Auctions in the Forest

Francis Gooding

  • The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
    Princeton, 322 pp, £22.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16275 1

‘As a land-user thinketh, so is he,’ the American conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ in 1948. People needed to ‘quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem’; he wanted to transform our vision of humankind’s place in the natural world from ‘conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it’. For Leopold, conservation was about creating a respectful and productive system of co-operation, and he was a vocal critic of irresponsible exploitation, especially of the destruction caused by logging companies. Leopold worked for the United States Forest Service between 1909 and 1928, so he knew what he was talking about when he described the lumber trade of the early 20th century as ‘land-pillage’.

In August 1910, forest fires tore through the American North-West. More than three million acres were destroyed as conflagrations raged across Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon in what became known as the Big Blowup or Big Burn. Many people were killed, small towns were burned to the ground, and billions of feet of profitable timber went up in smoke. As a result, the Forest Service adopted a policy of absolute fire suppression, which included putting a stop to the ‘light-burning’ of brush and forest floor detritus. This technique had been used by Native Americans as a way of preventing more serious fires breaking out, and was derisively termed ‘Paiute Forestry’ by the Forest Service after the Paiute people who practised it. When he was made assistant district forester in 1919, Leopold became responsible for controlling fires across twenty million acres. He arrived in the role a staunch supporter of total fire suppression, and argued strongly that even light-burning was ‘destructive … the very negation of the fundamental principle of forestry, namely, to make forests productive’ – productive not only of living trees ‘to clothe and protect our mountains’, but also of ‘the greatest possible amount of lumber, forage and other forest products’.

Leopold’s view would eventually change, and a hundred years after the US Forest Service first imposed it, fire suppression has come to be seen as misguided, because it damaged the environments it hoped to preserve: some of the most famous (and heavily logged) trees of the Western states, including the ponderosa pine and giant sequoia, need fire for seed germination. By allowing dead wood and brush to build up, it also produced ideal conditions for future fires. In The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that the policy was ‘the most famous Forest Service mistake in the interior forests of the American West’. The central subject of her book – the growth of large quantities of the matsutake mushroom in the forests of the Oregon Cascade Range – was one of its many unintended consequences. Tricholoma matsutake, perhaps the most valuable edible mushroom in the world, doesn’t do well in areas that burn regularly.

The matsutake mushroom is symbiotic with trees, and prefers pines: matsutake is Japanese for ‘pine mushroom’. In the American North-West the mushroom’s favourite tree is the lodgepole pine, thought to be the oldest inhabitant of these forests. Quick to grow and hardy, lodgepoles can flourish just about anywhere, but they must be several decades old before the matsutake mushroom will happily fruit on them. Before fire suppression they rarely got that old, because they burn very easily. Young lodgepoles were regularly burned in small fires – indeed, the lodgepole adapted to this by maturing quickly, producing a lot of seed and being the first tree to recolonise burned ground.

The logging companies’ favoured lumber source in the Cascades, however, was not the lodgepole, but the ponderosa pine. A mature ponderosa has thick bark and a high crown, and can survive most fires. While young lodgepoles and dry brush were periodically burned, the ponderosas grew into giants. These huge, ancient trees were a much prized source of lumber, and by the end of the Second World War the old ponderosas of the Cascades had been logged nearly to extinction. The Klamath people, whose strategic burnings had kept the lodgepole down, and whose lands held the last swathes of mature ponderosa, were dispossessed in the early 1950s, and the last of the Oregon ponderosa forest was opened up to the loggers. The remaining ponderosas were quickly exhausted and the mountainsides were denuded of any other sellable timber. Lodgepoles immediately recolonised the slopes and the Forest Service’s fire suppression policy allowed them to get much, much older than was usual. ‘Mistakes were made,’ Tsing writes, ‘and mushrooms popped up.’

The matsutake is said to have been the first living thing to emerge from the ruins of Hiroshima. It is a model collaborator: it needs trees to grow, and they benefit from it in return. Its thick mycelial mats (the filamentary organism of which the mushroom is the fruiting body) interweave with tree roots, exchanging energy and nourishment. It is capable of dissolving rock and sand on nearly barren ground to release nutrients that nourish its partner trees. Animals like elk and moose love it; tree parasites and diseases shun it. But despite having long been revered as a delicacy, it refuses to be cultivated. All people can do to encourage its growth is to make the right kinds of disturbance in suitable forest and hope it appears.

In Japan, the matsutake is king of mushrooms. As in Oregon, though centuries earlier, it appeared in the wake of deforestation and thrived in woodland used by peasants and villagers, disappearing again when the forests were left undisturbed. Its unique smell has been recognised in Japanese poetry as the quintessential ‘autumn aroma’ since at least the eighth century; in the Edo period its consumption became a mark of social standing, and autumn picking trips to the forest were a favoured pastime. Matsutake are often presented as gifts: according to Tsing, ‘individuals who buy matsutake are almost always thinking about building relationships.’ Business arrangements are sealed by matsutake, family rifts are healed, spiritual favour is curried: ‘Matsutake signals a serious commitment.’

After the Second World War, matsutake-supporting woodland declined in Japan. The timber industry had devoured the peasant-worked woodland in which the mushroom lived, before it collapsed into unprofitability, leaving the forests to go to seed. The mushrooms disappeared and Japan began importing timber from the forests of Oregon. By the time Oregon’s matsutake had become established, in the late 1980s and 1990s, its own timber industry had become unprofitable and failed. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy was booming and matsutake, now rare in Japan, were in demand. Oregon’s new matsutake harvest had a ready market. Huge prices were paid for imported mushrooms and a loose but effective supply chain, stretching from the wrecked forests of post-industrial Oregon to the upmarket restaurants and boutique grocers of Tokyo and Kyoto, rapidly established itself. In the early 1990s, a single large mushroom, priced by weight, could fetch its picker hundreds of dollars in cash – paid on the spot, out in the woods, no questions asked. Pickers could find pounds of mushrooms on a good day. Prices have fallen since then, but the supply chains and markets remain in place and do brisk business in season. Tonnes of hand-picked matsutake are shipped to Japan from Oregon, with middlemen and exporters’ agents paying pickers in cash at semi-clandestine night-time auctions in remote locations.

Deep in the forests, transient, off-grid communities of pickers appear in the mushroom season. Mien, Khmer and Hmong – refugees from the Vietnam and Korean wars – tell Tsing their war stories over pho and generator-powered karaoke at the night-time mushroom auctions. They are joined by white war veterans and anti-government refuseniks motivated by a combination of combat trauma, West Coast eco-activism and white ressentiment. A sprinkling of South Americans, Native Americans and gang-weary Latinos complete the picture. (Japanese Americans also pick, but not for profit – only for pleasure.) The picking is scarcely acknowledged by either conservationists or the Forest Service; the pickers are tolerated, but the trade is poorly understood. Vulnerable to the law, to the wild and to stray bullets from deer hunters, the mushroom pickers remain invisible out of choice. It is a precarious existence, foraging an unpredictable crop semi-legally or illegally on government land, being paid in gouts of cash or not at all, subject to the vicissitudes of demand and price in markets half a world away. The pickers aren’t organised, and the export companies and bulk buyers have rarely tried to control them: everyone picks for themselves, and few seem to consider it ‘work’ in the conventional sense. If things go well it pays, but picking is also felt to be a form of freedom. Tsing captures the understated but resilient pride the pickers have in their choice of life, and the economic and social independence it brings.

On Tsing’s first trip into the Oregon woods to look for matsutake, she got hopelessly lost. Eventually she stumbled on a dirt road, where she was met by two Laotian Mien tribesmen, a young man and his elderly uncle, who gave her some water and took her to their camp. As dusk fell, the young man took her a little way up the hillside. On ground that to her appeared barren, in a ‘broken forest [that] seemed like a science fiction nightmare’, he had found some matsutake, the first she had seen. ‘What,’ she asked herself as she took in the pungent smell, ‘were Mien tribesmen, Japanese gourmet mushrooms and I doing in a ruined Oregon industrial forest? I had lived in the United States for a long time without ever hearing about any of these things.’

The histories of the Mien, the mushroom and the forest can’t be synthesised into a single story, and Tsing doesn’t try to. Among many other things, the book contains reflections on supply chain economics and the normalising of unstable employment in the advanced economies; the history of Japanese-American economic relations; the legacies of 20th-century wars and revolutions in Indochina; the idea of ‘salvage’ (‘taking advantage of value’ – in such commodities as oil or mushrooms – ‘produced without capitalist control’) as an economic category; as well as the biology and gastronomy of the mushroom itself.

She opens the book with a sketch of the Enlightenment view of the relationship between nature and humanity: ‘Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, who could tame and master Nature.’ The problem we face, now that global industrial capitalism has done its best to extend uninterrupted dominion from mountaintop to seabed, is that ‘all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is not clear that life on Earth can continue.’ We need to think about different kinds of story, Tsing believes, that don’t just include people: ‘multi-species storytelling’, she claims, may kickstart the revolution that is needed to make sense of ‘the world that progress has left to us’. Matsutake, with ‘its willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes’, allows us ‘to explore the ruin that has become our collective home’. This is the territory of post-counterculture West Coast radical eco-activism (Tsing is a professor at Santa Cruz), but also of the recent rash of fictional post-apocalyptica, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the zombies of The Walking Dead to Jeff Vandermeer’s extraordinary Southern Reach Trilogy, which also has a strong fungal theme, and takes place mostly on the North-West coast. It turns out that a book about mushrooms that isn’t also about everything else falsifies its subject. Biology has revealed forms of deep, cross-species interdependence – and these complex entanglements, Tsing believes, can provide the basis for thinking about our place on the Earth in the way Leopold knew we should.