Research

Following Wild Mushrooms: A Letter to Anna Tsing

Dear Anna,

I have been a fan of your work since I read Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005) at the beginning of my graduate studies, so I don’t know why it has taken me this long to pick up The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015). But since I started reading it in late August, I can’t stop thinking about your project.

It offers such a captivating invitation- to follow the lifeways of matsutake, wild mushrooms, and the lives it assembles. Who would’ve thought that a project could be built around a single type of mushroom? …But you did. I’m sure there were and still are people who would dismiss a work like this for daring to focus on something so small and, some would say, insignificant. And yet, you elegantly show us how following matsutake opens up whole worlds.

Your work has attuned me to new ways of seeing and understanding received categories and concepts–capitalism, ecology, labor, freedom, precarity, and ruin. I am still in awe of how deftly you take readers from the day-to-day struggles of mushroom foragers searching for matsutake in the forests of Oregon and the complicated stories of how and why they began picking mushrooms for a living, to consider broad-scale questions about ecological devastation and forest renewal, to how matsutake enter capitalist markets and informal gift economies in Japan.

As you suggest, we must learn to practice “arts of noticing” to navigate the increasingly uncertain presents we inhabit, to perceive latent possibilities even in sites of ruin and seeming desolation while keeping ourselves from too eagerly celebrating them, because, as we know, these are also sites of violence. Arts of noticing is such a beautiful concept- in my research I have thought long and often about seeing and looking, but “noticing” has a different bent… It implies a subtle, but important shift, because to notice something is also to realize that it has unsettled your worldview, the way you understand and inhabit the world, at least in some small (if not large) way. It takes care, a word I find myself turning to increasingly these days, to notice rather than simply see.

I love this concept so much that I had to share it in a recent talk, not just as a method, but as a pedagogy for Asian American studies. Arts of noticing is something I’d like to share with my students, to encourage them to read both texts and the worlds they inhabit more closely, to not be afraid to follow minor objects, to find what excites their attention, to trace small disturbances that could ripple outwards, like matsutake do…

Needless to say, there is so much in this project that resonates with my research. I can see in your discussion of wild mushrooms an aesthetics of entanglement and of course the minor is here too, front and center, as it is in my work. I also share with you, I believe, a deep love for interludes and the creative openings they provide. In fact, writing the interludes was my favorite part of writing the dissertation and that may be true for the book project as well.

There is just a different kind of feeling and freedom when it comes to conceiving an interlude because they are sites for reflection and pause that allow and are even intended to veer off in other directions; they let you explore what lies beyond the frameworks and constraints of the main chapters. I wonder, do you feel the same way about your interludes? How did the idea for them take shape- by surprise or were they always there at the back of your mind? …Mine came to me fairly late in the project, but they provided the connective tissue I didn’t even realize I needed until then.

This is all to say thank you for your work. It has been an inspiration and I look forward to returning to it again and again in my research and teaching.

For now,

Frances


You might recall how this post is an example of the practice of letter writing I discussed here.

Photo by webandi on Pixabay.

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