UC Santa Cruz anthropology professor Anna Tsing wins Guggenheim Fellowship

Anthropology professor Anna Tsing investigates the cultural and commercial implications of the highly prized matsutake mushroom. (Photograph by Guy Lasnier)
Valued as a delicacy, the mushroom is a lucrative commodity for immigrant foragers.

UC Santa Cruz anthropology professor Anna Tsing has won a Guggenheim Fellowship to further her research into the commodity chain and global ecology of the matsutake mushroom.

Tsing said the fellowship, combined with a visiting appointment at Aarhus University in Denmark next fall, will allow her to write about her work on the issues of science, forest management, and global commerce surrounding the matsutake, a highly valued and loved mushroom in Japan. "I have tons of material," she said. "I want to write."

Tsing has been studying the impacts the wild mushroom has commercially and culturally. Prized as a delicacy in Japan, a short supply there has led to a dramatic increase in foraging in other areas including central Oregon where the matsutake grows in dense forests. That in turn has had an impact on refugee immigrant communities, particularly the Hmong from Laos and Cambodia.

"It has given poor communities of gatherers an opportunity to make a living," Tsing said. "It is so valuable that it changes the scene where it is picked."

The mushroom's value fluctuates with the Japanese economy but can mean as much as $50 a pound for the pickers. They sell to roadside buyers, who sell to field agents, who in turn sell to import trade companies.

"There are many layers of middlemen," Tsing said. The trade is still relatively small, under the radar of global corporations. "Everyone is an independent entrepreneur," she said. "It is an extreme new model of entrepreneurism."

The mushroom's smell is an acquired tasted and may depend on one's culture. To the Japanese, it is "most wonderful and reminds them of the beauty of autumn season," Tsing said. Westerners are more likely to characterize it as akin to mold. Santa Cruz mushroom expert David Aurora once likened the smell to a combination of "red hots and dirty socks."

Considered "midcareer" awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for scholars who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.

Tsing's fellowship is one of two awarded to UC Santa Cruz faculty this year. Poet Nate Mackey also won. This year the Guggenheim Foundation awarded 180 fellowships to artists, scientists, and scholars from a field of more than 3,000 applicants.

Tsing joined the UC Santa Cruz faculty in 1987. She earned her bachelor's degree from Yale University and her Ph.D. from Stanford.