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Massy Interviews / Michael Hathaway

On Wednesday, June 15 at 6pm, join Massy ArtsMassy Books, and researcher and professor Michael Hathaway for the launch of his new book: “What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake And the Worlds They Make” (Princeton University Press, 2022).

For this launch, Hathaway will be joined by Gitga’at doctoral student Spencer Greening (La’goot) to discuss the ways that Western science often limits our understandings of the many living beings we share our lives with.

Click here to register for the event

Click here to purchase What a Mushroom Lives For

This interview is part of Massy Voices, an ever-evolving collection of book launches, exclusive interviews, and artist talks that celebrate community voices and the stories they carry. Click here to know more.

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To celebrate the book launch, Rafael Zen interviews Hathaway for Massy Arts, discussing mushrooms as one of the scientific zeitgeists of the 21st century, and how Western sciences have promoted a human-and-animal-centric framework of what counts as action, agency, movement, and behavior.

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Michael Hathaway / Re-thinking human-centeredness through the mushroom renaissance

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Rafael Zen – It would be impossible not to start this interview with the provocation of your book’s title. In a few words, what does a mushroom live for? And what can the reader expect from your research? Who were you writing for?

Michael Hathaway – Thanks so much for this interview, and I’m so glad to be in conversation with you. The title was actually suggested by the press, who told me a story that one of the famous mushroom guru, Gary Lincoff based in New York City (which harbors an amazing number of fungi), and was leading a mushroom walk.

By far the most common question about a mushroom is: can I eat it, and then if it is edible, what is it called? But this day, after an hour or so, someone asked “what are mushrooms for? What does a mushroom live for (as in what use is it in the world), and Gary answered back “mushrooms live for themselves,” which I take to mean they have their own complicated lives and lifestyles.

At least that’s how I think of it, and sadly Gary passed away unexpectedly in 2018. Gary was known as the “pied piper of mushrooms,” leading thousands of people into the amazing worlds of fungi hidden all around them in plain sight. Although the book is published by a university press, I’m mainly writing for a wide audience who want one of three different things.

Mainly, I think my readers want to really re-think their mainstream Western understanding to humans and the natural world (even this way of describing it is a serious problem!). I’ve noticed that many of us are eager to think and feel beyond these constraints, and catch glimmers of powerful experiences, but we often don’t have the words to express it.

I hold Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work in high regard, I hope people that are in awe of her work will also be inspired by my own journey into the world of mushrooms. I have a short section where I speak directly to more scholarly-trained folks about what kinds of important concepts help us to get away from human-entered ways of understanding the world, but invite folks who aren’t in these worlds to just jump over it.

Third, I hope to find readers who want to hear about how the booming mushroom economy transformed the eastern Himalayas in China, and imagine how cultural groups change dynamically in relation to the organisms they engage.

In terms of what readers can expect, I think they will find a kind of academic rigour combined with a playful style of engaging writing. It is not burdened by the typical way that academics write.

For years, I’ve been re-training myself to write for my friends and my mom, and the books tells stories that share my own personal journey, from knowing very little about mushrooms, and growing up afraid of them, to now a long time later as I spent years delving deep into their mysteries, and showing how they have completely changed my way of being in the world. It’s actually quite marvelous, the changes.

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RZ – It seems that mushrooms have become a kind of scientific zeitgeist of the 21st century. Why do you think scientist (and global media) are paying so much attention to them now? Are we living a mushroom renaissance?

MH – Ah, that’s exactly it, they are emerging as a new paradigm of possibility for some. My East Coast friends, however, remind me that here in Vancouver, we are a bit of a global centre for all-things-mushroom that extends down into the Silicon Valley, where many high-end coders are now experimenting with micro-dosing using hallucinogenic mushrooms.

It seems that mushrooms promise many things, including a shift from an Anglo sense that they are linked to death and disease, to a new myco-philic (mushroom loving sense) that they can “save the planet” as fellow mushroom head Paul Stamets.

When we, the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (a collective of 5 anthropologists studying this amazing wild mushroom) gave a talk at Stanford University 8 years ago the room was packed, and not recognising many folks, we asked for the anthropologists to raise their hand, and there were only about 8.

When we asked how everyone else was, there were about 40 curious engineers who wanted to create structures using materials that were living, and not dead: so more mushrooms and less concrete and dried lumber.

It helped us get a sense of the mushroom renaissance that was happening outside of the realm of mushrooms as eaters of toxic waste, the gateway to hallucinogenics as novel means to treat clinical depression or PTSD or speak directly to God, that we were more familiar with.

On the other hand, I think there are some problematic tendencies that continue even in this age of loving mushrooms and being fascinated about them— the idea that they can be harnessed to do the work of cleaning up human made messes, that we can use them in extractive, utilitarian ways that continues the deep problem of seeing the rest of the living creation as “resources” to be used for human purposes, rather than regard them as living beings that have their own intrinsic right to exist and that carry out their own world-making projects.

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RZ – Why do you think Western sciences have promoted a human-and-animal-centric framework of what counts as action, agency, movement, and behavior? What do you think mushrooms reveal about the dynamism of all forms of life in our planet?

MH – Oh, another great set of questions! Well, let me first say something about human-centeredness. I am delighted that it is increasingly common to think about problems with forms of human-centeredness. Even my daughter in high school here in Vancouver is concerned about this , whereas it took me a long time to even notice the issue.

This idea, which was so strong in the West for the past 500 years, that humans (and only very particular humans!), were at the top of the ladder of evolution, and that the world was basically made for our enjoyment and profit is starting to be more and more challenged.

Of course many people all over the world have never been convinced by these ideas, which overall seen quite odd and rare among the 6000 cultures that exist on the planet, but they have become so deeply connected not only with capitalism, but also with socialism, that almost all of the mainstream institutions subscribe to these tenants.

I have been wondering more about the tendencies to see the world through animal-centric lenses as well. One book that I read, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz, really helped me to see this. He pointed out that many of the ways that we think about the senses are based on animal models, like how we associate seeing with eyes, smelling with noses, and hearing with ears, but that there are many different ways to perceive the world, and that plants have all sorts of amazing perceptual capacities.

This really helped me to recognise how widespread animal-centrism was among the general public, and even, more surprisingly, among scientists themselves.

We tend to think of plants as more passive and animals as more active (although often see humans as the only animal that have purpose-full non-instinctual behaviour, a presumption that I question in the book). I set out, in part inspired by Kimmerer, again, to explore the liveliness and active decision-making of plants and fungi, to expand our own understandings of what we think counts as forms of intentional action.

Although there may be a recent rise in the idea of mushrooms as the potential saviours of industrial capitalism, by and large we have been trained to see mushrooms as basically passive and mysterious.

I think instead by diving deep into the broad range of fungal capacities, we can see mushrooms as lively actors that actively perceive the world and act to help make it themselves, and this can fundamentally reorient our training to recognize all of our active kin all around us, indeed which we eat at every meal, and wear clothes made with their bodies, live in buildings made with their bodies, and so forth.

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RZ – What can the matsutake mushroom teach us about co-existence and the future of environmental research? Why did you choose to investigate this particular species?

MH – Interesting. One of the fundamental things that I think matsutake teaches us about co-existence (and by this we usually think of a human-entered existence with other species) is that in some ways, the set of expectations that human presence is always damaging, and that most other species are intrinsically harmed by humans is part of a dominant view that could be re-thought.

We were surprised to see that matsutake likes human “disturbance” in terms of cutting hardwood trees in the forest, as long as pine trees can come into these clearings. Matsutake likes it when rural farmers in places like China and Japan gently rake away pine needles to use as compost in their fields, and it grows more poorly when the pine needles and duff build up too thickly.

I was largely trained in an idea that wilderness rhymed with “nature” and that I had to get away from the city to experience nature. Matsutake shows us that we have many, many companion species all around us, that the conditions that are good for one species can be bad for another.

Matsutake can grow in places that might be seen as those of environmental loss and devastation, so it is time to re-think the romance of the wilderness, which is also problematic in some ways as it is often tied to a colonial way of seeing that erases Indigenous presence and histories in shaping those very “wilderness” landscapes.

We choose to explore the matsutake as it was so charismatic, so loved by so many people (especially in Japan) and folks in Japan paid so much for it that it created these amazing hubs of matsutake pickers all over the world (including China, Finland, Mexico, Canada and the States).

At first we wanted an interesting object to rethink conventional ideas of globalization as a predictable phenomenon that is controlled by the Global North. But over time, our project grew and morphed.

Likely if we choose another globally distributed mushroom like chanterelles or morels, we might come up with different ways to think about things, but to me that is part of the beauty of our project, that a group of people could study any single organism and really try to dive deep into learning how its presence shapes the world, including humans but especially the more-than-human world.

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RZ – If a reader wanted to start knowing more about mushrooms and their potential, what other titles would you suggest besides your own?

MH – There are so many wonderful new books out there on mushrooms. First, of course I would suggest the first volume in our trilogy, Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Anna’s book is a tour de force, which ranges over the world as we all worked together, from scientific lab, to remote mountain forests, to see how the matsutake changed the world.

Tsing’s book is especially important for those people wanting a creative engagement with how capitalism actually works, beyond the usual stories.

Another amazing book is Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. It was published after I finished writing mine, so I wasn’t able to engage Sheldrake’s book directly, but he’s a great storyteller and takes the reader along on his journeys into the tropics, among many places, to learn about how scientists like himself found out about their abilities.

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RZ – Could you share a few paragraphs of this book (maybe an excerpt from the intro) with our readers? Why did you choose this passage?

MH – Sure. Here are a few to give a sense of the style of writing and to lay out some of the bigger points. I choose this to reveal how many of us, including scientists, have ignored fungi and a few ways we might appreciate them as lively beings. For those nerdy folks out there like myself who want to read more about all of these claims, I try to provide endnotes so they can the original source.

Within mainstream Western education, fungi have been largely ignored, sometimes described as the “forgotten kingdom.” They have tremendous powers over our lives, and yet most accounts of the world leave them out entirely. Even in the late 1990s, botanists argued that plants were often underappreciated compared to animals and came up with estimates that of all living things on Earth, plants made up 99 percent of living biomass.This figure, however, was derived from a “two kingdom view of life” that excluded fungi.

Newer studies of the weight of the living world are more likely to consider fungi. New estimates suggest that they weigh more than humans and all other animals on the planet combined. Even biology textbooks tend to give them short shrift, vastly understating how fungi are shaping the world. Such neglect even influences our main models of climate change, to our detriment, given that mycologist Jennifer Talbot recently revealed that while all the major climate change predictions completely ignore fungi, they are likely the most important actors in determining how carbon moves through soils—a source of carbon ten times more important than all land-based human processes.

Fungi have been such influential world-makers in part because of their success in learning how to live in diverse habitats, from high mountaintops to the ocean deep. Even in one small area, such as between your toes, scientists have found more than forty species of fungi that have made a home. They have spread throughout the entire planet by water, land, and air, including places, such as the ice fields of Antarctica, where plants cannot survive. Recently, fungi were found deep underground, within the igneous oceanic crust itself, previously thought to be without life.

Their lightweight spores, designed to be airborne, allow fungi to traverse vast distances in space. Although we tend to think of fungi as stationary, like how we understand plants as rooted in place, fungal spores can move over space, flying high in the jet stream, crossing oceans, and jumping continents. In general, though, mushrooms move by spore or mycelia with plants, expanding or shrinking their territories slowly in relation to climatic changes, moving ahead of or behind glaciers. They have been thriving on the planet for so long that many have moved around the world riding on tectonic plates.

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Click here to purchase What a Mushroom Lives For