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  • The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
  • Joshua A. Bell
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 352 pp.

Halfway through The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing remarks that "Mushroom tracks are elusive and enigmatic; following them takes me on a wild ride—trespassing every boundary" (137). Tsing's latest exploration of what is now a trilogy on the intimate entanglements of capitalism is both a wild ride and a boundary blurring ethnography. The Mushrooms at the End of the World picks up on themes developed earlier by Tsing in her work about the Meratus Dayak's understandings of their histories of engagement with outsiders (Tsing 1993), and her examination of the messy encounters of capitalism on resource frontiers (Tsing 2005). Asking "How might capitalism look without assuming progress?" (5), Tsing dives deep into the disturbed soils of her many sites of inquiry to follow the "mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life" (4) of matsutake mushrooms. This Japanese delicacy, Tsing argues, is a good guide to the world we currently live in because of matsutake's "willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes [which] allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home" (3). The matsutake shows the "possibilities of coexistence within environmental disturbance" (4) as well as "the cracks in the global political economy" (4) and "reopen our imaginations" (5).

Taking the destructive wake of the much-discussed and debated Anthropocene head on, this book on its surface is a "follow-the-thing" ethnography that follows the matsutake across various domains and through time (Mintz 1985, Appadurai 1986, Marcus 1995). In this sense it contributes to what is now an established ethnographic genre (see for example West 2012, Paxson 2012, Ferry 2013). However, in reading The [End Page 277] Mushrooms at the End of the World it quickly becomes apparent that Tsing pushes this genre by telling the "rush of stories" (37) that help constitute the matsutake's assemblages, which bind human and nonhuman together. Tsing takes her readers on what is at times a dizzying ride through time and space to tease out connections between political economy, ecology, hitory, and multispecies interactions. I have yet to read an ethnography that is as ambitious in terms of its scale and scope.

The book draws on long-term fieldwork conducted during matsutake seasons between 2004 and 2011 and is multi-sited with fieldwork in Canada, China, Finland, Japan, and the United States, as well as interviews in Denmark, Sweden, and Turkey. The book emerges from a unique collaboration that needs to be mentioned as it serves as an interesting model for others to consider: the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (Choy et al. 2009).1 In this book, Tsing provides a guide to the global narrative of matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake), as well as the collectives' approach to the multispecies collaborations that these mushrooms entail. For those who feel that Tsing sacrifices too much ethnographic detail in order to tell the narratives of varying scales, two forthcoming ethnographies by Matsutake Worlds collaborators promise greater depth: Michael Hathaway on the global trade of Yunnan around matsutake and Shiho Satuska on the science of Japanese matsutake. A multi-media website (, and a film, The Last Season (2014), by Sara Dosa also add further depth to this work.

The basic story of matsutake is as follows. Surfacing as a delicacy in Japanese literary culture in the 8th century, matsutake exist in a symbiotic relationship with red pine trees that are able to make use of anthropogenic transformations of the environment. While becoming a central facet of Japanese life, ecologically matsutake was also intimately linked to Japan's deforestation from the Edo period to the early 20th century. However, with the rise of fossil fuels and the decline of forest use for firewood and charcoal, the forest became dominated by broadleaf trees, and pine trees and matsutake declined. By the mid-1970s, the cultural value of matsutake as bribes and gifts...