Category Archives: The Wilds

from Matsutake mushrooms to entanglements, patches and methodologies

I found Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World such an extraordinary book. I love particularly how it stretches to understand and theorise complexity in a way closely tied to justice struggles, that includes but is hardly limited to political economy and ecology.

It opens with this idea of entanglement, and its challenges to more traditional theorising around capitalism, nature, knowledge. I love her language, her style and the way it in turn allows such an intense grappling-with-things-as-they-are. She talks about enabling entanglements, all that this allows us to think through:

Ever since the enlightenment, western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature. It was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human. Several things have happened to undermine this division of labor. First, all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is unclear whether life on earth can continue. Second, interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. Third, women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature. The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles.

There is no question of what the stakes are — this wonderful idea of riotous presence. She continues

Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. (vii)

She continues:

My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead…Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this books sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. (viii)

This ‘crippling assumption’ of linear progress is critiqued again and again, as is the reduction of theory:

While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into re-sources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.’ Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.’ This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut: the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. (5-6)

Again this is creating theory able to think in new ways about an all-pervasive precarity, all-pervasive spaces of abandonment and ruin (at the same as possible spaces of life and hope), and the entanglements that are part of this in complex ways. On precarity:

Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (20)

On assemblage, which she draws on a great deal and I confess I’ve never much cared for… but I love the idea stretched to be wielded in this way, these lifeways.

The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible: still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making. For my purposes, however, I need something other than organisms as the elements that gather. I need to see lifeways—and non-living ways of being as well—coming together. Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?

Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; cart horses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. (23)

I love how for her this fits into the landscape — a term with immense baggage in the world of geography, but still very useful I think. It moves into questions of methodology, where I also find so much to think about here, draw into my own work.

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

The concept of salvage, something I also find really useful:

‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control…”Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works. (63)

On supply chains, commodities, what a mushroom can teach us about the contemporary nature of capitalism, the idea of translation:

A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.’ Throughout this part, I explore the supply chain linking matsutake pickers in the forests of Oregon with those who eat the mushrooms in Japan. The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces, which, borrowing from ecologists’ usage, I call “patches.” Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth. (62)

and this:

Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm: commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world. (110)

She continues with what helped out allow the global shift to outsourcing but following the commodity chain of the matsutake — this is a long quote but traces this way of unraveling how things work, fit together, of seeing absences as well as presences, of bringing together multiple ways of understanding how a thing works and how assemblage might be a useful concept along more traditional concepts used in looking at capitalism like alienation:

…I let the thread of the story unroll quite far from matsutake. Yet at each step I need the chain’s reminders to resist the lull of current erasures. This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.

In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements. turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force.

Two have been particularly important for my thinking in this book. First, alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their life-worlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human. (133)

Gives examples of children reclaiming precious and dangerous metals from cell phones as another example of salvage — not anything thought of as capitalist labour, yet important to more traditional forms of labour such as the making of new phones.

However, there is something peculiar and frightening in this dedication salvage, as if everyone were taking advantage of the end of the world to gather up riches before the last bits are destroyed. (274)

These different forms of exploitation alongside each other makes theorising and organising for a better world difficult, but it is the task before us. Salvage is perhaps a term that can help get us where we need to go:

The challenges are enormous. Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the `latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans. The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. The next part of this book offers an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements. (134-35)

And so we return to methods, to storytelling, to knowing place:

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

History is central to this, but what is it exactly? What does it need to be?

“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes. Such tracks and traces speak to cross-species entanglements in contingency and con-juncture, the components of “historical” time. To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.’ Whether or not other organisms “tell stories,” they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.2 History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human. (168)

Just two other tidbits to end:

Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft–but also its vulnerability. (271)

I just need to sit and think about that. And this, which perhaps is the real challenge this book seeks to address, the need for these new ways of thinking, studying, understanding:

Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense. (25)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Boyana Church (БОЯНСКАТА ЦЪРКВА) to Boyana Waterfall

We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.

It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:

Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.

boyanachurch

A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:

The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.

The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:

From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.

Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.

The mountain now, and some of its wonders:

boyanawaterfall

boyanachurch

The waterfall

We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.

Space and splendour and Weston Super Mare

I know those adjectives don’t usually go together, but I stand by it. The first Saturday of February, there were no holiday hordes. There was almost no one there but for a couple of the beaches where absolutely everyone was out walking their dogs. That was quite glorious. But we walked past great mud flats and rickety ruined piers stretched out above the mud and the waves through woods and out past sand bay full of windswept grass with black feathered heads beyond which stand mysterious islands shrouded in the distant mist and a great city shining white on the far banks of the Severn (Cardiff). Out to Sand Point, the tail end of the Mendips forming sweeping coves and secluded rocky beaches. A defense installation, pill boxes, old boats beached high. Neolithic mounds. Walls built by prisoners of the Napoleonic war. The sky was blue above us scattered with clouds — except when it was all cloud, but this is England after all.

Above all there was room to expand, to breathe even as the wind did its best to take your breath away.

I have a new coat that actually keeps me warm. It has changed my life.

Sweetwater trail, AZ

Mark, Julie and I on New Year’s Day, snow on the Tucson Mountains, seeing quail, coyote, deer. Taking these as tokens of the year ahead, even the dead tarantula curled up in the middle of the small wash. Working to ignore the unsustainable arrogance of wealth mushrooming across the desert in the form of giant block houses. I hope my year is full of wilds and family and love, some writing, some working to change the world.

Snows of KitT peak to Brown mountain trail

Anyone who came to visit us was taken to Kitt Peak, once the largest, most advanced astronomical observatory in the world. It is still wondrous, though larger, more modern telescopes have since been placed further from lights and cities.

I’ve never driven there, and it bears so little resemblance to childhood memories. In snow and wind it was quite honestly terrifying.

But the skies, oh the skies were wondrous.

Once arrived, we found they had cancelled the next tour because of high winds. The highest winds I have ever experienced I think. We wandered about a little, the solar telescope is the one I remember best so we went there. Doors all closed, therefore locked. I crept towards the edge to see the incredible view but didn’t even get close.

I’ve never driven there, and it bears so little resemblance to childhood memories. In snow and wind it was quite honestly terrifying. Once arrived, we found they had cancelled the next tour because of high winds. The highest winds I have ever experienced I think. We wandered about a little, the solar telescope is the one I remember best so we went there. Doors all closed, therefore locked. I crept towards the edge to see the incredible view but didn’t even get close.

We must go back and see it again properly.

We drove back down along Ajo, down the roller coaster of Kinny and along through the Tucson Mountains to hike Brown Mountain Trail. I ran up here once to sit on this hill and watch a wall of rain across the valley. The trail is beuatiful, though perhaps a little too close to the road, which is far too busy for my liking. But we came up the hill and stared back across to Baboquivari and Kitt Peak, sun beams streaming down to light them up. Sacred mountains.


Milagrosa Canyon

Mark, Julie and I had our first great walk of Christmas holiday ought eighteen up in the Catalina foothills (directions here), with flowers blooming everywhere in such a wet winter. It was beautiful. We went off trail a bit and I had forgotten how much I loved that, but we did pay for it in blood and Mark’s new typology of stabby things, hooked stabby things and barbed stabby things. Also, sore muscles.

A Most Beautiful Place: In search of the Dolmen of Izas

An amazing walk, starting from La Estación de Canfranc and walking up and up. We stopped first at the Coll de Ladrones, hill of thieves — we had been staring at it the day before.

An amazing walk, starting from La Estación de Canfranc and walking up and up. We stopped first at the Coll de Ladrones, hill of thieves — we had been staring at it the day before.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

The first fortifications were built here in the 16th century. But this incredible space is from the 18th Century, started after the war of independence and built to guard the valley against France. It sits amongst many more modern defenses built by Franco here beginning in 1944. None of them are as amazing as this. You walk up to the main gate, and it’s only then that you realise this hill is essentially moated:

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

You can’t get down there.

We continued up from there. Across rubble and through flowers.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Up to the fields

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Absurdly beautiful.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

We walked along this stream most of the way

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

This is as high as we got — we did not find the dolmen, and it seemed no one else was as keen on such things as me, so it was not seen on any of my maps nor marked after that first sign that sent us astray.

Looking up to the right

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Back down the valley

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

More beautiful places. And cows, each with its bell.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

De la Estación de Canfranc al Mirador del Epifanio: Pyrenees walk

We’re in Zaragoza! Mark is examining a PhD even now as I sit in relative luxury. We spent two(ish) days in the Pyrenees and they were amazing, this is our first short walk up to the casita blanca y el mirador del epifanio…I imagine these woods full of partisans, makes them as magical as they were beautiful. The Station itself has an amazing history, but more on that later…

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

La casita blanca is relatively recent, built as part of the work to reforest this hillside to control avalanaches and landslides.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

A little higher is the ‘lookout’ over the Epifanio, a wide dam from which you can look down to La Estacion de Canfranc

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And up to the peaks.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And if you look very closely you can see the group of chamois we saw drinking there. There was a whole large group of them, but almost invisible in the shade. They are almost in the photo’s center, on the rock just to the left of the stream.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And then back down again, to the welcome shade of the forest. It was very hot, the forest very beautiful.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio