Under the Radar: An Interview with Olivier Matthon

Olivier Matthon, itinerant labourer and ethnographer, is the author of  Under the Radar: Notes from the Wild Mushroom Trade. It tells the story of the seasonal migrant labourers who harvest wild mushrooms in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and is out now from Pioneers Press. Dylan Gordon caught up with Olivier between wild harvests for an interview.

Your bio reads a lot like a mushroom picker’s: lots of varied jobs picking, planting, lumbering. How does your own life history fit into the story you’re telling in this book?

My background helped me to connect quickly with the pickers and to understand many aspects of their work and lifestyle. One of the first nights that I was at the motel, one of the pickers was confused whether I was doing research or learning to pick mushrooms. We got interrupted before I could answer him. But I was doing both. I still want to experience and learn new trades, but I’m also learning how to research and how to write, so it’s still confusing when I have to introduce myself.

So what inspired you to study the wild mushroom trade?

I was attracted by the pickers’ lifestyle and work organization as an example of anarchist subculture. When I heard about people who work in the forest without the authority of an employer, without the hierarchy so common to many work environments, without having to own private property (by harvesting on public land or by trespassing), without using industrial tools (besides cars)—people who work in a cash economy without control of the government over their income, I got excited. I was hoping to find people living somewhat outside the logic of capitalism and consumerism.

From that point of view, the people and places you write about are sort of another side to the popularity of wild foods and foraging in urban centres these days. How do those different worlds connect? What might they learn from one another?

If urban people want to eat more wild foods, we’re going to need to manage the way they are harvested. We have enough examples of wild harvests gone wrong (like many fisheries). And right now there is very little attention paid to non-timber forest products by public and private forest managers. I’m not necessarily pro government control, and definitely not pro corporation control; I’m leaning more towards community-based management. There is a lot of awesome research that has been done in the northwest about wild foods that suggests involving the harvesters in the management of the resource, not to merely control them.

What do you think people misunderstand most about the trade?

First, the ecological impact of a commercial harvest. More and more, people see wild forests as a place where humans should leave no trace. And I think they associate commercial practices with industrial ones. The truth is that few studies have been done to measure the impact of such harvests, and the ones so far have found no negative impacts on wild mushroom populations.

Another thing is the way the pickers’ culture is represented in the media. Newspapers like to portray the trade as a wild, outlaw, unregulated world where pickers carry guns and protect their territory violently. It’s unrealistic and only serves to antagonize. It also distracts the readers from more serious issues such as how and why we use natural resources.

How about you—what surprised you most while doing this research?

I was expecting to be camping and hanging out by the campfire every night cooking mushrooms in butter and garlic. Instead I stayed in a motel with satellite TV and internet (which are two things I don’t have at home), and the pickers ate microwaved burritos and gas station food (and sometimes barbecued).

You’ve told me you hope to continue working on these issues. What do you think you’ll focus on next, and why?

I’m currently working with salal harvesters on the Olympic Peninsula. I’m interested in that harvest for the same reasons as with mushrooms: it’s about rural communities that are autonomous, making a living with local natural resources. I wanted to write about plants and people, but globalization and capitalism have created a context where agricultural and forest work in the U.S. is now mostly done by Mexican and Latin American immigrants. So now the harvest of floral greens (like salal, moss, bear grass, ferns, etc.) in the northwest is charged with issues of race, class—who the forest belongs to and who belongs in the forest.

This is a sort of literary work—an ethnography—and we’re a review of books. Any reflections on the process of writing that brings research together with literature?

In my research, I came across great academic papers that are targeted to a narrow audience, and sensational newspaper articles that are fun to read but rather superficial. I’m trying to write in between, fusing the writing tools of fiction and non-fiction writers with the research techniques of social scientists. I feel like many conflicts in our society happen because of misunderstandings between subcultures, so it’s important to me to make the understandings gained through research accessible. And literature can help to make unpopular topics more appealing. Charles Bukowski wrote about drinking in bars, women in high-heels and mini-skirts, and going to the race tracks: three things that I don’t care about. But I still can’t get enough of his writing. How did he do that? Migrant workers’ lives, natural resource management, and alternatives to capitalism are not interesting to a lot of people, so how do you write about them in a way that they can’t get enough?

Finally, what’s the one thing you’d most like readers to take away from your work?

That it’s still possible to live outside the logic of capitalism; no need to wait for the revolution. One problem with capitalism and industrialization and consumerism is that they don’t leave any room for a diversity of culture and lifestyle. Thankfully, there are still people that just go ahead and live their own way anyway. But we could still make their lives easier.