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What a Mushroom Lives For
Matsutake and the Worlds They Make

What a Mushroom Lives For pushes today’s mushroom renaissance in compelling new directions. For centuries, Western science has promoted a human- and animal-centric framework of what counts as action, agency, movement, and behavior. But, as Michael Hathaway shows, the world-making capacities of mushrooms radically challenge this orthodoxy by revealing the lively dynamism of all forms of life.

The book tells the fascinating story of one particularly prized species, the matsutake, and the astonishing ways it is silently yet powerfully shaping worlds, from the Tibetan plateau to the mushrooms’ final destination in Japan. Many Tibetan and Yi people have dedicated their lives to picking and selling this mushroom—a delicacy that drives a multibillion-dollar global trade network and that still grows only in the wild, despite scientists’ intensive efforts to cultivate it in urban labs. But this is far from a simple story of humans exploiting a passive, edible commodity. Rather, the book reveals the complex, symbiotic ways that mushrooms, plants, humans, and other animals interact. It explores how the world looks to the mushrooms, as well as to the people who have grown rich harvesting them.

A surprise-filled journey into science and human culture, this exciting and provocative book shows how fungi shape our planet and our lives in strange, diverse, and often unimaginable ways.

Awards and Recognition

  • Winner of the Jim Deva Prize for Writing that Provokes, BC and Yukon Book Prizes

  • Winner of the Labrecque-Lee Book Prize, Canadian Anthropology Society

  • Finalist for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, BC and Yukon Book Prizes

  • Nominee for the James Beard Media Award in Reference, History, and Scholarship

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What a Mushroom Lives For is comprised of two parts. The first part takes us on a tour of how fungi have shaped the conditions for all life on the planet. Dr. Hathaway challenges anthropocentric views of agency as he delves into fungi as world-makers. The second half of the book takes us to Southwest China where he worked as an anthropologist for 25 years. In this region, the matsutake mushroom has played a critical role in shaping the ecologies and economies of Tibetan and Yi peoples. Although the second half looks closely at how engaging with the matsutake shapes these human societies, it also looks at how matsutake are carrying out their own world-making relationships with different trees and insects, beyond human intentionality and control.  


“Few readers, I suspect, have ever considered fungi to be sentient, but Michael Hathaway argues that mushrooms (as well as plants and other organisms widely considered as passive automatons), though not exactly conscious, nevertheless ‘engage their surroundings in a dynamic way.’ . . . The takeaway, Hathaway advises, should at least be a renewed appreciation of the interconnectedness of all forms of life, flora, fauna, and ‘funga,’ and a realization that the world is ‘made and remade through relationships.’” 

—Laurence Marshall, Natural History

What a Mushroom Lives For is a captivating journey into a manifold of lives—arboreal, human, and otherwise—that make and are made by the distinctive matsutake mushroom. Michael Hathaway carefully weaves together stories, theories, field notes, drawings, and diagrams gathered over a decade to model ways in which readers might begin to inhabit mushroom worlds.”


—Elaine Gan, coeditor of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

“I found this book delightful. It is a poetic story of fungi and some of the ways in which they are beautiful, fascinating, and endowed with stories that entangle humans yet remain all their own.”


—Rob Dunn, author of A Natural History of the Future

"Move over, Paul Stamets and Michael Pollan! Reading What a Mushroom Lives For is like having someone gently turn the living world inside out and upside down for you. In stunning prose, Michael Hathaway celebrates the liveliness and dynamic intelligence of those essential workers who dwell in a hidden biocultural landscape at our feet. Eloquent, erudite, and at times darkly funny, Hathaway's narrative sheds fresh light on the meaning of that hackneyed rhyme, ‘there is a fungus among us.’ ”


— Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Food from the Radical Center

“A truly delightful and much-needed journey into ‘myco-centrism’! This book is an important invitation to think about interspecies organization from a collaborative point of view, with all its complexities and implications. Not only does it invite us to understand how some fungi live, but also how through their existence they can craft cultures and societies. It is much repeated that fungi are the interconnectors of nature, and this book takes that concept to another sociological and philosophical level.”


—Giuliana Furci, founder and CEO of the Fungi Foundation

“Perfect reading for all fans of Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life, Hathaway's fascinating analysis of how mushrooms - and in particular the matsutake - are reshaping regions and communities is an eye-opening blend of popular science and nature writing.”


—Waterstones Book Store, UK

"Hathaway questions not only everyday thinking but also the very categories and metaphors that science has used to describe the natural world, and upends the reader’s thinking from the first pages of the book.This text truly centers the matsutake mushroom and takes readers on a journey through the matsutake’s lives and worlds–questioning science, reconfiguring our understanding of matsutake world making and vividly reimagining ethnography of Southwest China and Tibet. After reading this book you will never see the world the same.”


Melissa Johnson, author of Becoming Creole: Nature and Race in Belize

“This book will be valuable to social scientists and ecologists, and essential to philosophers of human-fungi relationships.”


—E. N. Anderson, emeritus, University of California, Riverside

Editors Pick for February 2023 by Choice Reviews: 

Read the full review here.

“This book will be valuable to social scientists and ecologists, and essential to philosophers of human-fungi relationships.”


— Bruch Reed, Mycophile, North American Mycological Association

Read the full review here.

“Human exceptionalism posits that only humans can use tools, feel pain, imagine the future, and communicate through language. But what would it mean to recognize a greater diversity of active world-making that extends into the realm of plants, fungi, bacteria, and others? Hathaway, an anthropologist, persuasively argues that fungi are neither passive nor inferior: they make choices, they collaborate, and they can help combat climate change and transform soil, economies, and consciousness. A book as mind-altering as psilocybin..”


MIT Technology Review

“The world of fungi is fascinating and Hathaway is a wonderful guide.”


— Recommended by Emily B., Powell's Picks of the Month

“A transformative look into science and human culture, this book shows how fungi shape our planet and our lives in strange, diverse, and often unimaginable ways.”


— Biome (Australia)

“It is highly recommended for readers interested in multispecies ethnography.”


— Huan Yu, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“ What A Mushroom Lives For is an impressive account of Hathaway’s journey into the fungal world and how these vital organisms can unravel centuries-old ways of thinking about our relationship with nature. It is a provocative challenge to anthropocentric, human, exceptionalist and resourcist ways of acting in and understanding the world. Amid a growing valorisation of fungi, What A Mushroom Lives For is set to be a landmark text.”


— Kate Marston, The Sociological Review

“ Hathaway is an important thinker who is on to something when he asserts that “Some scholars... have begun to engage with fungi to open up new realms of thinking;” this is the work, folks! The mushrooms deserve it and so do we.”


— Bruch Reed, Mycophile by The North American Mycological Association

“Dr. Hathaway gives us a surprise-filled journey into science and human culture, this exciting and provocative book shows how fungi shape our planet and our lives in strange, diverse, and often unimaginable ways."

— Dr. Miranda Melcher, host of New Books Network for Food

“ In Michael Hathaway’s hands, mushrooms come to life not just as objects of human fears and desires but also as makers of more-than-human worlds. Hathaway is curious about the longue durée as well as the contemporary. Why did mammals evolve warm-bloodedness many millions of years ago? How do present- day Tibetans in Yunnan raise funds to revive traditional architecture? These and many more strange and wonderful things about the world turn out to rest on the actions and reactions of fungi.”


— Anna Tsing, author of The Mushroom at The End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

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"For those of you who don’t yet know much about fungi, I hope this book might ignite your curiosity. When I began this project, the “mushroom renaissance” had barely started, but by now I have met many of the people who have inspired my work and taught me a great deal. For those of you already under the spell of fungi, this book offers insights into fungi’s diverse abilities to transform the world, and I hope to provide more respect and less idealization, as well as to challenge the predilection toward turning fungi into the carbon- sequestering, plastic-eating solution to human-made woes. For those of you who are already suspicious of widespread claims of human exceptionalism, this book might fuel your thinking and foster new ways of being. For those of you practicing ethics-centered diets and forms of consumption such as vegetarianism or veganism, who draw a clear line of demarcation between the capacities of plants and animals (and typically put mushrooms in the plant realm), I hope this book will persuade you to rethink this division."


"Fungi are like animals in several ways, for indeed we are both within the larger category... opisthokonts. This means we each need to consume other organisms to survive... Moreover, we both breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Some fungi eat live animals, hunting them with snare traps and sticky nets."



"Focusing on these interactions points to the ways that, in fact, every organism is actively making worlds all around us, worlds that we share, whether we notice them or not. This happens in relation to and despite the current tragedy of climate change, cascading extinctions, and increasing pollution. To experience life in which humans are not at the center encourages a newfound attention and curiosity about how we make lives together. It is my hope that through such a perspective we might move toward a reenchantment of the world that would see other beings as just as alive and complex as ourselves."


What a Mushroom Lives For



"Fungi, thus, bring bread into being, but they can also take it away from us, as many people keep bread until blue mold appears in ever expanding circles."


"... world-making suggests that all living organisms constantly interpret and engage their surroundings, and thus creatively participate in making their worlds."


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By Jacob Klein

"What a Mushroom Lives For has much to offer food studies scholars and students. It challenges us to take the things we often approach as passive artifacts of human cultures and economies and instead appreciate them as agents in more-than-human-worlds."

The Sociological Review

By Kate Marston

"What a Mushroom Lives For is a timely, imaginative and compelling exploration of the strange and wonderful world of fungi. "

The Mycophile

By Bruch Reed

"[Hathaway] repeatedly demonstrates that the bioscience language we have developed, while essential to bringing us to the understanding we have achieved of the world and our place in it, also imprisons us within a problematically limiting framework that obscures and prevents us from ascending the next rung of our understanding of the other organisms with whom we coexist (yes, I said “whom”)...Fellow mycophiles, I think you need to read this book. I know I did."

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