What a Mushroom Lives For: Matsutake and the Worlds They Make

How the prized matsutake mushroom is remaking human communities in China—and providing new ways to understand human and more-than-human worlds


Published (US):
Nov 7, 2023
Published (UK):
Jan 2, 2024
5.25 x 8 in.
24 b/w illus. 1 table.
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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.

Matsutake as world-makers

Awards and Recognition

  • 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
  • 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