What does it mean to think critically about plants and landscape and why should we keep doing it?

I have been doing a kind of plant-focused landscape criticism for a number of years now. Plants are essential to human survival as well as the well-being of ecosystems in general, but it can sometimes be hard to justify this research from a humanities as opposed to a scientific perspective, as it involves the production of knowledge useful to social and cultural critique rather than government policy or direct intervention. It is tempting to suppose that it is more important to know what to do about plant well-being, than how to think about them.

This is even more true today than it has been in the past, when collective attention is consumed by more immediately pressing social and cultural problems (e.g., the rise of racist ideologies and misogyny, the decline of truth and reason, etc.). However, while critical thinking about things like plants and landscape cannot substitute for acts of resistance and solidarity, this does not mean it should be abandoned, even temporarily. Plants and landscape provide a window through which we can see social and environmental problems in new ways, and this in turn, can help us develop gentler, more creative ways of living together. If the deepening of collective concern for the world necessarily causes a certain narrowing of perspective, we have to insist on the value of this kind of insight in order not to lose it altogether.

The social and cultural value of plants has long been thought of primarily in terms of the restorative and ethnobotanical uses of plants. More recently, artists and scholars in the humanities have begun pursuing questions about the underappreciated agency of plants (e.g., their intelligence, capacity for communication, etc.), often via an engagement with plant science.  All these ways of studying and engaging with plants are enormously important and worthy of continued exploration. However, in my work, I attempt to do something different by tapping into their critical or mediatic potential: what can they help us to see about the way vegetated landscapes mediate social relations (and vice versa)? Studying the ways in which plants and people are mutually (if not equally) implicated in particular landscapes, we can develop a different kind of insight, and some practical ways of intervening on their behalf. The thing about plants in a world where truly pristine ecosystems are practically non-existent, is that their presence, their patterns of growth, their vigour and their interactions with other beings, often tell us something about human social relations and cultural values as well as environmental conditions.

The problem of ‘invasive species’ provides a particularly good example. Not only are most invasive plant species transported to their new locations–and often deliberately planted there–by human beings, they thrive under conditions left behind by other human activities (e.g., disturbed soil, removal of competing species, etc.). To re-interpret something Jussi Parikka has written about animals and communication technologies, the cooperation of plants and people in producing ‘invaded’ landscapes, makes the plant species involved emblematic of a breakdown in the practices, relationships and values associated with tending and caring for the land.  Writing the history of invasive plant species and their movements across particular landscapes not only helps to identify the role of human activities in co-producing those landscapes, it points us toward new avenues for responding to them–that is, by rebuilding or better yet, reinventing the social relations required for their care.

Rhododendron ponticum. This large evergreen shrub is widely considered invasive in the UK, despite the fact that it takes 10-20 years to produce blooms and set seed.

This is why humanities-based research about plants continues to be important: not only can it help to enhance their social and cultural value–which is important to their protection and to the continuation of scientific research–it can also refine the way associated environmental problems are perceived, and identify strategies for developing alternative solutions.  To the extent that these strategies call for new social practices of cultivation and care, such research may also contribute indirectly towards a work of learning across social, cultural and perhaps even political divides. This is of course not enough on its own to address the rise of the right in numerous places around the world, but it may in the long run be part of what enables us to move on to something better.


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