When my schedule allows, I participate in a monthly reading group with faculty and graduate students at Penn State. The founder is a professor in Education, but the group is cross-disciplinary. The texts are intense. The people are smart. The discussions are wild. This group is one of my favorite things about being at Penn State. For me, a little intellectual rigor goes a long way.
The spring semester has started, and the group has begun reading a work about Matsutake mushrooms. Mushrooms at the End of the World is a book by Anna Tsing. Tsing is a scholar in Anthropology. The text is complex. It says and does many things. I don't mean this blog to be a book review. I also don't want to write an academic paper here. Still, I want to play with the book a little bit. Play with mushrooms. Gross? Maybe.
Tsing's book is essentially a close study of Matsutake mushrooms. These fungi are highly sought after. Expensive as hell. I can't afford them. They grow in precarious places. They associate with certain pine trees. Despite deforestation, they find ways to grow. In fact, did you know that the very first thing to grow in Hiroshima, after the bomb was dropped, was a matsutake mushroom? Mushrooms are resourceful. Despite nuclear devastation. My children and my children's children should be so lucky.
I have recent experience with mushrooms. Two years ago, I walked into our upstairs bathroom. We were living in a townhouse in Toftrees. Toftrees is a community near Penn State's campus. It's a good transitional place for new faculty or graduate students moving to State College. Affordable, convenient, and comfortable. Our townhouse was built in the seventies, but it wasn't in disrepair. Anyway, I noticed something on the floor near our toilet one morning. It took me a moment to register that, in fact, a mushroom was growing near the crack between the tile and the toilet.
I was horrified. My reaction was funny.
I took a picture with my phone to document this invasive menace. Next, I grabbed a container of bleach. We really are clean people. I'm OCD about cleaning the house. This mushroom was unexpected. I sprayed with all my might, removed the invader, and gave our bathroom a deep clean. My work was effective. No more fungal intruders disturbed the sterility of our bathroom during our stay at Toftrees. Human vs. Fungi, and I won.
In retrospect, my reaction to this living entity in my home is worth thinking about. I felt revulsion. I was compelled to destroy the mushroom, and sanitize our space. I wonder why it seems intuitive to destroy things that are alive in my home. Bugs? Kill them. Spiders? Gross. Mushrooms? Grotesque. And I know that it is good common sense to remove a mushroom from one's bathroom. I'm not questioning that, and I certainly don't want to share my home with fungal beings. Still, it seems strange in thinking about it now, especially as I'm reading Tsing's book. We are so quick to destroy living things and sanitize our world. Does this make us clean? Why does being clean require us to exterminate growing things?
Anyway, despite our best, destructive intentions (see Hiroshima), mushrooms grow. What interesting entities.
Like I wrote, Tsing's book does many things. One of the things it does is to use the Matsutake mushroom as a metaphor. A metaphor for what? How to live in precarious times. Her first two paragraphs are pretty cool. Here's how Tsing (2015) starts the book:
"What do you do when your world starts to fall apart? I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms" (p. 1).
Okay, fair enough. Tsing is a weirdo. She looks for mushrooms when the world falls apart. I love taking walks. But mushrooms? Tsing continues:
"Mushrooms pull me back into my senses, not just—like flowers—through their riotous colors and smells but because they pop up unexpectedly, reminding me of the good fortune of just happening to be there. Then I know that there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy" (p. 1).
For Tsing, the mushroom reminds her of the unexpected pleasure one can find even when the world doesn't make sense. When things are indeterminate. Terrifying. What's so terrifying? Tsing reminds us that:
"The world’s climate is going haywire, and industrial progress has proved much more deadly to life on earth than anyone imagined a century ago. The economy is no longer a source of growth or optimism; any of our jobs could disappear with the next economic crisis" (pp. 1-2).
Gruesome stuff. Dark. Tsing directs her next comment to those of us with all the creature comforts of the modern age. She writes that things are becoming precarious for all of us. See:
"Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious—even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end" (pp. 1-2).
Trouble without end? That seems a fair way to describe our current state. Being a human has always been hard, but these days are especially strange. Lots of troubling stuff is happening, to be sure. The Four Horsemen seemed to be polishing their boots. But there, amidst all this trouble, mushrooms adapt and grow. Again, atomic bombs can't keep mushrooms from disturbing the sterility that comes from our nuclear attempts to make and remake our world. Wild little entities, to be sure.
I don't know that I have anything profound to share about mushrooms and the end of the world. I've only started the book. The work has excited me, though. I like it when books excite me. And it's fun to think with smart people. I'm lucky to have this reading group, and even luckier to be working a job that, at its core, is about thinking.
Tsing, A. L. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ.