Thursday, 30 August 2018 | 31 comments

The mushroom at the end of the world

I’m going to talk about mushrooms first, because I have, like, a lot of mushrooms at my house right now. Long-time readers will remember that Ben and I started growing shiitake mushrooms, kind of as a hipster-homestead-hobby, a few years ago (yeesh, I just went and found the post–it was almost five years ago). I haven’t written any more about it here, but we’ve kept it up, and find ourselves officially between a hobby and being quit-your-day-job shiitake mushroom growers.

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You don’t really start working so much with mushrooms unless you’re going a little crazy or falling in love with them or both. Mushrooms are mysterious. When people visit our little mushroom operation, they struggle a bit with vocabulary to ask questions: “So you plant…the mushroom…spores?” Humans are generally conversant with ideas of roots and flowers and seeds, but we are not so everyday-equipped with terms like mycelium or spawn run.

We try to make analogies: you can consider mycelium the “roots” of the fungus, sort of, kind of, and the mushroom itself is essentially the fruit. But mushrooms are neither plant nor animal—Fungi are their own kingdom! we gleefully geek out—and there the similarities end. There is no ovum, no brightly colored, buzzing, pregnant reproductive generative-ness to the mushroom life cycle. There is fertilization involved, but not in a way that is easily recognizable to us, and it varies from fungus to fungus exactly how that happens. “Male” and “female” designations break down in mushroom sex. To cultivate a shiitake mushroom is to cultivate rot, to take a perfectly good, fresh, green log, and to coax it through somewhat controlled breakdown, and to harvest the fruits of that degeneration.

* * *

This year, more rain fell by mid-August than falls on average in an entire year. My tomatoes–normally the best part of my summers–have swollen, cracked, and dropped to the ground, green. The basement has flooded minor-ly twice and majorly once. Ben fights mildew and rot in the vineyard. What a blessed relief, then, to be growing something that flourishes in the wet; to have no tomatoes or sweet corn to speak of, but at least to have something to harvest. After a particularly large downpour, we brought in 50 pounds of shiitakes. Plenty, in a hard summer, in a changing climate. It reassures.

A dystopian novel about a wet, mildewy world where people only eat mushrooms is something I would read. Apocalypse and dystopia are kind of in fashion right now, and no doubt The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games and Westworld have affected me as much as everyone else. But alongside these greater cultural phenomena, I find myself seeking out people and books concerned with the question about what remains after it all burns (or floods, I suppose). Apocalypse is a lens through which to consider what remains after disaster, and what resiliency means. An abridged version of my summer reading and listening list:

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit is the consummate human-resiliency-in-the-face of disaster book that I’ve read before and returned to.

HOW TO SURVIVE THE END OF THE WORLD podcast, by Autumn and Adrienne Maree Brown, two sisters/academics/a litany of other accomplishments, has been the biggest surprise delight of a podcast I have ever been recommended. The subtitle of their podcast is “learning from the apocalypse with grace, rigor and curiosity”, and they’ve turned me onto some amazing female POC writers.

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing is, full disclosure, a book that I likely am not smart enough to comment on in full. But holy moly, the parts that my Instagram-dulled brain can comprehend really helped me to think through ideas of resiliency and changed the way I discuss issues of scarcity and precarity. This is the book that led my friend to turn to me at quiet moment on the beach and say, “You, um…talk a lot about capitalism right now.” Yup, I do, Steph, and it’s likely because of this book.

– My friend Leah Stokes is somehow a potter, academic, writer, and gardener all at the same time. She specializes in climate change policy, and kicked off this year with a New York Times op-ed and hasn’t looked back. I love following her writing because it’s smart, but also because she’s always asking questions, taking people to task, and trying to figure out answers (while still acknowledging that things are hard and doomed and that scratching around in your garden might not make a difference but it’s an important project nonetheless).

* * *

Next to my bed is a notebook with a pen clipped to it. On it I have written in all caps with a Sharpie, GRATITUDE JOURNALS ARE DUMB BUT YOU SHOULD DO IT ANYWAY. The gratitude journal is something I am supposed to do on the increasingly frequent days where I feel very, very tired and that everything is pointless and we have doomed ourselves and that not even love or god or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez can redeem us. I do, in fact, think gratitude journals are dumb, but as my therapist sneakily asked me, “OK, but how are those other ways of dealing with your feelings working out for you?” (Touché.)

The jury is still out on the gratitude journal’s effectiveness, but I will say that one of the things that I have written in there is that I’m thankful for those of you who have read this blog in the past and have written to ask if I’m OK during the one-year-plus that I have not posted here. The truth is that I haven’t been okay, probably for a long time, but particularly over the past year.

My writing–something that typically brings me a lot of joy–has been one of the largest areas of my life to suffer. Maybe you also are sitting out there, thinking of something that you should enjoy doing, but that anxiety or a sense of general overwhelming stuck-ness or pointlessness or self-loathing is paralyzing you? Let me urge you to not be like me. Don’t wait until you’re in your 30s to get help. I want to tell you that you are heard, and that you’re enough. I don’t quite believe it yet myself, and I’m not really here to shill boring, one-dimensional positivity in the face of apocalypse. My work right now is in asking the questions. What remains? I try to ask myself. How can I be resilient?

§ 31 responses to The mushroom at the end of the world

  • Leah

    You are so fabulous. This post made me laugh and smile. And that was before the very generous shout out. Love the gratitude journal stuff. LOL. You’re a writer, lady. You’ve still got it. Happy happy happy day!

  • Sam

    So sorry you’ve had a rough go. Dunno if comments from total strangers on the internet help but you are just such a wonderful writer. I think about what you wrote when your grandpa died all the time – in particular in the last two years with a new baby-turned-toddler, my own grandma dying, a miscarriage and the general terrible state of the world into which I’m bringing children. Let it Begin with Me! So beautiful. I cry every time. Thanks for sticking with it and here’s hoping you come through the other side soon.

  • Sharon Summers

    Oh my goodness… this is just SUCH a gut-wrenching, star-dazzling, deeply beautiful describing. I have always admired your extraordinary insightful gift of naming so exquisitely what you encounter and come to understand. As soon as I saw your email here, I felt hopeful – you had returned! All else I will say is it is absolutely perfect that you took the time you’ve needed to seek guidance. You’ve undergone so many experiences in your lifetime so far (from what you have written about) and often that means that ypur psyche invites you to integrate these experiences far more deeply later on. You are very brave and simultaneously fragile… beautiful beautiful you. Thank you for your enduring presence.

  • Anna

    So pleased to read this and see a fresh post on your blog. We have missed your fantastic and heartfelt insights. Thanks for sharing and inspiring across all fronts!

  • Catherine

    I cannot tell you how pleased I felt to see this in my inbox. I love your writing and the elegance of your site. Thank you for returning to us.

  • Yvonne

    It was so good to read your post. It has been a sad, disillusioning year here as well. My garden pulls me out of my worries. Maybe I will try a gratitude journal. Take care and thank you for sharing the books and words.

  • Laura

    Oh, I missed your words. You put them together so well.

  • Beth

    Sarah, I so love you, your writing and your utter honesty! Funny though. When I feel dismissal about things in the world, I often look at you and your peer-cousins. Then I feel up-lifted. You and your group bring me hope. You are smart, open, loving and caring. You are not willing to accept the status quo. You are fun. You are thoughtful and thought-provoking. So, when I feel we have doomed ourselves, I look to you guys and feel better. May you look in the mirror and see the same beauty I do in you.

  • It was so delightful to get your post. I love your blog, the mushrooms sound great, and I love the books/podcast suggestions. Don’t give up hope, although I certainly know what you mean about….everything….We just moved after 30 some years from upstate NY to Central Oregon….completely different. I have struggled getting used to the smoke and wildfires, and will be starting a permaculture class in September. I do get so discouraged by the mess we are in, but classes and doing things outdoors uplift, as I’m sure you know.. Hang in there, and I hope to read more from you….in the meantime I want to check out those books and podcast.

  • suzana

    So what does remain is the question you have put out there?

    Resilience in those logs that are supporting your shitake mushroom spawns, they give of themselves to another.

    Gratitude from the shitake mushrooms to the logs for allowing that relationship to flourish.

    Instead of a gratitude journal, why not jot down the amount of mushrooms you harvest each time, describing size, weight, colour, imperfections, time of day,/year. This alone would surely make one feel grateful.

  • Patricia

    I was delighted to receive your post today. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten one, and I’ve missed your thoughts about life, food, the world. I’ve missed you.

  • Stacy Neal

    I love what this blog has become. I read and reread your posts and wonder why some care so much and some not at all. It’s a heavy load. Your writing is beautiful, thanks for coming back..

  • I guess I figure that if a blogger needs a break, they need a break, so I wasn’t one who checked in with you—but I am absolutely one who is glad to have new words from you to read! It’s certainly easy to despair these days, for a lot of us I think. A few things that help me (which may or may not be what you need) are: not listening to the news, listening to music, making things, meditating, and trying to feel the truth of what a miracle it is to wake up in this body every day—to have hands and a heart that I can use to work towards a better world, even when that seems really hard. Anyway, please know that you and your voice are truly valued.

  • Susan

    I hear you, honey.
    Please know that your writing is inspiring.
    Take care.

  • DM

    Really glad to see a new post from you, but you should take the time and space you need, or reinvent what writing looks like to you, if that feels better. You’re an immensely talented writer, so I imagine there are many options for you.

    I hear you on the weight of the world / self-doubt / anxiety / introspection spiraling into something very oppressive. I think that sometimes the smarter and more accutely aware of things we are, the more we tend to suffer, than those who have an easier time staying above the surface.

    I don’t know if this will be helpful to you, because how you feel about yourself is what matters, but from the “outside,” you are spectacular — amazing career, superb writer, agricultural maven, gorgeous hubby, enviable lifestyle of city and country. Maybe a gratitude journal isn’t the tool for you, if it feels phony. Maybe it’s a yoga practice, some other form of regular exercise, abstaining from the news a bit, exploring new jobs, or, new hobbies. Easier said than done, but please know you’re not alone — it is very hard to be alive :).

    Selfishly, I hope you keep writing here (or, wherever it is best for you). Take care — you are enough (and more).

  • Deborah

    I too just finished that Rebecca Solnit book–it was so perfect to read right now. As are all of her books. I’m a fairly new reader and look forward to more of your posts. Take care!

  • Susan

    Hello! Welcome back! I’m so glad you’ve returned.

    Someone I know once referred to creatively fallow periods as composting. I’ve always really liked that description: taking the past-their-prime things, the gone-to-slime things, the leaves and twigs, the unwanted things, and turning them into something rich and luscious, to feed luxurious new growth.

  • Steph

    You DO talk about capitalism a lot right now, glad to know where it’s coming from. Love you and love this post! Let’s get together and eat mushrooms soon.

  • Kelsey

    I’ve missed you. So glad you posted again. I have also had a hard year. We can get through it. It’s about getting better, fighting back against yourself.

    Cheers to mushrooms and resiliency.

  • Anna jacobsen

    So happy to hear from you. I really, really love your blog. Your writing has helped me during hard times. Thank you and sending you my love.

  • leslie

    Your blog is one of the last few on my reading list, over the years my own blog has fallen to the side and I just don’t have the same interests anymore. Except yours, I love your writing so much. I look forward to any crumb you leave here. Take care, xoxo

  • Jean

    Thank you for this beautiful post, so glad that you are back to writing…I have missed your blog! I might just have to order some mushroom logs now :)

  • Ingrid

    How I have missed your writing! I have checked your blog nearly daily to see if there has been an update. Today, I was rewarded! Don’t wait until your 30’s to seek help? Ha! I am in my 50’s and just getting started on the analysis process (3 years in). Kudos to you to have the insight to do that much earlier on your journey…

  • Hi there, so nice to read your writing again.

    It gets at so much I tend to be thinking and feeling and working through and feels nice to know someone else is working through it too. They aren’t the typical blog subjects but the apocalypse, therapy and capitalism are also things that have been on my mind lately. :) I read Naomi Klien’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate this summer and it has stayed with me. I just moved to Salt Lake City and the wildfire smoke blown in from every way (mostly California) left the city in a cloud of haze for weeks this summer and it definitely got to me on an emotional level. “A very gentle warning,” as Arundhati Roy says. Kudos for you for reaching out for help, working through it, asking questions most don’t like to ask and writing about here for those people who also feel a bit lost. Sorry for the dramatic comment but really just wanted to say, I hear you! Hope you’re well.

  • Sera

    Thank you for this!

    I’m happy to have some of your writing in my feedly and really appreciate the sentiments and the book recommendations.

    Much love <3

  • Kimberly Ake

    Like many others, I was so happy to get the email notification of this post! I’m sad to say that I hadn’t even realized it had been so long since your last. I guess I too have been holed up a bit, trying to be resilient. I’ve loved your writing ever since I stumbled upon it. Very sorry that you’ve been struggling and I wish you the best. Anyone who can see so much redemption in mushrooms will most definitely find the light :-)

    Also, I’ve never tried a gratitude journal (mostly due to also thinking they are silly) but I am inspired to try one. My partner keeps a ruled notebook by the bed and writes 3 things that were good each day. Things like ‘the cats were very snuggly’ and ‘I had a refreshing conversation with ___ at work’. It’s so utterly simple that I’ve often derided it a little. Yet when I occasionally see what he’s written, I can’t help but smile – and they aren’t even my experiences! There’s value in committing our little joys to paper.

    Thanks again for your writing and please don’t stop!

  • Maike

    Hi Sarah, a somewhat longtime reader here, usually don’t comment. Glad to hear from you and glad you share what you have been struggling with. Or as a friend said while I called her sobbing this afternoon: ‘Its a good tool you have there, reaching out.’ Many thanks for the recommendation of the podcast, been listening to it over the last days and enjoying it a lot. Always happy to come back to the archive you have built here, something I still use when I search for a recipe or what to do with a certain vegetable, thanks for that. Looking forward to read more from you when you find the space to do it again. M

  • betsy

    hi, i am very glad to see your new post. i also have found solace in the writings of rebecca solnit.
    i might have to give the gratitude journal a try. i too was in need of therapy in my 30s. brains are mysterious and sometimes need an adjustment/acknowledgement.
    take care

  • Oh, I so hear you. I have not written on my own little blog since October of 2016. It’s almost like I want to freeze time in that spot; that spot when I still had hope of a female president, of further gains in civil rights, in health care, in actually facing and fixing some of our problems. And in the face of living in Real Life Dystopia, I find I have turned to old classics: Jane Austen novels, 1930’s Hollywood movies, music and stories from my college days.

    In terms of dystopian novels though, the World Made By Hand series by James Howard Kinstler is one I’ve come back to a few times. It somehow manages to be both depressingly realistic yet hopeful at the same time. Worth checking out!

  • Mary Braun

    Sarah,
    I am so sorry to hear you have been having such a rough year. A gratitude journal may not work for you, but give it a good try. It may work in combination with other things. Now no laughing, but I have found knitting to be therapeutic. I especially recommend the one-color brioche stitch. There are YouTube videos galore to teach you.

    Whatever you do, I hope it helps.
    Wishing you good health, renewed vigor, and happiness always.
    Mary

  • Oh I LOOOOOOVE your writing and I’m really sorry to hear the reason for your absence in this space. I will always come back to hear from you again, your voice is so singular and special. As for the hard times: I hit rock bottom in my early thirties, had had help before, have needed help later on, but I can tell you that things can improve. They can improve drastically. I am 49 now, lots of stuff to be worrying about near and far, but I got rid of a whole lot of demons in my thirties. I feel so much better now.
    As to what works: I would do ten things a day despairing about all of them, having a hard time that any of them would work. At all. Sure enough, a lot of them never did. But others did work. Using my senses was an important one for me, going for hikes. For you, as others here point out as well, it may be something else.
    I just wanted to send you lots of love and lots of encouragement! Keep at it!

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