Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species

Anna Tsing Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA  
ABSTRACT   Human nature is an interspecies relationship. In this essay, Haraway’s concept of companion species takes us beyond familiar companions to the rich ecological diversity without which humans cannot survive. Following fungi, we forage in the last ten thousand years of human disturbance history with feminist multispecies company. Cereals domesticate humans. Plantations give us the subspecies we call race. The home cordons off inter- and intra-species love. But mushroom collecting brings us somewhere else—to the unruly edges and seams of imperial space, where we cannot ignore the interspecies interdependencies that give us life on earth. There are big stories to tell here, and they should not be left to the human triumphalists who control the field. This essay opens a door to multispecies landscapes as protagonists for histories of the world.


Domination, domestication, and love are deeply entangled. Home is where dependencies within and among species reach their most stifling. For all its hyped pleasure, perhaps this is not the best idea for multi-species life on earth. Consider, instead, the bounteous diversity of roadside margins. Consider mushrooms.

This essay is indebted to Donna Haraway not only for the concept of ‘companion species’ but also for the permission she offers us all to be both scientist and cultural critic—that is, to refuse the boundaries that cordon nature from culture—and besides, to dare tell the history of the world in a single sentence, or certainly a short essay. In this spirit, my essay begins with companionate experience and biology before moving to the history of domestication, European conquest, and the politically-and-biologically diverse potentials of the seams of global capitalism. These materials present a fungal argument against too avid an ideal of domestication, at least of women and plants.

Mushrooms in a multi-species landscape

Wandering and love of mushrooms engender each other. Walking is the speed of bodily pleasure and contemplation; it is also just the speed to look for mushrooms. After the rains, the air smells fresh with ozone, sap, and leaf litter, and my senses are alive with curiosity. What better than to encounter the orange folds of chanterelles pushing through the dark wet or the warm muffins of king boletes popping up through crumbly earth. The excitement of colour, fragrance, and design—not to speak of pride to be the first to find them—well up. But of these delights the best, I think, are two: first, the undeserved bounty of the gift; and second, the offer of a place that will guide my future walks. These mushrooms are not the product of my labour, and because I have not toiled and worried over them, they jump into my hands with all the pleasures of the unasked for and the unexpected. For a moment, my tired load of guilt is absolved, and, like a lottery winner, I am alight with the sweetness of life itself. Bismillah irachman irachim.

Delight makes an impression: an impression of place. The very excitement of my senses commits to memory the suite of colours and scents, the angle of the light, the scratching briars, the solid placement of this tree, and the rise of the hill before me. Many times, wandering, I have suddenly remembered every stump and hollow of the spot on which I stood—through the mushrooms I once encountered there. Conscious decision can also take me to a spot of past encounters, for the best way to find mushrooms is always to return to the places you found them before. In many cases, the growing body (mycelium) that gives rise to mushrooms as its fruits lasts from season to season; besides, some mushroom growing bodies are life-long companions to particular trees. If you want to find chanterelles in central California, you must look under oaks—but not just any oak: You must look for the oak that lives with chanterelle mycelium, and you’ll know it because you have seen the mushrooms there before. You visit the spot enough, and you know its seasonal flowers and its animal disturbances; you have made a familiar place in the landscape. Familiar places are the beginning of appreciation for multi-species interactions.

Foraging worked just this way for most of human history. To find a useful plant, animal, or fungus, foragers learned familiar places and returned to them again and again. Highpowered rifles and fish-overstocking make it possible to succeed in killing something in a random pass through the countryside; but sportsmen still do better with a local guide. Through their familiar places, foragers learn not just about ecological relations in general, but also about the stochastic natural histories through which particular species and species associations happened to flourish in particular spots. The familiar places of foraging do not require territorial exclusivity; other beings—human and otherwise—learn them too. Their expansive and overlapping geographies resist common models, which divide the world into ‘your space’ and ‘mine.’ Furthermore, foragers nurture landscapes—with their multiple residents and visitors—rather than single species. Familiar places engender forms of identification and companionship that contrast to hyper-domestication and private property as we know it. You who search for a world of mutually-flourishing companions, consider mushrooms.

Mushrooms are well known as companions. The concept of ‘symbiosis’—mutually beneficial interspecies living—was invented for the lichen, an association of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacteria. The non-fungal partner fuels lichen metabolism through photosynthesis; the fungus makes it possible for the lichen to live in extreme conditions. Repeated cycles of wetting and drying do not faze the lichen, because the fungal partner can re-organise its membranes as soon as water appears, allowing photosynthesis to resume. Lichen may be found in frozen tundra and on parched desert rocks.

For mushroom lovers, the most intriguing interspecies companionship is that between fungi and plant roots. In mycorrhiza, the threads of the fungal body sheathe or enter the roots of plants. Indian pipes and other plants without chlorophyll are supported entirely from the nutrients they gain from fungi in their roots; many orchids cannot even germinate without fungal assistance. Here plants gain sustenance from fungi; in more cases, however, the fungus obtains sustenance from the plant. But a mycorrhizal fungus is not just selfish in its eating. It brings the plant water and makes minerals from the surrounding soil available for its host. Fungi can even bore into rocks, making their mineral elements available for plant growth. In the long history of the earth, fungi are responsible for enriching soil thus allowing plants to evolve; fungi channel minerals from rocks to plants. Trees are able to grow on poor soils because of the fungi that bring their roots phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and more. In the area I live, foresters inoculate the roots of the Douglas fir seedlings they plant with Suillus (slippery jack) to aid reforestation. Meanwhile, many of the most favoured mushrooms of cuisine are mycorrhizal. In France, truffle farmers inoculate tree seedlings in fenced plots. But, of course, the fungi are perfectly capable of doing this work themselves—but with a more open geography. And so we mushroom-lovers wander, seeking the companionship of trees as well as mushrooms.

Fungi are not always benign in their interspecies associations. Fungi are dauntingly omnivorous in their carbon conversion habits. Various fungi subsist on live as well as dead animals and plants. Some are ferocious pathogens. (Cryptococcus neoformans kills many AIDS patients.) Some are irritating parasites. (Think of ringworm or athlete’s foot.) Some slide through their hosts’ intestines innocuously waiting to arrive in a pat of dung in which to flourish. Some fungi find totally unexpected substrates: Cladosporium resinae, originally found in tree resins, has found a taste for airplane fuel, causing blocked fuel lines. Some hurt one host while living happily with another: Puccina graminis bonds with the barberry bush and feeds flies with its nectar to produce the spores that will kill as they grow on wheat. Fungal appetites are always ambivalent in their benevolence, depending on your point of view. The ability of fungi to degrade the cellulose and lignin of dead wood, so feared in protecting wooden houses, is also fungi’s greatest gift to forest regeneration. Otherwise, the forest would be stacked with dead wood, and other organisms would have a smaller and smaller nutrient base. Meanwhile, the role of fungi in ecosystem renewal makes it more than obvious that fungi are always companions to other species. Species interdependence is a well-known fact— except when it comes to humans.

Human exceptionalism blinds us. Science has inherited stories about human mastery from the great monotheistic religions. These stories fuel assumptions about human autonomy, and they direct questions to the human control of nature, on the one hand, or human impact on nature, on the other, rather than to species interdependence. One of the many limitations of this heritage is that it has directed us to imagine human species being, that is, the practices of being a species, as autonomously self-maintaining—and therefore constant across culture and history. The idea of human nature has been given over to social conservatives and sociobiologists, who use assumptions of human constancy and autonomy to endorse the most autocratic and militaristic ideologies. What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence? Human nature is an interspecies relationship. Far from challenging genetics, an interspecies frame for our species opens possibilities for biological as well as cultural research trajectories. We might understand more, for example, about the various webs of domestication in which we humans have entangled ourselves.

Domestication is ordinarily understood as human control over other species. That such relations might also change humans is generally ignored. Moreover, domestication tends to be imagined as a hard line: You are either in the human fold or you are out in the wild. Because this dichotomisation stems from an ideological commitment to human mastery, it supports the most outrageous fantasies of domestic control, on the one hand, and wild species self-making, on the other. Through such fantasies, domestics are condemned to life imprisonment and genetic standardisation, while wild species are  ‘preserved’ in gene banks while their multi-species landscapes are destroyed. Yet despite these extreme efforts, most species on both sides of the line—including humans—live in complex relations of dependency and interdependence. Attention to this diversity can be the beginning of an appreciation of interspecies species being.

Fungi are indicator species for the human condition. Few fungi have found their way into human domestication schemes, and only a few of those—such as fungi used for industrial enzyme production—have had their genomes badly tampered with. (Supermarket button mushrooms are the same Agaricus bisporus as those growing in meadows.) Yet fungi are ubiquitous, and they follow all our human experiments and follies. Consider Serpula lacrymans, the dry rot fungus, once found only in the Himalayas. Through their South Asian conquests, the British navy incorporated it into their ships. S. lacrymans flourished in the unseasoned woods often used in ships for naval campaigns, and thus it traveled around the world. By the early nineteenth century, the decay of wood in British naval ships was called a “national calamity,” and panic ensued until the introduction of ironclad war ships in the 1860s. Dry rot, however, just kept spreading, as the fungus found new homes in the damp basement beams and railroad ties of British-sponsored civilisation. British expansion and dry rot moved together. As in this example, the presence of fungi often tell us of the changing practices of being human.

The domestication of humans is one place to begin…

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