[With Willoughby Arevalo] “How do fungi communicate?" MIT Technological Review.
Each fungus may “speak” with many other species— and it turns out they have a lot to say.
As organisms living in complex relations to other life forms, fungi could not exist without communicating. And while they’ve traditionally been viewed as sessile, or permanently fixed in place, mycelia move by extending the tips of their tubes through a substrate, which could be a patch of soil or a fallen log.
As fungi grow, they are constantly sensing, learning, and making decisions. Fungi are like polyglots: they both “speak” and understand a wide range of chemical signals. They release and respond to chemicals that float through the air and flow through water. Fascinatingly, fungi not only perceive but actively interpret a chemical’s meaning depending on the context and in relation to other chemicals.
Studies of how fungi communicate lag way behind research on communication of plants and especially of animals. Most are based on several “lab rat” species, so knowledge about other types is limited, but here we summarize what’s known about three realms of communication: within a fungus, between fungi of the same species, and with other organisms.
“Matsutake Journeys" Breakthrough Journal. No. 17, Summer 2022
What one mushroom tells us about war, trade, diet, and ecology.
All of the sudden, the mushrooms were everywhere: filling large bamboo baskets, and spilling out of woven plastic sacks. On their way to the airport, they were then stuffed into taxis, SUVs, and even passenger buses with the seats ripped out. Walking down the street in Kunming in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province in the late fall of 2019, you could catch a whiff of their strange scent, a mixture of cinnamon and sweetness and chili peppers.
Overnight, this place, tucked in the eastern Himalayas, had become the world’s key location for one of the planet’s most valuable wild mushrooms: the matsutake. These mushrooms are firm and white, and while the yak-herding Tibetans and goat-herding Yi people that had traditionally picked them eat all kinds of mushrooms, they never particularly loved these. Sometimes they’d get tossed in the soup pot, of course, but everything changed in the 1980s, when Japanese businessmen found out that they grew here.
[With Suzanne Barber] “China’s Pet Activists: Using Moral Arguments and Epidemic Concerns to Make Space for Animal Rights.” Invited article for a special issue on Animals and Epidemics in Asia, in International Review of Environmental History, edited by Fa-ti Fan. 8 (1): 63-80.
In China, a widespread movement for animal rights arose only recently and without a strong level of state-based support, unlike the well-documented rise in Europe and North America. This movement has nonetheless become a vocal force for social change. Somewhat surprisingly, as other social movements have experienced increasing state-led resistance and pressure since 2012, the animal rights contingent has remained a vibrant part of the social landscape that mediates humans’ relations with other animals. How have these agents been able to persist despite the greater political clampdown? We argue that the Covid-19 pandemic, first identified in China, has become a new resource for animal rights activists. These activists are working to leverage the growing fear of zoonotic contagion as a rationale for their work for dogs.
“Elusive Fungus? Forms of Attraction in Multi-Species World-Making.”
This article explores how attraction, a companion term to elusiveness, reveals insights into multispecies worlds by showing how different organisms such as the matsutake mushroom interpret the world and interact with each other, whether or not humans are involved. Building on scholarly interest in the ‘animal turn’ (explorations of the human-animal relationship), this article moves beyond human-centered scholarship by using, but also modifying, the concept of umwelt introduced by the Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Employing a critical social scientific reading of the biological literature that analyzes its findings, as well as challenges its animal-centric models of agency and behavior, I argue that this perspective helps us better understand ourselves as humans in a world that is much more than human.
“Chinese Indigenous Peoples? How Global Environmentalism Unintentionally
Smuggled the Notion of Indigeneity into China.” Humanities 5(3): 54.
This article explores how global environmental organizations unintentionally fostered the notion of indigenous people and rights in a country that officially opposed these concepts. In the 1990s, Beijing declared itself a supporter of indigenous rights elsewhere, but asserted that, unlike the Americas and Australia, China had no indigenous people. Instead, China described itself as a land of “ethnic minority” groups, not indigenous groups. In some sense, the state’s declaration appeared effective, as none of these ethnic minority groups launched significant grassroots efforts to align themselves with the international indigenous rights movement. At the same time, as international environmental groups increased in number and strength in 1990s China, their policies were undergoing significant transformations to more explicitly support indigenous people. This article examines how this challenging situation arose, and discusses the unintended consequences after a major environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), carried out a project using the language of indigeneity in China.
“Wild Commodities and Environmental Governance: Transforming Lives and
Markets in China and Japan.” Conservation and Society 12(4): 398-407.
This paper explores the relationship between forms of environmental governance and a transnational commodity chain for a wild mushroom that is picked in China and shipped to Japan. I argue that unlike some portrayals of environmental governance that largely assume a unified system working towards similar goals, governance comes from a number of sources and exhibits a range of forms, which at times overlap and contradict each other. In particular, this paper reflects on notions of commodification that are often argued to be part of neoliberal environmental governance. I show that diverse forms of environmental governance are shaping the texture of commodity chains, but not always working towards the overall increase in commodification. For example, in the last decade, the matsutake economy in China has been strongly influenced by several forms of environmental governance, such as a large-scale logging ban, the declaration of the matsutake as an endangered species, and its scrutiny in Japan as a potential object of contamination. I suggest that each of these forms of governance shapes the conditions of possibility and inflects the dynamics of this chain in different ways.
“The Emergence of Indigeneity: Public Intellectuals and an Indigenous Space in
Southwest China.” Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 301-333.
This article explores the social worlds of indigeneity as an ethnographic question, using the notion of “Indigenous space.” By this term, I refer to the ways that the concept of Indigenous people is engaged with and used in speciﬁc locales at speciﬁc times. I examine one small but important part of an emerging Indigenous space in China: the role of public intellectuals and their critical link to environmentalism. In China, questions of indigeneity have not been seen as a separate issue of human rights or indigenous rights, but have mostly revolved around environmental issues. I argue that understanding indigeneity as a process of emergence can shed more light on it as a social phenomenon that does not just travel on its own and gain acceptance, but requires continual acts of creative invention.
“Global Environmental Encounters in Southwest China: Fleeting Intersections and
‘Transnational Work’.” The Journal of Asian Studies 69(2): 427-451.
This paper engages with the critical literature on development through a study of transnational environmentalism in China. Within the last decade, international development efforts have become increasingly important in shaping China's encounters with global sensibilities, funds, and projects. The author builds on scholarship that approaches China as a transnational entity and examines the emerging politics of the environment in China. Based on an ethnographic case study of a conservation and development project in Yunnan Province, the paper argues against conceptions that international development agendas can be unilaterally imposed. Rather, it suggests that in order to gain traction, agendas require a variety of agents. These agents create convergences through forms of “transnational work,” by and through particular social engagements. Finally, this paper reveals how such convergences remain tenuous and fleeting, and can be quickly dissolved when one side or another changes its orientation.
“Postcolonial Science Studies and the Making of Matsutake Science in China.”
My individual contribution is part of a larger, jointly edited article by the Matsutake Worlds Research Group (Timothy Choy, Lieba Faier, Michael Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka and Anna Tsing), titled “A New Form of Collaboration in Cultural Anthropology: Matsutake Worlds. ”Experiments in collaboration open new investigative possibilities for cultural anthropologists. In this report, we use our research on matsutake mushrooms to show the promise of collaborative experiments for ethnographers of scale making, global connection, and human—nonhuman relations. For my contribution, I use postcolonial science studies to examine the transnational production, flow, and transformation of scientific knowledge about matsutake.
“Strong Collaboration as a Method for Multi-sited Ethnography: On Mycorrhizal Relations.” Matsutake Worlds Research Group (Timothy Choy, Lieba Faier, Michael Hathaway, Miyako Inoue, Shiho Satsuka and Anna Tsing), In Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis, and Locality in Contemporary Social Research. Edited by Mark-Anthony Falzon. New York: Routledge, 197-214.
In our project, we follow two objects: collaboration itself and a mushroom called matsutake. In this chapter, we refrain from telling you much about matsutake; instead, we grapple with the question of how strong collaboration can contribute to multi-sited ethnography. As might be expected, the format of this chapter itself reflects a particular moment of strong collaboration in our project. Collectively written prose – generally the most readable and useful product of collaborative work – is still awkward for us because we have not agreed upon a ‘voice’ that can reflect everyone’s position. So we begin by including something more basic: short, signed contributions each by a single author. This need not be our ending point, but it represents a beginning: and one that highlights the process itself.
What A Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds they Make
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Contract for translation into Chinese.
Co-edited with Lieba Faier
Revised and expanded version of Social Analysis special journal issue. Berghahn Press.
Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Contract for translation into Russian.
People, Plants, and Protected Areas: A Guide to in situ Management
John Tuxill and Gary Paul Nabhan with Michael Hathaway and Elizabeth Drexler.
London: Earthscan Books.
Translations in Chinese and Spanish