exercise and the fresh air. The women, in particular, feel released from the confinement of the cities. The neighborly shelters of their Mien encampment are the nearest they have come, in the United States, to a village in upland Laos. Mien mushroom camps are full of the bustle of village life
We follow the tracks of earlier harvesters, touching their remains. Because matsutake, anchored to trees, come up again in the same spots, this is a surprisingly productive strategy. We align ourselves with invisible pickers who have gone before us but left us traces of their activity lines.
The ground where Moei Lin and Fam Tsoi pick is not the sculpted moss and lichen carpet of Hiro’s special valley. In the volcanic high desert of the eastern Cascades, the ground is dry; the trees are windblown, sickly, and sometimes sparse. Fallen trees litter the ground, their uprooted butts blocking passage. Waves of logging and Forest Service “treatments” have left a trail of stumps and roads and broken earth. It seems strange to argue that pickers are among the worst threats to the forest. Still, their tracks are there. For Moei Lin and Fam Tsoi, this is an advantage
“Cambodian people don’t come to meetings,” he quips privately, “since they think someone might get killed.”
Meetings among pickers and with the Forest Service take place because of the legacy of Beverly Brown, a tireless organizer who decided to listen to the precarious workers of the northwest forest, including mushroom pickers.1 Brown brought pickers together through a practice of translation that, rather than resolving difference, allowed difference to disturb too-easy resolution, encouraging creative listening. Listening was Brown’s starting point for political work. She had begun not with languages but with gaps across city and countryside. As she explains in a memoir recorded before her death, Brown grew up knowing that urban elites never listened to rural folks—and that she was determined to do something about this.2 She began by listening to disenfranchised loggers and other rural whites.3 But thus she was introduced to the commercial foragers who collect mushrooms, berries, and floral greens. These folks were more diverse than the loggers. Her work grew ever more ambitious as she set up scenes for listening across greater gulfs
Now what? Brown’s political listening addresses this. It suggests that any gathering contains many inchoate political futures and that political work consists of helping some of those come into being. Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas.
Latent commons are not exclusive human enclaves. Opening the commons to other beings shifts everything. Once we include pests and diseases, we can’t hope for harmony; the lion will not lie down with the lamb. And organisms don’t just eat each other; they also make divergent ecologies. Latent commons are those mutualist and nonantagonistic entanglements found within the play of this confusion.
Latent commons are not good for everyone. Every instance of collaboration makes room for some and leaves out others. Whole species lose out in some collaborations. The best we can do is to aim for “good-enough” worlds, where “good-enough” is always imperfect and under revision.
Latent comments don’t institutionalize well. Attempts to turn the commons into policy are commendably brave, but they do not capture the effervescence of the latent commons. The latent commons moves in law’s interstices; it is catalyzed by infraction, infection, inattention—and poaching
Latent commons cannot redeem us. Some radical thinkers hope that progress will lead us to a redemptive and utopian commons. In contrast, the latent commons is here and now, amidst the trouble. And humans are never fully in control.
Given this negative character, it makes no sense to crystallize first principles or seek natural laws that generate best cases. Instead, I practice arts of noticing. I comb through the mess of existing worlds-in-the-making, looking for treasures—each distinctive and unlikely to be found again, at least in that form
HUMANS CANNOT CONTROL MATSUTAKE. WAITING to see if mushrooms might emerge is thus an existential problem. The mushrooms remind us of our dependence on more-than-human natural processes: we can’t fix anything, even what we have broken, by ourselves. Yet this need not enforce paralysis
Why might working the landscape evoke a sense of renewed possibilities? How might it change volunteers as well as ecologies? This chapter tells the story of woodland revitalization groups who hope that small-scale disturbance might draw both people and forests out of alienation, building a world of overlapping lifeways in which mutualistic transformation, the mode of mycorrhiza, might yet be possible
Satoyama movements attempt to recover the lost sociality of community life. They design activities to bring together elders, young people, and children, combining education and community building with work and pleasure. There is more involved than helping out peasants—and pines. Satoyama work, volunteers explain, remakes the human spirit
Satoyama revitalization addresses the problem of anomie because it builds social relations with other beings. Humans become only one of many participants in making livability. Participants wait for trees and fungi to associate with them. They work landscapes that require human action yet exceed that requirement. By the turn of the century, several thousand satoyama revitalization groups had emerged across Japan. Some focus on water management, nature education, the habitat of a particular flower—or matsutake mushrooms. All are engaged in remaking persons as well as landscapes
Mutual learning is also an important goal. Groups are candid about making mistakes—and learning from them. One report about satoyama work by a group of volunteers includes all the problems and mistakes of their efforts. Without coordination, they cut down too many trees. Some of the areas they cleared grew back even thicker with undesirable species. In the end, the report’s authors argue, the group developed a “do, think, observe, and do again” principle, elevating collective trial and error to an art. Since one of their goals was participatory learning, allowing themselves to make and observe mistakes was an important part of the process. The authors conclude, “To be successful, volunteers have to participate in the program at all levels and stages.”5
SOMETIMES COMMON ENTANGLEMENTS EMERGE NOT from human plans but despite them. It is not even the undoing of plans, but rather the unaccounted for in their doing that offers possibilities for elusive moments of living in common
Within the rural economy, auction winners are exemplary figures of the search to gather private assets.
Visitors come from many places to admire this matsutake forest. But foresters know enough to worry: there is too much duff. The humus is too rich. The matsutake are still coming, but perhaps not for long. Matsutake prefer more goings on.
Like the other matsutake forests I had seen in the area, it was a badly scarred young forest, marked with traces of grazing and cutting. Little L did not mind; he showed us the richness of the forest’s mushroom harvest, emerging in the midst of all that traffic. And he explained the interplay between traffic and enclosure, clearing up my confusion. During the matsutake season, he paints blazes where his forest borders on roads and trails. People know they should not enter, and, in general, they do not, although there are some problems with poaching. The rest of the year, they are free to come, to gather firewood, to graze their goats, and to look for other forest products. Of course! Despite his pride at matsutake enclosure, Little L did not see this as subterfuge. How else would people get their firewood, he explained, if they could not enter the forests?
This is not an official plan. Provincial foresters and experts do not talk about seasonal enclosure; if they know about it, they put it out of their minds as something international authorities would surely censure. Seasonal enclosure would defeat the program of the “privatization-is-conservation” creed, because local residents are using resources in common in just the way those experts frown upon. Besides, those experts would hate the way this forest looks: young, scarred, full of traffic. This is not the plan. And yet, might not this way of enacting privatization be the saving grace for matsutake? The traffic keeps the forests open, and thus welcoming to pine; it keeps the humus thin and the soils poor, thus allowing matsutake to do its good work of enriching trees. In this area, matsutake pairs with oaks and oak relatives as well as pine; the whole young and scarred forest works with matsutake to survive on mineral soils. Without all the traffic, the duff builds up, the soil becomes rich, and other fungi and bacteria crowd out matsutake. It is the traffic, then, that privileges matsutake, making this one of the great areas for matsutake production. Yet the traffic must[…]
Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft—but also its vulnerability.
Everyone we spoke with in the rural margin explained that buying without haggling occurs because of long-term relationships and the trust that goes with them. The bosses would give the pickers their best price, people said. There are community, family, and ethnic-and-linguistic ties between the bosses and the pickers.10 They are local guys, part of the small town scene. Pickers trust them.
This “trust” is not a quality that works to everyone’s equal advantage. I do not believe anyone confused “trust” with consensus or equality. Everyone knew that bosses were getting rich off of matsutake; everyone wanted to emulate their success in gaining personal wealth. Still, it is a form of entanglement with reciprocal obligations; as long as the matsutake are embedded in it, they are not fully alienated commodities
In the relation between small-town bosses and pickers, we see, again, how private assets depend on common living spaces. The bosses are able to buy local mushrooms on their own terms because they are entangled with the pickers; they can then transport the mushrooms to bigger towns where they can be converted into private wealth. It is in this light, too, that the project of issuing forest contracts can be understood as a project for redirecting wealth, rather than saving forests
Such entrepreneurial stunts are part of the scramble for wealth in today’s China. In them, we can see something about the re-making of humans in conjunction with the salvaging and savaging of landscapes. Matsutake bosses are much-admired figures in Yunnan’s countryside. Bosses are pioneers in the new search for private assets; so many I spoke with wanted to be bosses—if not for matsutake, for some other product extracted from the countryside. One matsutake boss had a plaque in his living room, awarded by the local government, proclaiming him a leader in making money.12 Rural bosses are replacements for socialist heroes; they are models for human aspirations. Bosses are embodiments of the entrepreneurial spirit. In contrast to earlier socialist dreams, they are supposed to make themselves, not their communities, wealthy. They dream of themselves as self-made men. Yet their autonomous selves bear comparison to matsutake mushrooms: the visible fruit of unrecognized, elusive, and ephemeral commons
Bosses privatize the wealth of collaboratively produced mushroom growth and collection. Such privatization of common wealth might characterize all entrepreneurs. The Yunnan countryside at this historical moment is good to think with because interest in rationalizing natural resource management extends only to property law and accounting. Privatization takes place merely by claiming the fruits of scavenging—not by reorganizing labor or landscape
We trust our eyes too much. I looked at the ground and thought, “There’s nothing there.” But there was, as Matsiman found with his hands. Getting by without progress requires a good deal of feeling around with our hands.
Although Matsiman is devoted to his mushrooms, he does not assume they will be enough to support his needs. He has many other dreams and enterprises. When I visited, he showed me specks of gold he had panned from the river and a smoked matsutake powder, which he was trying to sell as a spice. He was experimenting with growing medicinal fungi. He has collected firewood commercially. Matsiman is well aware that he has chosen forms of livelihood at the very edge of capitalism. He hopes never again to work for a wage—and to find places to live in the woods that involve neither owning nor renting. (He was the caretaker for a private mountain on which he lived; later he took an unpaid position as a campground host.) Like many mushroom pickers, he has explored the limit spaces of capitalism, neither properly inside nor outside, where the inability of capitalist forms of discipline to fully capture the world is especially obvious.
Matsiman navigates the possibilities as well as the problems of precarity. Precarity means not being able to plan. But it also stimulates noticing, as one works with what is available. To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff. Matsiman’s own words about noticing, from his matsutake website, seem particularly apt. “Who is Matsiman?” he asks. “Anyone who loves hunting, learning, understanding, protecting, educating others, and respects matsutake mushroom and its habitat is matsiman. Those of us who can’t get enough understanding, constantly trying to determine what caused this or that to happen, or not happen. We are not limited to nationality, gender, education, or age group. Anyone can be a matsiman.” Matsiman calls up a latent commons of matsutake lovers. What holds his imagined matsipeople together is the pleasure of noticing.
Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma.
ONE OF THE STRANGEST PROJECTS OF PRIVATIZATION and commodification in the early twentieth-first century has been the movement to commoditize scholarship. Two versions have been surprisingly powerful. In Europe, administrators demand assessment exercises that reduce the work of scholars to a number, a sum total for a life of intellectual exchange. In the United States, scholars are asked to become entrepreneurs, producing ourselves as brands and seeking stardom from the very first days of our studies, when we know nothing. Both projects seem to me bizarre—and suffocating. By privatizing what is necessarily collaborative work, these projects aim to strangle the life out of scholarship
What if we imagined intellectual life as a peasant woodland, a source of many useful products emerging in unintentional design? The image calls up its opposites: In assessment exercises, intellectual life is a plantation; in scholarly entrepreneurship, intellectual life is pure theft, the private appropriation of communal products. Neither is appealing. Consider, instead, the pleasures of the woodland. There are many useful products there, from berries and mushrooms to firewood, wild vegetables, medicinal herbs, and even timber. A forager can chose what to gather and can make use of the woodland’s patches of unexpected bounty. But the woodland requires continuing work, not to make it a garden but rather to keep it open and available for an array of species. Human coppicing, grazing, and fire maintain this architecture; other species gather to make it their own. For intellectual work, this seems just right. Work in common creates the possibilities of particular feats of individual scholarship. To encourage the unknown potential of scholarly advances—like the unexpected bounty of a nest of mushrooms—requires sustaining the common work of the intellectual woodland
In “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula K. Le Guin argues that stories of hunting and killing have allowed readers to imagine that individual heroism is the point of a story. Instead, she proposes that storytelling might pick up diverse things of meaning and value and gather them together, like a forager rather than a hunter waiting for the big kill. In this kind of storytelling, stories should never end, but rather lead to further stories. In the intellectual woodlands I have been trying to encourage, adventures lead to more adventures, and treasures lead to further treasures. When gathering mushrooms, one is not enough; finding the first encourages me to find more