Book: The Mushroom at the End of the World


What can a mushroom tell us about the fringes of capitalism? I grew up thinking that morel and truffles were the best mushrooms out there. But I never heard about Matsutake and its delightful Japanese sounding name. It’s a highly sought after wild forest mushroom with prices as crazy as Bitcoin. In Japan, Matsutake is a delicacy and makes the perfect gift to display wealth and show consideration. The author of the book examines the lucrative markets and the communities built around the mushroom across Japan, Europe and the US.

I found it difficult to take notes while reading this book. However, here are a few things I picked up, in no precise order:

Satoyama are Japanese forests that are cared for by villagers. A good Satoyama is a cooperation between humans and nature. The community picks the fruits of the forest: wood, mushrooms… The forest benefits from the disturbance, such as coppicing and harvesting. Satoyama create a beneficial ecosystem where agriculture and biodiversity thrive. See also agroforestry

“Matsutake mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus associated with certain forest trees.” The fungi develop a close relationship with the tree roots: it creates a fertile soil for the tree and receives carbohydrate in return.

In Oregon’s forest with the extensive logging of Ponderosa pines in the 80s and fire exclusion programs, lodgepole pines spread. It turns out this situation was favourable to the fruiting of Matsutake. This human alteration made an abundance of Matsutake in this region possible. The growth of the pricey mushroom is a new value created out of human contamination. (page 30)

The rise of capitalism was all about progress, the promises of modernisation and scalability (think internationalisation, global supply chains). Matsutake creates a non-scalable foraging economy “in the ruins of scalable forestry”. This economy benefits communities of pickers that are at the margin of the capitalist landscape.

Are there other hidden treasures in the remains of the rise of capitalism? The author calls them latent commons. (page 255).

No one can cultivate Matsutake. The mushroom resists the conditions of the capitalist plantation. The conditions and ecosystem that lead to the fruiting of Matsutake are so complex that humans can’t easily grasp how it works. What we can do is observe how things happen. This story reminds us of how life is about transformation, and nothing exists in isolation.

“They require the dynamic multi-species diversity of the forest — with its contaminating relationship.”

Assemblage is a framework for studying how different things influence each other — looking for the patterns of unintentional coordination. Read more here.

The trade of Matsutake is all about translation. Translation is an interface that connects different communities, places, and context. The book presents how a wild mushroom that grows in common lands is translated into a commodity that is traded within the capitalist framework. Thinking of startup world; you can see how Airbnb provided a translation and thus created value. It translated spare rooms into something capitalistic.