Scientific research into the myriad abilities of plants to recognize and respond to their environments calls into question the “common-sense” assumptions (for some cultures) that plants are passive, sedentary, and uncommunicative. At the same time, there are important differences between plants and other kinds of creatures, like animals. Revising people’s understanding of plants without inaccurately representing plants vis-à-vis animals can thus be a tricky task for science and nature writers.
Biologist Daniel Chamovitz faces this situation by making a move of extension. Written for a popular audience, his 2012 book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses compels readers to broaden their definition of “knowledge” beyond human brains to include non-human senses. But it’s not so hard to buy into this (fairly large) conceptual move, even in common-sense terms, when considering weeds. Many people faced with the task of weeding readily ascribe awareness, agency, even malevolent intent, to the pesky plants they are trying to eradicate.
Environmental historians analyze this phenomenon on a larger cultural scale. For example, Clinton L. Evans’ 2002 book The War on Weeds in the Prairie West examines how weeds have been defined and (for the most part, unsuccessfully) combated by settlers in western Canada, especially through agricultural research, industry, and legislation. Evans argues, “Because weeds are inextricably both products of psychology and ecology, weed problems are best addressed by considering not only the agroecosystems that produce them but also the culture that informs how we farm and think” (14). This is a point reinforced by the classic work of Alfred Crosby, cited by Evans in his explanation that weeds are not only products; they are “active participants in culture” too (16).
Evans’ emphasis on weeds in particular as active co-creators of environmental history rather than passive recipients of human history reminds me of the work of another Canadian, theorist Catriona Sandilands. Sandilands explores not only how plants are part of human stories, but also the ability of plants themselves to tell stories. In a triptych inquiry, she suggests three ways of thinking about “good” when it comes to plant stories:
“Good plant stories, here, demand attention to the continuua of our lives and bodily capacities, and also that we demonstrate patience and humility in the face of the uniqueness of plant wisdom.”
“Good plant stories, here, involve close readings of the sedimented myths, metaphors and meanings that germinate and situate specific plant/human encounters.”
“[T]elling good stories about plants might, here, involve a more active listening to theirs (meaning also a better exchange of stories between scientists and humanists): an acknowledgment not only that we are not fully in control of their lives but also, possibly, that our hubristic instrumentality might not ultimately be sustainable for anyone involved.”
Sandilands’ attention to the ways in which an extension of “agency” to plants makes possible new texts, creates new narrative potential, and necessitates ethical reflection aligns her writing here with material ecocriticism. Linked to the “new materialisms,” material ecocritics call into question “common-sense” assumptions about the passivity and inertness of matter in the same way that Chamovitz and other writers (like Michael Pollan) have done about plants.
In their introduction to their 2014 edited collection Material Ecocriticism, Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann posit “a material ecocriticism [which] examines matter both in texts and as a text, trying to shed light on the way bodily natures and discursive forces express their interaction whether in representations or in their concrete reality” (2). They draw from the prior work of scholars like Karen Barad, Andrew Pickering, and Jane Bennett to theoretically ground their work in “a material-semiotic network of human and nonhuman agents incessantly generating the world’s embodiments and events” (3) rather than a singularly human subject. Third, they perceive a kind of “material ‘narrative scholarship’” in which “the interpreter and the interpreted emerge together, in intra-action” (9; “intra-action” comes from Barad).
The resonances between the work of scientists, historians, and ecocritics on the cultural and material dimensions of plants and weeds that I’ve briefly traced here highlight the kind of interdisciplinary exchange and momentum fostered by the environmental humanities. As Robert Lipscomb and I wrote in our review of Ursula Heise’s Humanities on the Edge lecture, the environmental humanities is a growing field that “brings together academic disciplines . . . and activists in an effort to collaboratively understand and respond to the significant global social and environmental changes currently underway.” Yet even as multidisciplinary efforts to recognize “plant stories” are underway, Sandilands’ inquisitive theorizing of the “good” of them is a move that sticks with me, causing me to care and wonder about the difficulties the environmental humanities may face in discerning knowledge about how to respond to plant stories in our own changing environment.
-Aubrey Streit Krug
Chamovitz, Daniel. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. Print.
Evans, Clinton L. The War on Weeds in the Prairie West: An Environmental History. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 2002. Print.
Iovino, Serenella, and Serpil Oppermann, eds. Material Ecocriticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2014. Print.