Quirks and Quarks·Q & A

A Canadian researcher makes the case for admiring the mighty mushroom

"What A Mushroon Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make" is the new book by anthropology professor Michael Hathaway

"What A Mushroon Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make" by anthropologist Michael Hathaway

The highly prized matsutake mushroom (Michael Hathaway)

Anthropologist Michael Hathaway thinks mushrooms are understudied and unappreciated.

In fact, he thinks fungi should be celebrated as "world makers," for the profound influence they have on our biosphere. 

He describes this influence in a new book, in which he explores how mushrooms - including one particularly prized species, the matsutake - have changed the world through interactions with plants and animals, including humans. The book is called What A Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make. Hathaway is a professor of anthropology and Director of the David Lam Centre For Asian Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He spoke with Quarks & Quarks host Bob McDonald, and here's part of their conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity 

Let's talk about fungi in general. You call them 'world makers' and say 'the daily actions of trillions of fungi have shaped our planet for millions of years'. Break that down for me. 

Fungi have existed for so, so long, and they do so many actions. For example, they are what helps to break down the Earth's early crust that turned it from rock to soil. They're the ones that helped all the plants to really adapt to life on land. And they provided a critical bridge bringing soil, nutrients, and water up to feed the plants.

They actually turn out to live in every leaf that has been studied now, and they're related to every single animal that we know. So whether they are providing sustenance or as a source of disease or breaking down wood, what we know as rot, all of these things combined together utterly change the whole planet; from the air we breathe to the soil we walk on to almost every single food that we eat, whether we know it or not. 

You write that there are mushroom loving and mushroom fearing people. Who's who? 

It is really interesting, it seems that the British are kind of outstanding in their fear of of mushrooms. And, you know, they're surrounded by people like the French, the Italians, the Russians, many others who just have such a deep love of mushrooms.

And in Russia, for example, there are whole extra trains that will go out to the certain areas when a certain mushroom is fruiting because it's just so popular. Whereas in England there's been a lot of fear of them, a lot of sense of them as being elements of death and decay and a lot of concern over their potential toxicity. 

Tibetan villages carry baskets of matsutake mushrooms (Michael Hathaway)

Much of your book is focused on a particular species of mushroom called the matsutake. Why did you focus on that one? 

The matsutake mushroom is one of a handful of mushrooms that really shapes the global economy. It was obviously such an important mushroom species. And it turns out that the main reason is that people in Japan are just utterly passionate about this mushroom. They have paid incredible prices, one thousand dollars a pound at the peak.

Well, what's so special about it? What makes it so valuable? 

It's kind of an ordinary looking mushroom, mostly white and firm, but the smell and in some ways the flavour is just utterly distinct. It's kind of spicy and cinematic and aromatic, but for some kind of mysterious reason, long ago in Japan, it got so deeply associated with a Japanese identity, with the Japanese royalty, with this idea of luxury, that for a long time it was something that if you were in Japan, only the royal family was really supposed to eat.

Awaiting the opening of a matsutake mushroom market in Tibet (Michael Hathaway)

You can see amazing poetry from eight centuries ago and watercolours of the royal family. And that was one of the main things they loved to do in the autumn. So it's a very seasonal thing. It's probably the most quintessential Japanese autumnal activity. And then there's also this real strong sense of, it's a very Japanese thing to be passionate about this mushroom and the other cultures don't fully appreciate its deliciousness because they are not Japanese. 

Are they hard to find or are they rare? 

They became quite common in Japan in the 1940s, while Japan was in the middle of World War Two. And at that time, the matsutake became really abundant. And a lot of people were saying this was a good omen for Japanese success in the war.

But then after the the war was lost, especially by the fifties and sixties, they started becoming rarer and rarer in Japan. And people started to worry. By the seventies they were sending out agents and scientists all over the world to try to find any unknown populations of matsutake. And they found them all over, so they were relieved. And then they began this incredible global economy that's now often worth over $4 billion a year. It's just amazing. 

Michael Hathaway (Simon Fraser University)

Toward the end of your book, you introduce the idea that mushrooms can save the world. What do you mean by that? 

Well, I both introduced it and I also push a little bit against it. It's a very interesting concept, and that was most strongly articulated by a brilliant evangelical mycologist named Paul Stamets, who wrote a book about that. And he describes a number of elements, capacities, really, of mushrooms of what they can do for human betterment. So they can often clean up all kinds of polluting activities that humans do.

They can digest oil, they can digest all kinds of chemicals. There's somebody that's learned how to feed their mushroom a steady diet of cigarette butts, and evidently they can thrive after they've been trained for a while. They're starting to discover how they eat plastic in the landfill. So they describe that in terms of the environmental realm and then in terms of health, I totally agree that their potential for human medical uses is vast and barely explored.


But on the other hand, I push against this a little bit. I'm a little bit leery of a totally utilitarian view of fungi. I don't want to just think of them as only saving this planet for us, of cleaning up a human made mess. And so I want to think about a different relationship that is not just trying to look at them as a resource only for human betterment.

And I think that is part of this understanding that I've come up with in terms of dealing very closely with fungi and learning a lot about them as I've become a little bit more skeptical of a human centeredness that motivates a lot of our studies and approaches to other organisms in the world. 

Produced by Mark Crawley.