Learning from the Matsutake

Learning from the Matsutake Mushroom

Diane Gayer


Olivo of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble talks of beauty as the sword with which to battle the onslaught against humanity.  He suggests that the darkness of humanity’s destruction is to be countered by the power of beauty.  I am not so sure.  In the long run, yes, maybe, but we are living now, in the short-term.  I don’t see it; beauty is more than the opposite of darkness.  Darkness is a growth center, a time of resurrection, a time of burrowing beneath the surface of Earth.   Whether we are sent there by other forces, or go there of “free will”, we must hibernate in order to germinate, sprout, rise, grow, and blossom.  It’s a long stretch from dark to light, from invisible to flowering.


Last year as the sliver of crescent moon rose over the most obtuse of Burlington’s commission hearings in 20 years, I wondered where we were in the long curve of humanity.  I refer here to the city council hearings related to the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center Mall.  When a mayor elected by only 17% of the citizenry can take that as majority consensus and override the strength of popular voices by sequestering commissioner votes to his side, small as it is, Burlington has joined the ranks of everyday corporate America.  We are no different than Flint, MI with their denial of toxic water; not other than Orlando (or elsewhere) with its shootings; and not separate from the mass of destruction of land everywhere.


Burlington leadership has joined the moneyed-economy and its trumping of community-based decision-making.  Civic pride and identity have become a market economy in the hands of the moneylenders.  There is no silver lining for allowing the construction of a 14-story building on top of a megalithic retail base with three floors of parking.  It will not be our economic nor communal salvation.


The future lies in mating development with ecological systems, human resilience, and new forms of cooperative investment in ownership.  Burlington as a municipality is not only repeating models from the 1980s which were voted down (as in the case of the waterfront), or were destructive to the urban fabric (as in the case of urban renewal).  We are actually following their same financially disastrous path. Key to the future is not only listening to the heart of place, but to not listening to the fickle voice the marketplace.  The marketplace has no loyalties, no ties to place or identity.


Reading from Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, * I discovered another world, a world where the Matsutake mushroom thrives.  It survives underground in the destroyed lands we’ve created.  Together with the pine trees, mushrooms work in cooperation to transform a landscape destroyed by mining, logging, or any other disaster.  Specifically, Tsing quotes Dr. Ogawa and how his matsutake science advocates for both people and nature working together to nurture matsutake forests as a means of revitalizing the connection between city and countryside.  He dreams of making visible the relations among living things in our changing ecologies (pp. 48-49).


Matsutake is indeterminate in its growth, unlike humans who are determinate—we tend to keep our same shape from birth to death.  But fungi are famous for growing and changing shape in relation to their encounters and environments (p. 47).  They arise and disappear out of their own life cycle, not ours.


Tsing talks about human survival as always involving others; it is part of the indeterminacy of life and self-transformation.  We change through our collaborations with others and across species.  But the easiest way to perceive this is by looking at the pines who cannot reclaim and thrive in the destructed landscapes without nutrients brought by the mycorrhizal fungi and their rock-breaking capabilities—together they build up soil (p. 29).


The West Coast culture that has formed around the matsutake Open Ticket forestland is predominantly a collection of Southeast Asians (Lao, Hmong, Cambodian) and Vietnam vets.  They live outside the moneyed economy in what Tsing calls “salvage accumulation” which in turn is part of the “salvage economy” and lies both inside and outside of capitalism.  It is an economy based on diversity instead of uniformity.


Theories of heterogeneity are still in their infancy.  “To appreciate the patchy unpredictability associated with our current global condition, we need to reopen our imaginations”—and the matsutake mushroom can do that (p. 4-5).  Matsutake illuminates the cracks in a global political economy because it is not dependable or controllable as a product; it is wild foraged.  It cannot be commercially grown and the pickers are independent workers with no wages or benefits, and yet when the product goes to market it is a highly sought after commodity.  It is a fluid system of forest ecologies, freedom-loving pickers, and commercial desire.


How are we, a small place within the northeast, to survive unless we learn deeply from where we are?   Can we stand strong against the global forces of moneyed-desire?  Can we become matsutake pickers who rely on themselves, on knowledge of the forest, on self-organization, and yet still respond to the marketplace?


Perhaps with the depth of winter upon us we can go underground into darkness, into stillness,… then, slowly, with the glimmer of ice, the white of snow, and sparkle of starlight… and find our resurgence.  Perhaps then we will rediscover our taste for beauty.

*The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Princeton University Press 2015.



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Author: Genese Grill

Genese Grill is the editor of 05401PLUS.