Saturday, September 03, 2016

Serving notice

Just finished a most enjoyable book. (I liked it enough to take a line from it as an epigraph for the "Theorizing Religion" syllabus.) Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World both is and isn't an account of the twisted and tangled supply chain of matsutake mushrooms from forests in various parts of the northern hemisphere to consumers, mostly in Japan. You do emerge from it with insight into every part of that story, from the forests in which matsutake thrive with certain pines and oaks to the pickers, sellers, foresters, researchers and others who make a living of this uncultivatable delicacy. But you also get much more - and, in the getting, learn what Tsing calls the ability to "notice" the sorts of always local and contingent "assemblages" described, an ability the more necessary as our world gets more destabilized by capitalist efforts to turn it into a plantation for mass-produceable commodities.

Matsutake turns out to be the perfect way to tell this story. They thrive in forests which have been disrupted by logging or some other upheaval (though it turns out these forests still need to be managed by humans in one way or other), and even then cannot be farmed, but are harvested by pickers who develop every sense and awareness of ecological connections in learning to find still subterranean mushrooms. It's a precarious living which is pursued by variously disrupted communities, like South East Asian immigrants working in the logging-ravaged forests of Oregon.) Their grounded knowledge, which foresters and scientists try to systematize, is not "scalable" - it's resolutely local, embedded in the histories of particular environments (which, because matsutake flourish a few decades after disruption, usually involves the overreaching of some modern scheme or other). It helps us become aware of what Tsing calls "third nature":


Imagine "first nature" to mean ecological relations (including humans) and "second nature" to refer to capitalist transformations of the environment.... My book, then, offers "third nature," that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. (Princeton University Press, 2015, viii)

This is curiously hopeful. Many of the theorists she engages think that capitalism has ruined things beyond helping, and Tsing doesn't downplay the massive disruptions in ecosystems and relationships brought about by efforts to "alienate" species from each other for greater production; part of her argument is that this deadly logic infects even our (especially American) ecological thinking, which conceptualizes species in abstraction from their necessary entanglements with other species even when trying to conserve them. But the story of life isn't over. Matsutake was apparently among the first plants to emerge in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.

Capitalism's (or, if you prefer, the anthropocene's) disruptions have changed things for ever, but life goes on in "patches," contingent gatherings of species in always particular places. To recognize and learn from that survival we need to outgrow the temptations of capitalist thinking about environments (isolatable resources, universalizable processes, assured progress). This is an argument for the continued value of anthropology, both cultural and interspecies.

Anna Tsing with matsutake (pic)

It's also an argument for fungi as a model of the way things work. What we know as mushrooms are just the occasional fruit of skeinlike subterranean networks entwining and symbiotically linking the roots of trees and whole forests. (They also send spores into the stratosphere!) This is an argument for living in always complicated and often conflicted history, for more sustainable economies maintained together with other species, for new political visions (with other humans and other species).

It's also a lovely way of rethinking what we're up to - or should be! - in the groves of academe.

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, scholarship 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 choose 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. (286)

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