Professor of Environmental Studies at York University (Toronto) Catriona Sandilands explores the possibilities of a feminist botany.
What are plants? What can they do? And how can we bring a feminist approach to our relationships to them?
Listen as Catriona Sandilands explores our relationships with botanical others, including shifting understandings of what plants are and what they can do. In this time of accelerating environmental and social change, Sandilands asks: what might we learn, what new approaches and possibilities might become possible, through a feminist botany?
This talk took place on 12 July 2018 in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Tanya Goldberg: Thank you so much for coming out here this evening to the Human Nature lecture series. I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands. They're the ancestral lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. And I'd also like to welcome you to the sixth of our nine talks in the inaugural Human Nature lecture series, which is a landmark series that marks the collaboration of four major Sydney universities with the Australian Museum, and with academics from all over Australia and around the world who are all leaders in the environmental humanities.
The Australian Museum's collection provides a record of the environmental and cultural histories of the Australian and Pacific regions, and together with its ongoing research, the museum informs and promotes understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our region, including the loss of biodiversity, a changing climate, and the assertion of cultural identity.
I really believe that the museum is a place where the past meets the future, and where understanding is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists by our exhibitions and, of course, by events just like this. Through this lecture series we really strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture, and the natural environment. So thank you for coming tonight. I hope you'll join us for the final third of the series still to come—three more terrific speakers still to come—and tonight's lecture will also be available via the AM podcast.
But to introduce our very special guest this evening, I'd like to hand over to Thom Van Dooren, Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Thanks, Thom.
Thom Van Dooren: Thanks very much. And thank you all for coming. It's a real pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce Cate Sandilands tonight. Cate is Professor of Environmental Studies at York University in Canada. Her research is situated in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities, bringing eco-criticism into dialogue with cultural studies and work in queer, trans and feminist theory.
Professor Sandilands is one of the world's leading scholars in these areas. Her work has played a key role in exploring the intersections between queer and environmental issues, literatures and concerns, shaping our understandings of the many complex interplays between these areas of life and scholarship.
In 2010 she co-edited the field-defining text in the area, Queer Ecologies, with Bruce Erikson. Professor Sandilands is also the author of several important books including The Good-natured Feminist:Ecofeminism and the quest for democracy.In recent years her work has taken a strong turn towards the botanical, exploring questions of multi-species cohabitation in the context of ongoing processes of colonisation, globalisation, and their associated patterns of environmental destruction.
These questions are the focus of one of her current books in process: the provocatively titled 'Plantasmagoria: Plants and the Politics of Urban Habitat'. So tonight Professor Sandilands will be presenting to us, from this plant-focussed work, on the topic of Feminist Botany for the Age of Man. Please join me in welcoming her.
Catriona Sandilands: Before I begin I would also like to acknowledge with gratitude and pay respect to the traditional owners and caretakers of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, of whom I'm very honoured to be a guest today. I would also like to thank the Australian Museum, the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, Western Sydney University, and Macquarie University for sponsoring this wonderful series. I wish I could have been here for all of the talks. I am particularly grateful to Thom Van Dooren and also to Astrida Neimanis from the Sydney Environmental Institute who have been my hosts.
Today I'd like to give a talk that is in a more performative mode. It's in five sections. I would like to talk a little bit about this idea of the Anthropocene, which I prefer to call the Age of Man. I would like to do a little segue into a more grass-roots, quite literally plant-based reflection on a garden that I participate in, in Toronto, Ontario, where I live part of my life in Canada.
And then I'd like to talk a little bit about some historical, vegetal, feminist entanglements, and then another segue into a more plant-based piece which is about scotch broom, which is a very notorious species on the west coast of Canada. I chose clematis and scotch broom because I understand that they both have a presence in Australia—at least there are certain bits of Australia that seem to be very vexed by scotch broom as well, so I figured it was a conversational plant. And then I'd like to wrap it up with a very short series of reflections on what it means to think about feminist botany in this Age of Man.
Although the term 'Anthropocene' was coined by biologist Eugene Stoermer in the early 1980s, the person generally held responsible for its public currency is Paul Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist whose work on the hole in the ozone layer won him a Nobel prize in 1995. The term is daring. It names human beings—anthropos—as a geological force, meaning that human activity in the form of colonisation, industrialisation, resource extraction, agricultural intensification and urbanisation has registered in and on the Earth in a way that physically marks the present moment as no longer part of the Holocene.
Although the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not yet formally designated the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, the concept has gained a lot of traction as a way of dramatising the immense impact that human beings have had on the planet, impacts that will persist in the geological record.
Evidence of fossil fuel combustion, climate change and biodiversity loss preserved in marine lakes and sediments, the persistence of plastics and trace elements in ice sheets; the fossilised, land-filled bones of trillions of chickens.
The precise beginning point of this epoch, the so-called golden spike, is subject to much debate. Is it the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1945? Is it the Industrial Revolution, which saw, among other things, exponential expansion of the extraction and deployment of fossil fuels? Is it the Neolithic Revolution, with its development of sedentary agriculture and significant accompanying increases in human population, social complexity and species domestication for human ends?
The story we tell about the anthropogenic past is significant, but no matter where in the geologic past the golden spike gets driven, the term Anthropocene gives lithic solidity to widespread anxiety about the present and future of the planet.
Beyond critical resource depletions, beyond mass species manipulations and extinctions, and even beyond climate change, the Anthropocene seems to name the present moment as a crisis of the Earth itself.
Feminist thinkers, however, have taken issue with the idea of the Anthropocene almost since its first public use. To name the human as a geological force is to mask the fact that not all humans share equal responsibility for the current course of change. Moreover, the processes of industrialisation, colonisation, urbanisation, domestication and extractivism that lie at the heart of the Anthropocene are clearly bound up with issues of gender, race, class and colony.
At one level, failure to name the epochal force more precisely, takes critical attention away from the specific activities and relations that are the largest engines of planetary ruination.
Sociologist Jason Moore has as a result suggested the term 'Capitalocene' as a considerably more accurate reflection of the fact that the specific regime that is capitalism should be singled out for its transformative effects. A form of global, economic and social organisation in which the planet and its human and more than human inhabitants are arranged and exploited primarily in order to maximise wealth and power for the few.
At another level, as anthropologist Anna Tsing has pointed out, the monolithic human behind the Anthropocene is really just another version of the white, male, colonising, modernist man that is a large part of the problem in the first place. This man fashions himself as separate from and over and above a feminised nature that comes to be treated as nothing but a universe of inanimate raw materials, whose sole purpose on Earth is to fuel his interests. And this man needs to be displaced in any attempt to grapple with the social, economic and ecological relations that have brought the Earth to its current epochal crisis.
As philosopher Sylvia Wynter argues, this very western, bourgeois man is an overrepresentation that actively conceals his very violent acquisition of the term 'human' under a veneer of universality painted in historical layers of theology, evolutionary theory, and perhaps now even geology. That this same 'ethnoclass', as she calls it, is now folding all humans into the destructive anthropos, is not surprising, as she wrote, presciently, 15 years ago.
Our present struggles with respect to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity; struggles over the environment, global warming, severe climate change, the sharply unequal distribution of the Earth's resources—these are all differing facets of the central ethnoclass man versus human struggle.
Taken together, these critiques suggest that a feminist perspective on the Anthropocene, perhaps more accurately named the Manthropocene, should emphasise the fact that gender, race, class and colonialism are both structurally and conceptually part of the geologically scaled problem. How man treats nature and how capitalism metabolises the more than human world on which it depends, cannot be separated from the inequitable and exploitative social relations on which man and capital both rely.
Feminist thinkers of many varieties have in fact been saying these sorts of things for quite some time, including Hannah Gadsby. Ecofeminists, for example, starting about the same time as Stoemer named the Anthropocene, have pointed out connections between the patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist exploitation of the more than human world, and the oppression of women, people of colour, and indigenous people.
More recent feminist thought has, moreover, effectively challenged the exceptionalist conceits of humanism, especially the idea that this man is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the matter of the rest of the world.
My talk today will not solve the Manthropocene, the overrepresentation of man, or even the problem of mounting an effective feminist response to the capitalist colonial conditions in which we, whoever 'we' are, find ourselves today.
What I want to do here is start somewhere else entirely, with plants, and with some of our relationships to them at this complicated, compromised. geohistorical moment. in order to begin to think about how our everyday lives in the Manthropocene could be just that little bit different: more attentive to the conditions that have got us to this very anxious now, more oriented to possibilities of living in and as what Wynter calls 'genres of humanity'. More aware of the other beings with whom we share space as our collective record gets written into geological time.
If this talk has only one takeaway, it's this: living thoughtfully with plants in a feminist mode may help us acknowledge, understand and begin to heal some of the multispecies violences that have been wrought in the name of man—a genre of the human from which we may perhaps, with a more vegetal orientation, now more strongly than ever choose to dissociate.
May 28th, 2018. This afternoon I spent the better part of two hours detangling the clematis that grows up the deck at the back of my house in Toronto. Being a vine, a clematis will twine around anything that crosses its path, including itself, at all available opportunities. The result is often, even with a short period of gardener inattention, a snarly mess. The leaf stalks curl and curl in on themselves in order to find some purchase. In this situation, if you want to coax the vine to grow in a less tangly way you have to unwind the intricate tendrils very gently, and place them very gently against a better climbing scaffold—a thin stick, a wire.
And that is what I was doing this afternoon; slowly and carefully taking apart the knots, and suggesting to each shoot a less tangled path up a new metal trellis.
Although it's only May, I had to wait until the sun had passed over the deck, and the clematis, to do this work, or it would have been too baking hot. It was nearly 31 degrees Celsius this afternoon (I know that's nothing for here). Not quite record-breaking but unseasonable for Toronto. Summers here are getting longer and hotter and winters warmer and more unpredictable. This year the thermometer hit 16 degrees Celsius in February. That's in a Canadian city in which the historical average high for the month is minus three.
In a year of large contrasts there was also an exceptional storm in mid-April, complete with freezing rain and ice that turned roads and sidewalks to glass for days, and with such high winds that tens of thousands of homes were without power, and insurance companies threw up their hands at the number and severity of claims related to roof damage—including mine.
Not much more than a month later there is a heat alert for the city. This is enough drama to make even my least environmentally conscious friends make grumbling noises about climate change.
The garden has suffered this year, especially the smaller, lower-growing plants; even some of the hardy, well-established lavenders packed it in. The problem is not that it was too cold (although it was, in January), or that it was too warm in those double-digit February days or that there was an ice-storm in April in which some of the more precocious new shoots were frozen solid—or even that it is now 31 degrees Celsius in May. The problem is that all of these things happened in a remarkably short timespan. And that longer term climate changes have already begun to destabilise plant communities, making them more vulnerable to freak weather events.
From my perspective as caretaker of this little plant community, the problem is also that many of the seasonal understandings that have been basic to gardening here can no longer be assumed. Lavender might not survive the winter without wrapping. Tomatoes might need to be shaded in order to survive what is forecast to be a brutal summer. Rains are changing. Plants that require specialist pollinators may find their calls unanswered because the short-lived insects on which they rely may now have lives out of sync with their blooms.
There is a multitude of opinions about gardening in these times. Of course, many urban gardeners talk about how to protect their plants from climate change, shielding them from extreme temperatures both hot and cold, conserving and-or diverting water, planting a greater range of resilient species in more careful, cohabitative arrangements, and being extra aware of the presence of both predatory and pollinator insects.
Some gardeners understand their work as itself a form of climate change mitigation. Getting rid of lawns that require mowing. Planting carefully to preserve and foster biodiversity, moving toward organic and permaculture practices to decrease the use of chemical fertilisers, and favouring native species that know what resilience means in this place.
Some are preparing for an intensified food security crisis, adapting flower beds for vegetables and planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees for future sustenance. Many garden-minded folks are also looking outside their own backyards for spaces to reclaim for conscious cultivation, including waste places that might be turned into little botanical oases with just a little bit of gorilla gardening care.
I, for one, am a bit obsessed with the importance of the more weedy species that seem to be able to thrive in these times.
Milkweed patches as refugia for seriously endangered monarch butterflies, mulberries as a prolific late June food source, nettles and dandelions as humus-forming healers of disturbance.
To me, though, more than anything else, gardening in these times means two things. First, caretaking my little backyard demands that I pay close attention to the present and the future. What are the plants telling me about the ways the climate is changing? What do they need that I can give them? What do these needs tell me about the larger scale of the changes in which we are immersed? What can I do concretely in this small biotic community and beyond to mitigate change, to adapt to it, and even to resist it?
Second, and perhaps more foundationally, the garden invites me to reflect on the past and present; on gardening itself, and how the particular plants that I'm tending are part of a larger process of colonial, global transformation in which the histories of plant movements are bound up with those of capitalist, fossil fuel developments. We can perhaps more easily think about cotton, wheat, sugarcane and corn at this level—plants that were central to slavery, to the rise of industrial agriculture, to the expansion of settler colonialism in the Canadian prairies, to what scholars following Alfred Crosby call ecological imperialism. But gardens are also part of this picture.
Think about the clematis, for example. The dark purple sepalled specimen growing up my back deck is a clematis Jackmanii, a specific cross with European and Chinese origins of an already pretty global species. The cross was first made by 19th century English horticulturalist George Jackman. In fact there are currently about 250 species of clematis worldwide, but over 2,500 cultivars. This fact alone tells you quite a bit about this specific plant–human relationship.
Although there have been clematis all over the world, including Australia, for far longer than there have been people, in North America concoctions of both clematis virginiana and clematis ligusticifolia are traditional treatments for venereal disease. And in Australia different species of clematis are used variously as a poultice to relieve joint pain and the leaves are crushed and sniffed for headaches. You don't really want to consume them because they're pretty hallucinogenic as well. But there's no question that the comparatively recent international spread of clematis Jackmanii stems from a history of British colonial botany and, more recently, capitalist horticultural trade—both of which have generally selected for showy masses of large blooms rather than, say, medicinal potency.
Although on one hand you could argue that cultivation, including intentional hybridisation, extends a certain kind of biodiversity, the fact is that many of the cultivars originate from a couple of particular species that are appealing according to a rather narrow set of aesthetic criteria. The resulting inbreeding has spread particular diseases like clematis wilt along the commercial paths of the horticultural trade. Moreover, the favouring of these showy cultivars by gardeners and industry means that less attention is being paid to clematis species that might excel in other ways, and invite different modes of appreciation and relationship.
What does it mean, then, to care for this Jackmanii in the midst of my Manthropocene garden, when it is already so clearly implicated in the bio-politics of colonial botanical theft, and specifically of capitalist modes of living with plants? Yes, we can plant and shelter and tend to gardens as acts to mitigate climate change and foster biodiversity.
But we can also question and reflect and challenge these relationships that have brought these particular gardens into being—as part of rather than as a refuge from climate changing times.
Gardens are microcosms of the complicated and impure multi-species relationships that are, whether we like it or not, the world in which we are living; even as we may consciously refract and rework those relations into new possibilities. In my garden this practice involves taking careful stock of the plants that are here, of the travels that have brought them here, and of the possibilities that 'here' might yet bring about.
One could say that women have botanised in this attentive manner for a very, very long time. In many traditions, women's work has long since included, and continues to include, paying close attention to plants as sources of food, medicine, textile, building material, decoration and pleasure; and also as bellwethers of the health and resilience of the larger social and ecological communities of which they're part.
Ethno-botanist Nancy Turner, for example, working with elders, describes that women of the Saanich and Songhees nations on the south coast of what is now Vancouver Island, Canada, were, and are, especially attentive to kwetlal (in English, camas), a magnificent, blue-flowering, bulbous plant that is a prized delicacy and important traditional source of carbohydrate for the Saanich, Songhees and other Coast Salish peoples. For thousands of years, women leading children and small family groups would not only carefully harvest kwetlal, taking only the largest bulbs to pit-roast into sweetness in the summer, but would also actively tend the best sites by careful hand clearing and by small-scale burning which creates the meadow habitat that the plants especially love.
But camas are not just food. As Turner writes, 'The social acts of tending and harvesting and pit-cooking were also vital sites for Coast Salish knowledge and cultural transmission between generations.'
Colonisation has done a great deal of damage to camas by overwriting the meadows with houses, cattle, potatoes and scotch broom; by banning broadcast burning, and by cleaving the plants from their knowledgeable tenders through dispossession and dishonoured treaties. But women are still attending to kwetlal as part of a practice of cultural, political and ecological resurgence. As Songhees land manager Cheryl Bryce remarks wryly, '200 years after contact, there is still a group of women crawling around on hands and knees in the lush, green, coastal meadows, pointing out certain plants and weeding others.'
Euro-western traditions have not always been kind to women's plant attentions. As Leigh Whaley describes, 'Wise women's herbal, magical, medicinal knowledges had a long and rich tradition in early modern Europe, and especially in rural areas where their healing work was the medical mainstay of the poor. By the late 15th century, however, they came to be viewed as a threat, as both botanical and medical knowledge and power came to be concentrated in and overseen by the systematising and hierarchical hands of man. Women's work as village healers and midwives, and their methods of healing through spells and potions made them vulnerable to attacks from the emerging medical profession, the state and the church. Many were burned as witches.' During the transatlantic slave trade, women's botanical knowledges were also suppressed.
As historian Londa Schiebinger documents, slave women, drawing on knowledges from indigenous Caribbean communities, brewed local plants such as the peacock flower into an abortifacient, to resist birthing their children into slavery. As German-born botanical adventurer and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian wrote in 1705 in an account of her travels to Surinam, 'The women use the seeds of the peacock flower to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. They told me this themselves.'
Despite Merian's attestation, these abortifacient plant knowledges did not reach Europe, even though the plants themselves were, and are, extensively grown as ornamentals in the same centres, as a result of the growing trade in garden exotics.
Pro-natalist policies in both plantations and in Europe, combined with the professionalisation and increasing male dominance of both medicine and botany, meant that the plant knowledges that were imported to Europe were not the ones that allowed women to control their fertility.
As Merian's own example demonstrates, however, even within these Euro-western traditions, some women were able, in the company of plants, to engage in forms of creative knowledge production that allowed them to participate in and, moreover, to subtly challenge the sexist world of colonial botany.
As historian Ann Shteir has documented extensively for example in the 18th and early 19th centuries in England, women were very much involved in the period's general fascination with plants. However, with some notable exceptions like Merian, they tended to be engaged in plant-based activities that left them out of botanical history books that tended to be filled with male conquests, whether of territory or of taxonomy.
Instead, many women appreciated plants through collection, gardening, and especially illustration—all of which were acceptable, even fashionable, activities for women. One of my favourites is Mary Delany, who produced, starting at the age of 74, which gives me much hope for my own future, over 1,000 paper mosaics, which are cut-outs of plants based on dissections of actual flowers. These mosaics are extraordinary. Each piece of the plant is composed of multiple, tiny pieces of cut paper, layered fragment by fragment on a black background, highlighting the material relationship between the plant-based paper and the plant it is shaped to represent. These mosaics are also gloriously sexual. Delany closely followed the work of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose system of plant classification was based on a given plant's relative numbers of male and female sex organs. He was completely wrong. As Lisa Moore has pointed out, Delany's mosaics are not only scrupulously composed to demonstrate the Linnaean system, but also particularly lush in their colourful, unabashed revelations of the plants' individual sexual identities. A lot of floral painting at the time focussed on much more coyly composed flowers, and Delany's—they usually have a bud, a seed, but they always have a really big, splayed flower.
I think it's not at all a stretch to consider Delany's flower mosaic practice as something more than the colonial botany with which it was intertwined. It is, I think, an extraordinarily attentive exploration of the sensuousness of plants, involving the plants themselves as sexual beings, as active participants in the process.
This kind of material attentiveness also inspires the work of more recent artists such as Lauren Magner, who has taken historical technologies associated with women's botanical art such as flower pressing and cyanotyping and transforming them into multiple forms of plant-based art. And there are so many plant-based feminist artists that I can't even begin to speak about them.
I draw on the detailed work of feminist historians, ethnobotanists, traditional knowledge keepers and botanical artists and activists, not to posit some grand narrative of women's closeness to plants. As you can see, even these few examples show very large differences that make it impossible to think that all women or all plants are involved or interested in the same kind of relating. Rather, I share these stories in order to help formulate a question. What does it mean to think about feminists' relationships to plants—especially in the midst of the current proliferation of research about plant intelligence and plant communication, in which popular science and culture seem suddenly to have discovered that plants are something other than raw materials for human activity, and have forms of perception and awareness that are different from, and in some ways exceed, our own.
What difference does it make to take a feminist perspective on both emerging and far older practices of plant knowledge and relationship? What can feminist critics of the Manthropocene learn from these stories of women's involvements with plants as practices of sustenance, relationship, pleasure—and even resistance?
I'd like to suggest that these stories tell us at least two important things about feminist vegetal entanglements.
First, it makes very little sense to talk about plants as if they were somehow a coherent category of beings with a uniform set of qualities, or with whom one could have a relationship—good or bad. Kwetlal is not caesalpinia is not corn. And a feminist botany needs to pay attention to each in its vegetal, temporal, historical and geographical specificity in order to begin to get at the messy question of living together in less destructive ways.
This may seem like a really obvious point, but one of the things that man has done especially effectively is solidify a hierarchy of lives, with white men at the top and plants and fungi at the bottom—rocks having been declared as altogether 'non-lives', which is a different story.
In the process of becoming raw material for the Manthropocene, plants become homogenised as mere photosynthesising matter, which allows man, and now particularly capital, to transform that matter into all manner of useful commodities without regard to any capacities of the plant other than the desired qualities that are to be extracted from it. This process both magically erases the plant's specificity as a living being and replaces its complex singularity with an almost entirely instrumental understanding of its value as a food, pharmaceutical, building material, fuel, paper source, landscaping mainstay, or pretty ornamental.
Plants that are instrumentally useful are cultivated intensively and their wealth extracted as fully as possible. Plants that are not are killed as weeds, or as invasives, their lives not worthy of consideration in any form. And of course both sets of bioindustrial practices make billions of dollars a year for Monsanto.
And so, second, in order to work against the grain, so to speak, of this commodification, a feminist botany needs to attend to the specificities of plant lives that lie below the surface of their exchange value, and to consider that plants are entwined with us in a variety of relationships that bind us together in ways that may include but that also exceed, challenge, and complicate use.
Many indigenous plant traditions of course are based on relations of reciprocity rather than extraction. As Potawotami botanist Robin Kimmerer emphasises, plants such as sweetgrass thrive with thoughtful human intervention, and harvesting is only one element in a much larger set of practices in which people attend to the needs of the plant just as much as the plant provides for the needs of the people.
Although settler feminist gardeners like me have a great deal to learn from these ongoing traditions, however, there are also other places in which to cultivate attentive reciprocity. I would argue that organic gardening, community-based agriculture, permaculture—and even some kinds of ecological restoration—offer models of place-based plant attentiveness that are, while clearly not immune from imperatives towards capitalist biopolitics, sites in which more sustainable and resilient plant intimacies might emerge.
At the very least I'd like us to notice the difference between experimental testing for evidence of plant intelligence as a way of providing yet another reason for the commodified uptake of plant capacities, and the embodied cultivation of relationships between plants and people in which we are aware of the interdependence of the intelligences involved.
Concerto for scotch broom. This is set on Vancouver Island. Allegro Precipitando. They say that in the 1840s Sir James Douglas himself carried scotch broom seeds in his pockets to scatter over the streets of the new Fort Victoria, that he had visions of a pastoral British paradise when he first spotted the carefully tended camas meadows among the oak trees, that he secured his colonial Eden by any means necessary—military, legal, political, architectural, botanical; that other settlers also clothed their naked acquisitions in brightly flowering Scots sentimentalities of broom, gorse and thistle.
They say that some settlers were less interested in the picturesque, that broom was a cure for dropsy and a remedy for bleeding after childbirth; that it was a source of tannins and that different parts of the plant could be used for brown, yellow and green dyes; that the flowers, pickled, were a delicacy; that in the absence of hops, broom made beer nicely bitter and even more intoxicating. And, obviously, that you could make brooms with it.
They say that broom arrived in the ballasts of ships and spread through streams and rivers, that it was deliberately planted along roadsides and in hydro corridors to stabilise catastrophised soils. They imply but never quite say that broom was an important element of colonial infrastructure. They also say that broom has its own colonial desires. That its thousands of ripe, ballistic pods shoot seeds up to 20 feet away, summer after summer. That its seeds can live in the soil for decades, that its waxy stems can photosynthesise even when it needs to drop its leaves in drought. That it pulls nitrogen from the air to fix its own supply in otherwise poor soil.
They say that broom is an aggressive, invasive settler in the often dry, thin, micro-regions of its flourishing, that it is a fire hazard, that it is toxic, that it is impenetrable, that its roots re too tenacious, that it is, ironically, an eyesore.
They say that broom should be busted, blasted, blitzed and bashed to create space for indigenous plants in precious spaces like oak meadows. Not many say as much about creating spaces for the first people who tended the plants and the fires that made the meadows possible in the first place.
I have taken to say that broom is a companion species in dispossession, but that it has done its own settling rather more aggressively than anyone intended. That broom is an indicator of very wrong relations. That it invites us to a large conversation.
The long slope of the hill, logged, burned, gouged, shattered, is alight with delicate and unmistakeably leguminous yellow flowers awaiting bees. New spring branches scratch, resinous old bushes invite fire, elaborate root chemistries give rise only to—grass, and even the deer won't eat it, though the sheep will. Extreme drought and rapid change favour global opportunists. Like other travellers who wear layers of Gortex and bring their own freeze-dried food, broom is an individualist with a sense of entitlement and not much obvious interest in neighbourly relations.
Wet winter, dry summer, heat, fire, earlier blooming, longer seeding, accelerating time space and no end in sight for the logging, burning, gouging, shattering euphemistically called 'disturbance'. This busted land calls out in bright May blooms for deeper care, for story and for love.
Rondo con spirito
Damage has created novel ecosystems and the plants are slowly adapting. Scotch broom can be controlled mechanically by cutting it down with a chainsaw at the point its main trunk appears above the soil. How we approach restoration of land depends on what we believe that land means. Land as sustainer, land as identity, land as grocery store and pharmacy, land as moral obligation, land as sacred, land as self.
The plant will often not die on the first attempt, and vigilant shearing is necessary. Restoration is imperative for healing the Earth but reciprocity is imperative for long-lasting, successful restoration.
The application of glyphosate herbicides has demonstrated some success in killing broom, but the treatment must be applied before the flowers emerge. We restore the land and it restores us.
Experiments are underway with biological controls, such as certain species of seed weevils, whose larvae enter the pods and eat the seeds before they can disperse. Especially in an era of rapid climate change, species composition may change but relationship endures.
Cut broom and bloom! Restoring the land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise.
At the end of her recent book, Against Purity, philosopher Alexis Shotwell offers an unusual perspective on climate change which I think helps us bring our intricate, complicated, feminist plant relationships back to the larger question of the age of man. As an alternative to more epochal and apocalyptic accounts, she writes, citing Elizabeth Povinelli, that 'Global warming is ordinary, chronic and cruddy.
'It is more like the everyday radiation emitted in the course of a nuclear reactor's life than it is the experience of a nuclear bomb. But it is also catastrophic, world-shaping, and hard to respond to in its entirety.'
The Anthropocene is like that. It is both geological and intimate, inhering in everything from the mundane act of getting on a plane in Vancouver to fly to Sydney, to traces of carbonised fossil fuels that our highly mobile technoculture will leave for distant future worlds to ponder. And back to the 75 precariously housed people in Quebec, Canada, who have, lacking adequate access to cooler spaces, died in the last couple of weeks because of the unprecedented heat and humidity.
Whatever we call it, the processes and relations that coagulate into the idea of the Anthropocene are already here. But because this age of man is not a singularity, not made or experienced equitably, and occurs simultaneously on multiple temporal and spatial scales, I follow a group of feminist thinkers: Shotwell, Povinelli, Tsing, Donna Haraway, Maria Puig de a Bellacasa, into a place where we think not about somehow avoiding ruin, but about ethics and politics as entangled with the mundane everyday particularities of living in 'blasted landscapes,' as Tsing calls them.
The age of man is an age of ruin, to be sure, but ruins can yet be spaces of possibility, especially when we follow older feminists' currents of thinking against the grain of man's arrogant overrepresentations. Here, what Haraway calls, 'Affirmative biopolitics' and Bellacasa 'alter-bio-politics' focuses on recognising our precarious embodied entanglements with multi-species others, and responding to them with generosity and attentiveness despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that our lives together are both thoroughly and inequitably compromised by colonialism, capitalism and multiple forms of environmental degradation.
Shotwell reminds us: 'The differential implication and harm of global warming of the Manthropocene as an object for action means that individual action will never be sufficient to address what needs to be addressed. But that doesn't mean that there isn't space to practise ways of living together that might give rise to flourishing, to life in the ruins, and even to larger-scale possibilities for solidarity and justice.'
I think our relationship with plants are a particularly good, if certainly not the only place to start this kind of practice. For one thing, the sheer act of noticing plants as plants, let alone as specific kinds of plants, will come as a surprise to the overwhelming number of people in our highly urbanised world who do not notice plants at all.
James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler have coined the term 'plant blindness' to refer to the malady suffered by those for whom the entire ancient vegetal kingdom is, at best, a vaguely green backdrop to human movement—until a plant does something pretty dramatic to call our attention to it—like drop a heavy branch onto the roof of a car during an ice storm.
More deeply, focussing on plant–human relations as sites of active caretaking, in which we 'take care' in multiple senses, allows us to think of ourselves as responsible for maintaining good relationships with plants. As Bellacasa writes, 'Everyday care is a necessary activity to the maintenance of every world.'
Taking care here means at once accepting that responsibility, proceeding cautiously with it, actively practicing it, and also recognising that in plant–human relationships humans aren't the only ones doing the caring. Plants are our caretakers as well.
In a highly stratified world in which the everyday work of caring for plants is removed from most people's everyday lives—indeed it's increasingly outsourced to a class of hyper-exploited agricultural, nursery and landscaping workers—a focus on plant caretaking is a way of bringing plant–human relationships back into our notice. Again, as eco-feminists have said for quite a long time, not noticing that our multi-species world can only be sustained through reciprocal caretaking is part of the problem that allows care to be considered women's work and not an element of man's aspiration. The result, in the age of man, is the externalisation of all that caring work through enforced patriarchy, racist forms of globalised servitude, and biological and technological manipulation.
Finally, rather than imagine that all of this plant noticing and caretaking will lead to some kind of revolution of the vegetariat—although I like the idea—I propose spreading as an appropriate metaphor for the dissemination of resistant, drought-tolerant, resilient feminist botanical practices in the Manthropocene.
There is no capital G garden to go back to; no place where we can somehow find a tree of knowledge that will offer us the master key for multi-species harmony. There are, however, even in this age of man, multiple gardens—places where we can, caretaking thoughtfully with plants, begin to revegetate the world with practices that are attentive to how we got here, as well as to the new relationships we can imagine here. What we can do is share tips on what works, on and in the ground.
We can trade good gardening stories. We can share multi-species practices that defy the logics of intensification, extraction, commodification and extermination.
We can slow down and admire each other's handiwork. Take cuttings, save seeds, and share best practices from multiple traditions. We can to listen to plants in many languages.
And then, when we look into the ruins, perhaps we can both mourn the devastating loss of life that man has wrought, and also help what remains to flourish. Thank you.
Thom Van Dooren: So we have a few minutes, about 15 minutes for questions.
Audience member 1: Hi, Cate. Thank you so much for that talk. It was amazing. I'm really interested in the performative element of your talk this evening. So you kind of switched from your academic mode of speech halfway through, or maybe three quarters of the way through, and it became more song-like, more like a concerto I suppose. So is that kind of performative way of delivering this material to us—what does that mean in terms of the feminist approach, I suppose, that's what I'd like to know.
Catriona Sandilands: There were two more creative pieces. The one is a little more easily disguised, the bit about the clematis was actually composed the way that one would—it was in the manner of a gardener's journal, which has a particular kind of narrative form that starts on a particular day, that talks about a particular activity, and then moves off from there. And there are some beautiful literary examples. One that got completely excised from the talk is Jamaica Kincaid's book, My Garden Book, which I highly recommend as an example of feminist post-colonial garden writing.
The concerto was very much…I wanted the form to be a kind of response to the way that the plant gets talked about. So there is a flurry of different kind of knowledges, knowledges of where broom came from. We know that it came from Europe. But its precise route of coming to the west coast of BC is actually unknown. And there's a variety of different kinds of stories that get told about it, and that struck me as—it sort of gave rise to the idea of a symphonic form, a polyvocal form. And I also am, as a white settler gardener, trying to figure out what is the most respectful way of incorporating indigenous voices without trying to appear like I should simply say the same thing. So I wanted to show some distance from all of those works, which seemed to work better with that kind of form.
The poetic piece in the middle is also very much about the fact that I have feelings about all of this, and they are quite conflicted. And the middle piece, the andante, is written about a very, very specific place where there is an annual broom bust. And I find some of the language of invasive species removal really part of the problem. But it's a very particular place that has been incredibly…really, really, really badly logged and then left as a ruin.
And then there was an enormous fire, there was a wildfire. The landscape droughts every summer, so fires are actually part of the landscape, but this was an out-of-control fire, and then it was gouged again by the fire trucks coming in and then it was poisoned by all of the chemicals that were put down to suppress the fire. It's in the process of, despite being such an absolutely abused piece of land, the first thing that happened about two years after the fire was that it was alight in foxgloves. Digitalis…do you have foxgloves here? So it was alight in pink and white digitalis. It was quite extraordinary. And now that the process is successionist, the broom is coming along, which is also participating, and the broom is a leguminous plant, so it's actually participating in renitrogenating, giving nitrogen back into the soil.
So it is actually participating in the process of healing the land, of giving some nutrition back to the soil. And yet it is absolutely reviled. So I feel so utterly devastated in this landscape, not just because of what has happened to it, but because of the violences that continue to be inflicted, that the poetic form seemed to capture that in far fewer words than it took me to just explain it to you.
But I do think that the larger question of form for feminist writing is a very large question. I think we're witnessing an explosion of different ways of expressing complex feminist concepts, in ways that don't separate feeling from rationality, that actually use form as a way of not having to say absolutely everything and actually allowing the words to carry part of the meaning. In eco-poetics, which is something that I do in my spare time, that has really influenced the way that I think about writing what I want to write.
Audience member 2: Thank you so much for that talk, it was wonderful. This is going to sound a little bit awkward, but what I was wondering about, as a feminist statement in the visualisation of the plants, it's nearly always the flowers that are expressing all of this.
I'm wondering about your thoughts on all the other parts of plants—the roots, then with trees, the flowers are so high, of course we're not seeing them. I'm just wondering about your thoughts about that.
Catriona Sandilands: I mentioned that it's useless to speak about plants as a coherent category. And at the same time as I say that I very clearly demonstrated my bias toward angiosperms. So there's a certain absence of coniferous plants in my talk, there's a certain absence of trees in my talk. I've confined it to things that have bright, showy blooms. Guilty.
But, no, it is absolutely true. Even the bit of Delany that I showed, these are not the whole image, I'm sure you know. There are the roots, there are other forms of the flowers. There are different conventions of visual representation for different historical periods and the focus on the flowers is actually part of the Linnaean move. But others would focus on the part of the plant that had the property that we were looking at. So in the period of signatures, for example, the visual representation would actually probably focus on the part of the plant that was seen to resemble the thing that it was giving back to the people.
I'm not entirely sure that the visualisation—the thing about the flowers is you actually don't have to pull the plant out to draw it, in order to get to the roots. And there are other traditions of botanical representation that do pull the whole plant out, and in fact the whole plant is sort of splayed in its entirety. So I don't think that the representation of the flower is necessarily doing any more or any less violence to the plant than any other visual representation.
Anna Atkins did cyanotypes of algae, specifically seaweeds, and she displayed the whole plant. Lauren's work, she's working on ferns and bryophytes and they appear differently, but her fern images are leaves, primarily. That doesn't answer your question…
Audience member 2: No, I wasn't actually saying that as a critique in any way, why are they only…I guess what I'm asking is that of course this really famous book now about the secret life of trees, it's been written by this forester and everything, and I'm wondering if because it's mainly botanical art by women, that has been flowers, and we can see why, an extraordinary visual thing to engage with. And I'm just wondering if you think there is an association with the flower as more feminist statement and then the tree looks like the male statement. I know it's a very simplification, but I'm just curious.
Catriona Sandilands: I think that it is possible that there's a way in which little tiny flower beings and gardens have been understood in a certain—there is a line of thought of women's work and feminist thought that runs through domestic gardens and herbalism that is more feminine. If I can veer off into a bit of a story: in the city of Toronto, which is a very heavily forested…there's a significant urban canopy, and the trees in the city are actually counted individually. There's a tree census. And I discovered through the work of a former student in our faculty who started an organisation called Not Far From the Tree, which pairs groups of gleaners with people with laden fruit trees to pick and then share the harvest—which is an amazing organisation. But she discovered, much to her chagrin, that the fruit trees are not counted in the Toronto tree census, because they're backyard, domestic, private space trees.
So I do think that there's a private/public thing going on, and isn't it interesting that the trees that give food, the trees that fruit, the trees that are part of the garden, don't count as real trees.
And she proceeded to produce a map of all the fruit trees in Toronto, which is quite beautiful. Laura Reinsborough is her name, given that this is going to be podcast.
Audience member 3: Could you say any more to us about, you mentioned in your first creative intervention thinking about ways in which histories of globalisation, labour, capitalism and gender are woven into the plants in our gardens as a kind of response to climate change in the Anthropocene. Are there ways in which you think those histories might be made more visible in the gardening community, or for the gardening community in a way that might, I guess, bring them to the surface in a way that might be interesting or creative or provocative—are there people doing that?
Catriona Sandilands: There are…I'm sure if there are gardeners in the audience there are many different kinds of gardeners, and there are folks who insist on planting only indigenous species. That's it. The work of the angels is actually to repopulate the city with the species that should be here. As many other people will say, well that horse left the barn a really, really long time ago, and they focus primarily on planting what is beautiful, what is showy, which is largely what is exotic. And those two communities don't talk together very much.
So when I was creating my—my garden is actually relatively recent, it's only a five-year-old garden. And it was a sorry patch of lawn with a piece of concrete and a really nasty shed in it, and it was really pretty hideous. But it was a bit of a blank slate, so it was trying to figure out what kind of garden do want to have, what kind of community do I want to have. I decided that I wanted to incorporate both native plants—well, not both—I wanted a vegetable garden, I wanted a native plant garden and I wanted some flowers that I happen to love. One of the reasons that I love Jamaica Kincaid is that she's completely unapologetic that the stuff that goes in her garden is the stuff that she loves. Even though she's from Antigua. Even though she recognises that some of the flowers that she has in her garden followed her ancestors on the slave trade.
So those two communities of gardeners do not talk very well together. There are show gardeners and there are native plant gardeners, and they tend to be purists. And my desire in doing this work is to actually begin to get people, through gardening clubs, through botanical gardens, to actually begin to talk to one another about these histories of botany as a site of contact, and not just botany as a site of contact then, but botany as a continuing site of contact.
What does it mean to plant these different kinds of plants, where do they come from, how do the roots of the plants get traced into the city, how is the city marked by the different paths that these plants have taken. Because there are also plants that clearly accompanied—Toronto's a very multicultural city—there are very particular plants that mark different neighbourhoods. So there are certain kinds of very old, beautiful climbing roses that were part of the Italian immigration to the city. And it's important to be able to tell the stories about a variety of different layers of botanical relationships. So it's not just the stuffy white gardeners with their frilly, pretty clematis and the native plant gardeners. There's a variety of different botanical relationships happening. There's a very beautiful book by Vincenzo Pietropaolo which is about immigrant gardens in Toronto which begins to actually explore some of those relationships as well. But it would be great to get more gardeners to think about where their plants actually came from.
HumanNature is a landmark series of talks by a stellar line up of leading Australian and international scholars. They will share with us their insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and art to examine the significant interplay between the humanities and the environmental crisis we face today.
Catriona Sandilands is a Professor of Environmental Studies at York University (Toronto, Canada), where she teaches and writes at the intersections of the environmental arts and humanities, feminist and gender studies, and social and political theory. Her scholarly and creative publications span a wide range of topics, from national parks to lesbian communities, ecopoetics to environmental history, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt to queer and feminist materialist theories.
Across this body of work, her abiding project is to help develop a scholarly and public conversation about literature, history, and philosophy as they might, and should, influence current trajectories of environmental politics and policy. Cate is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow, and a Past President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).