Author Archives: Erin Despard

Landscapes of inattention

Two papers of mine recently appeared in academic journals. Both have been a long time coming to print, so maybe it is not surprising that they treat very different landscapes from very different places–one a ruined, overgrown estate west of Glasgow, the other a relatively new, highly manicured park in Los Angeles. More interesting I think is the underlying similarity between them.

In the first paper (co-authored with Michael Gallagher), we were trying to grapple with the role of visual processes in histories of plant invasion–that is, how specific visual effects were produced by and with plants that later became invasive, and how that is an under-appreciated dimension, not just of their history, but of their present status as an invasive. We focused on Rhododendron ponticum, a large evergreen shrub that is highly problematic in Western Scotland because of its high rate of success self-propagating under damp conditions. The site of our research was the estate of Kilmahew-St. Peters–a woodland that contains numerous abandoned gardens and several ruins, including a spectacular modernist seminary built in the late 1960s and abandoned in the early 1980s. Our analysis focused on an intensive rhododendron removal that was undertaken there between 2014 and 2017 and which resulted in drastic, sometimes destructive changes in the landscape.

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The woods at Kilmahew before the removal. 2014

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After the removal. 2016. Photo by Chelsea Lowe.

In the second paper, I make a case for how social media photographs can figure in the critical study of designed landscapes. So far, it has been more common for researchers to make use of social media metadata rather than analyze actual content, and to do so in a relatively uncritical manner. I argue that using methods which grapple both with the images and some of the circumstances under which they were produced, is an important avenue for  learning about how a given platform works, and for being able to theorize how its use may in turn influence the functioning of designed landscapes.

As an example, I discuss how the pink chairs of Grand Park in Los Angeles figure in Instagram photographs, and suggest that the way they are deployed in the park responds to the role that social media have come to have in animating urban parks. These are chairs that want to be photographed, and when they do, they locate the photograph’s content in a manner that does not need to be explicitly named. As a result, the landscape of Grand Park functions in a manner that is not unlike Instagram and other “networked” photographies, which are both preoccupied with location, and tend to feature photographs produced in a manner that is relatively automatic. As such, Grand park is perfectly suited to a public accustomed to responding to landscape without interpreting it (i.e., using as a backdrop for personal photographs).

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Grand Park, Los Angeles (Rios Clementi Hale). 2013.

So despite the amount of attention that Grand Park has received as a result of its depiction on social media, its landscape is suited to relatively inattentive processes of visual perception. Which is also how I would characterize the landscape at Kilmahew, which was overrun with rhododendrons in large part because their uncontrolled proliferation went unnoticed for so long. R. ponticum takes between 10 and 20 years to set blossoms, which is a relatively long window for control. It is problematic less because of its inherently invasive properties and more because of the way estates like Kilmahew have been neglected or abandoned entirely since the first world war.

All this matters because our dispositions toward land, and especially what we see in it, have a significant influence on, not only our relationship with non-human nature, but also our social relations and–especially where land is treated as public space–the content of collective culture. The fact that we normally fail to pay close attention to land is part of what enables landscape* (that is, the human-shaped or mediated appearance of land in a particular location) to disguise the political projects that inform its use and character.

For example, part of the reason the pink chairs of Grand Park are so photogenic is that they are usually empty. Located in downtown Los Angeles, the park is used mainly over the lunch hour, and for special events. In fact, the park was explicitly designed to animate what has historically been a relatively deserted downtown core. As such, it was also designed to be maximally “secure”. Which is to say, free of homeless people, who frequent nearby Pershing Park instead. To anyone who knows the history of downtown LA, or compares it to other urban parks (like Bryant Park in New York, say) these chairs are conspicuously empty. They speak to a purification and depoliticization of public space that, especially when it is further promoted on social media, hides problems like homelessness and drug addiction from public concern.

Similarly, to the extent that we mistake Kilmahew for an invaded rather than a neglected landscape, we will fail to address the underlying conditions which made it susceptible to colonization by R. ponticum in the first place, and which continue in the present.  Those conditions include a capitalist, aesthetically disinterested orientation toward land which does not hold landowners responsible for the long term health of the land they cultivate, and also grossly underestimates the labour required to sustain it.

On the other hand, paying attention to land can be beneficial not just in showing us effects we don’t want or wish to change, but also in offering avenues for more creative political interventions. At Kilmahew, we suggest that, rather than razing the entire forest understory, an experimental collective gardening practice might have provided a gentler means of addressing the problems caused by rhododendrons in certain areas of the estate. It would also have been an avenue for re-mediating the problematic relations to land that helped to create them as invasive in the first place.

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A Rhododendron tunnel at Kilmahew-St. Peters. 2014.

In the last couple of years I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my research might be more convincingly for as well as about the real world. What is the point, in other words, of thinking so hard about things like parks and overgrown woodlands? These are precisely the kinds of thing that are given to us–by architects, by rich people, by nature, for God’s sake. The average person can do little to change how they are made, who they are for or how they work. They might also like Grand Park, or appreciate the new vistas that were opened up by the rhodo removal at Kilmahew.

I guess the point for me, the really basic point that I keep looking for new ways to make, is that things don’t have to be the way they are. Things could be different. We could have public spaces that are both safe and inclusive. We could go halfway at least between destroying rhododendrons and everything in their vicinity, and pruning them. And while it is easy to find a host of logistical and economic and sociopolitical difficulties entailed in any one alternative, it is important not to mistake such difficulties as reasons to accept the inequalities and violence of the status quo. In fact, investigating the difficulties that surround alternatives is in itself an important exercise for seeing what else has to change if we want different relations to land.

Landscape is something we put between ourselves, the land, and its multitude of non-human inhabitants. It is a form of mediation that I believe is worth doing carefully. To the extent that it is made of living things, and shaped by natural forces as well as human processes and practices, it is also a form of mediation that regularly exceeds our intentions and sometimes our control. Even when we design it, I don’t think we always know all that it is going to do to or for us. Paying attention to it is both a way of learning something about ourselves and discovering some of the ways in which we could be different.

Climate change and the many solitudes of Canada

Last summer, my family and I moved from Sherbrooke to Vancouver. Sherbrooke is a city of 150,000 people, located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It is the third most affordable city in Canada. We traded a beautiful old house in a vibrant, community-oriented neighbourhood for an apartment we can barely afford in one of the brand new, energy-efficient housing complexes on the UBC campus. While this was a bit of a shock to our family system, we had the good fortune of easing ourselves into our new life by way of a cross-country camping trip in the month of July. It was the best three weeks of our lives.

But it also turned out to be something of a wake-up call, coming as it did at the beginning of a world-wide heat wave and drought. Along the shore of Lake Superior, we wore long johns and sweaters to bed at night, but by the time we were driving through BC, the wildfire season had begun. We stayed with a friend outside Nelson who had been on evacuation alert for a month in 2017 and, shortly after leaving her house, we drove past the beginnings of the Snowy Mountain wildfire in the Smilkameen. There was a campfire ban in effect for the rest of our trip, and we arrived to a hot, dry Vancouver. Many of the newly planted shrubs and trees around our apartment complex were dead when we arrived, and the fern fronds a crackling brown. My husband and I had lived in Vancouver before, but we had never experienced a heat wave here, nor seen the sun red upon rising, or breathed air hazy with smoke.

It is not that I was in any way in denial about the reality of climate change. But this moment in my life, when I am still partly between two different worlds, is one of clarity. I can see that much of what I was quietly, sometimes only half-consciously afraid of while living in Quebec, has already begun in BC. Not just the fires, but also the droughts that precipitate them, the extended reach of forest pests like the pine beetle, the declining salmon populations and the suffering of species who depend on them (like orcas and whales). The manifold threats of climate change loom large here, and decisions about pipeline construction hit close to home.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country we drove through, people seemed to have a very different perspective. Wherever we stopped for groceries, it seemed the majority of vehicles in the parking lots were large trucks and SUV’s, and the hotter it got, a shocking number of them were idling for the sake of air conditioning. Across southern Saskatchewan, we drove past thousands of new pump jacks, many of which are apparently pumping ‘fracked’ or horizontally drilled oil–a method of oil and gas production that is environmentally risky and minimally regulated. And all across the country, the provincial and national campgrounds we stayed in were dominated by large, often air-conditioned RV’s, many of which made use of generators where there was no electricity hook-up.

But this divide, between those who are directly experiencing the effects of climate change, and those who are either unaware or wish to disregard it, is not the only divide that matters here. A few weeks before we left on our trip, Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario, in part on the basis of promises to rescind new environmentally oriented legislation and cancel the province’s involvement in the federal carbon tax. His victory was attributed by many commentators to the growing rift between urban and rural voters: people outside major urban centres feel ignored by urban politicians, and think that the cost of social programs and environmental legislation disproportionately impacts rural communities without benefiting them. Even within cities, sky high real estate values have broadened and exacerbated the perennial divide between rich and poor. Then there is the monumental divide between the perspectives and life chances of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians. This gap is so big that, even with the rise of Idle No More and other indigenous resistance movements, it often seems all but invisible within mainstream society. Finally, in Quebec, francophones are still marginalized in relation to Canadian culture and the mainstream political process, meaning that, outside Montreal, the considerable energy and creativity of many Québecois communities is turned inward, connecting in a limited way with social and environmental movements in the rest of Canada.

Each of these divides has their own complex and often painful history. You would think however, that climate change–which will affect us all–would provide the impetus to bridge these divides. What better reason could there possibly be to find common ground?

Given the well-documented economic impact of droughts, severe storms and wildfires, we don’t have to share the same values to agree that something must be done. Of course, part of the problem is that the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects will greatly exacerbate existing geographic and socioeconomic differences. The kind of solidarity it calls for is profound.

This is in part because the extent of socioeconomic and cultural change required to keep warming at 1.5 C (above which, widespread and, in some places, catastrophic effects are now considered likely), is so great. As the most recent report from the IPCC specifies, achieving sufficient reductions in time to slow global warming will entail not a gradual transition to alternative energy sources and greater efficiency, but a comprehensive and rapid transformation of human societies–encompassing overhauls of whole sectors (e.g., agriculture, transport, construction) and substantial lifestyle changes (especially in diet and other forms of consumption), as well as the deployment of new technologies. To the extent that we wish this transformation to take place in a manner that is democratic, socially just and economically sustainable, there is a great deal of social and cultural work to be done. Solidarity in the face of climate change will not be given to us. Especially in a multicultural, geographically diverse country like Canada, it is something we will have to make, and keep re-making as we go.

By ‘solidarity’, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone has to agree before progress can be made. Not only do I find that unlikely, historically, it has not been necessary. Advances on behalf of justice, equality and the environment have always begun with the efforts of a committed minority. I mean something more pragmatic: that is, the ability to speak, credibly and meaningfully, about the necessity for collective change. This might seem overly basic, but given that we live in a capitalist society, where convenience, productivity and the protection of narrow political-economic interests are often elevated above all else, assertions about collective responsibility often lack credibility (when they are voiced by politicians without the ability to follow through), or are dismissed as idealistic.

The current polarization and low quality of public discourse on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion provides a good case in point. At international meetings, Justin Trudeau has repeatedly claimed that Canada is committed to reducing emissions and even to being a climate leader. But, as the federal court confirmed when it quashed the NEB’s approval of the project, he approved the pipeline without serious analysis of the environmental impacts. Whole classes of impact were excluded from the NEB’s consideration of the project, including the considerable emissions produced indirectly and directly by the tar sands. At the same time, the positive economic impacts of the pipeline have been widely proclaimed, without being substantiated by a third party or even clearly explained. The implication seems to be that, because we are so heavily invested in the oil and gas industry, our responsibility for climate change action does not extend to the emissions produced by it.

However, if you take the IPPC’s timeline, and the idea of collective responsibility for climate change seriously, this is an absurd position from which to talk about climate action. The specific character of its absurdity is perhaps most neatly encapsulated in the idea that it is our support of the oil and gas industry that will enable us to finance a transition to renewable energy. As Kinder Morgan’s withdrawl from the project demonstrated, these companies are too large and too risk averse to accommodate even a small amount of uncertainty in the realization of present projects, let alone chart a path into an unknown future.

But this is what we get when we allow politicians and oil companies to play such a substantive role in discussions of collective responsibility. It is time, I think, to elevate the role of those who can speak on behalf of change, rather than the status quo. In this respect, I am inspired by indigenous resistance to pipelines, because it is motivated by more than the environment-vs-economy narrative that has, until quite recently, dominated news coverage of various climate change issues. Indigenous groups oppose, not only the escalation of climate change and environmental destruction but also, more importantly, the complete disregard of their jurisdiction over the land across which the pipeline travels. In this, they foreground precisely what has been obfuscated in public discourse to date. That is, the centrality of land. This is the thing that oil and gas companies, with all their money and political power do not hold, and which many non-indigenous Canadians have forgotten to value.

The sheer quantity of land in Canada is one of the major challenges to reducing emissions (given the distances that many Canadians travel on a daily basis) and, historically, it has been a source of much disagreement, especially given the way geographical and economic differences are entwined and exacerbated in an economy based on resource extraction. But it may be that what makes solidarity difficult for Canadians to achieve, is the most important avenue for pursuing it.

According to the IPCC report, there are numerous land-based avenues for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. These could help us, not only to meet our reduction commitments and thus contribute to the momentum for change on behalf of other countries, but also to reorient the Canadian economy around a diverse productivity of land rather than corporate-driven resource extraction. For example, advances in regenerative agriculture promise to make agricultural soils both more productive, and highly effective for carbon sequestration. Planting more trees and managing forests more carefully would have similar effects, as would the restoration of degraded land and waterscapes to make them more resilient in the face of climate change. Investments such as these could provide promising—and up to now, mostly unexplored—avenues of green job creation, concretely tying social well-being to that of the land and its non-human inhabitants.

However, as indigenous people have been reminding us for a long time now, land is a major blind spot for most Canadians. In Canada, there is a lot of land, but it only belongs to anyone (landowners or the government) because it was originally taken from indigenous people. And most of us continue to benefit, if unequally, and sometimes indirectly, from this arrangement. For example, the rent for our brand new apartment is modestly ‘below market’, in part because it was built by the university on land given to it by the province. But the Musqeaum people have never signed any treaties with respect to this land, which makes the tiny office from which I am writing—which we could not afford were we living off-campus—a stolen luxury.

I think that, being dependent on or—for landowners—invested in, stolen land, combined with its apparent abundance, disposes us to undervalue land in a cultural and political sense, and to avoid talking about it. But land is what enables every major form of energy production and distribution–not only oil sands and pipelines, but also hydroelectric dams, windmills, solar farms and the electric grids they feed into. The only way that oil and gas companies can profit to the extent that they do, is if they can access the required land at little to no cost, and bear little to no responsibility for how their activities change it. This fact has been recently brought into focus by media coverage of the numerous abandoned, improperly decommissioned oil wells throughout Alberta and BC, but it has long been much more painfully in evidence for those indigenous communities whose land is the site of unwanted oil and gas development.

When we do talk about land in the context of energy production, it is usually because the people connected to it in a particular location, and therefore most directly affected by the associated activities, bring it back into the picture. And while such resistance is often dismissed as NIMBYism, it reminds us that neither the impacts, nor the benefits of energy-producing activities are equitably distributed. Treated as mere backdrop by energy producers and the governments that prop them up, the land becomes a medium for channeling environmental impacts and profits in specific directions: impoverished indigenous communities suffer polluted waterways, declining wildlife populations, higher incidences of cancer and lower birthrates, while oil and gas companies make millions of dollars, provide the government that issued their permits with royalties and increased tax revenues, and create jobs for a small percentage of Canadians.

Land is more essential to sustaining these effects than money. But because it is, literally, the ground across which they play out, it is often effectively invisible. In contrast, indigenous resistance to infrastructures of extraction and distribution brings land back to the forefront, asserting its value not as an incidental medium of transport, but as a medium of relationships–between people and the soil, water, plants and animals that sustain them, both physically and culturally. As Kanahus Manuel puts it, “land is home.” In the gap between these two different ways of understanding land, I believe there is a powerful potential for social transformation, and for the cultivation of new forms of solidarity in relation to climate change

There are many concrete ways in which we can learn to see land differently. For example, participation in community ownership of renewable energy projects puts people in a very different relation to land than a pipeline imposed on them, as does the community management of forests. Such projects could help to diversify the value we see in land such that the manifold relations it sustains, or could sustain, become easier to talk about. Being able to talk about land in terms of its diverse values, while having concrete examples of the ways in which the fulfilment of such values can benefit us all, would in turn help to bridge some of the social and economic divisions that currently structure Canadian society.

At the same time, nothing provides a more meaningful basis for connecting with others across difference than the experience of investing time and labour in a shared project. For many, it is particularly enjoyable and inspiring to do so when the project involves gardening. This is part of the reason I am excited to be living in Vancouver at this time: here, an increasing interest in gardening and green infrastructure is currently being met with a decreasing availability of land and a growing awareness of its contested nature. Consequently, there is widening experimentation with alternative models of cultivation and land-sharing (my favourite example so far being this youth-run native plant nursery) and you can begin to imagine how a more diversely productive urban landscape might look–shaped not only by more community and rooftop gardens, but also urban orchards, food forests, pollinator meadows and so on.

The considerable labour required to develop and implement such projects over time can, at first glance, seem a barrier to their feasibility and sustainability. However, this is also where their greatest potential lies with respect to change, because they provide an inclusive setting for developing the new practices and relationships that we will desperately need in a society organized around the pursuit of something other than unrestrained consumption. In this sense, they require more than just the time and energy of volunteers: they also require a substantial quantity of good will, the ability to temporarily bracket certain individual needs and preferences, and–crucially in my opinion–considerable interpersonal and communication skills. More on this in a future post.

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Camosun Bog in the haze from summer wildfires. A small urban bog that survives on the edge of Pacific Spirit park, against all odds, thanks to the efforts of an unusually dedicated and well-organized group of volunteers.

All this said, the pursuit of new relations to land will never reach its full social potential if it does not begin by reckoning with the damage that has been done on the basis of existing models of land tenure and resource development. We have to fully hear what indigenous people have to say about what has been lost, before we can see clearly ways of moving forward that don’t further entrench those losses. How do we do this exactly? I don’t think it is at all straightforward, and we certainly can’t leave it to governments to sort out on our behalf.

It has to begin though, with a certain amount of humility and a willingness to see the connections between non-indigenous ways of living and the material circumstances sustaining indigenous oppression. The ability to drive our kids to school in order to save time, for example, or the ability to adjust the thermostat based on preference; these things depend on the ability of oil and gas (and coal and hydroelectric) companies to fragment, pollute and otherwise dispossess indigenous people of the land on which their culture,  communities and ways of living depend. Which is not to say that our dependence on fossil fuels is the only barrier to a meaningful reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, but it is to suggest that as long as that dependence continues, practices that prioritize comfort and convenience risk, not only aggravating an existing divide, but being complicit with internationally recognized violations of human rights.

Such connections are heavy ones to make. But it is not just more public transit and a willingness to wear sweaters that we need here. It is also the ability to say the hard things, and to identify those values that social media, capitalist culture and the norms of polite conversation make it difficult to name, let alone agree upon. It may be that what has come between us—our fear and anger and helplessness, our grief for what is already lost—these are the things that, if named, and heard as meaningful, will, in the long run, provide the basis for building new relations of solidarity.

 

 

What is landscape criticism and what can it do?

This is a revised version of a post I made last year. I took it down a few months ago because I was uncomfortable with what seemed in retrospect an overly definitive characterization of my work (and of ‘landscape criticism’, which is barely a thing). When I re-read it, what I had wanted to sound hopeful, came across as both overly earnest and authoritative. But sometimes things make you uncomfortable because they are important, so I am revisiting it, and will probably continue do so over the coming months. Being critical and hopeful at the same time seems to be what is called for these days.

Last year I published an essay on the alternative news website, Rabble. After much thought and with more than a little uncertainty, for my one-line bio, I wrote “Erin Despard is a landscape critic and historian.” These are the two roles that describe what I do in a manner which is the closest to accurate without being obtuse. And landscape historian really is not that much of a stretch: I am currently writing a book of landscape history after all. But ‘landscape critic’–what is that exactly?

Before I sent my bio to the editor, I took a look around, and confirmed that yes, landscape criticism is a thing, but in a pretty limited way. Usually it describes the work of an architectural critic or art historian writing about landscape design. But I write about undesigned as well as designed landscapes, and I draw on a background in media and cultural studies as opposed to art history or architecture. My approach is part interpretative (in a phenomenological sense) and part materialist (in a cultural studies sense).  Ultimately I want to know, what does a given landscape do and how does it work? But I ask these questions less in relation to other landscapes or the history of landscape architecture, and more in terms of the perceptual, practical and social effects that are produced in or by a given landscape, and the socio-political relations that sustain them. In other words, I treat a given piece of land as a work of art, but one that has been produced my multiple actors, through an array of intersecting social, material, and historical processes. Architects and planners make contributions to the appearance and meaning of a given landscape, but so do the media technologies and discourses through which we encounter them, and the everyday practices of cultivation and consumption that shape how we use them.

The essay I published on Rabble is about First Nations resistance to pipeline building via the construction of tiny houses and their placement in the path of the pipeline. Casting this as landscape criticism might seem a bit of a stretch–maybe even somewhat inappropriate in relation to the concerns of those involved. But my intent in doing so is to highlight the role that criticism has, or could have, in opening up alternative viewpoints on a variety of issues relating to land. While criticism is normally understood to provide a disinterested perspective, for me, the idea of being disinterested in our relation to land–that its aesthetic value is somehow separate from its social and political value–is part of the problem. I am explicitly concerned with what we don’t see when we look at land, because that’s where various forms of inequality get naturalized or otherwise disguised.

For me, the point of landscape criticism is not to make an evaluation, but to describe and communicate the importance of elements or qualities that might otherwise go unseen or under-appreciated. Ideally, it enhances the landscape’s ability to make people see or understand something new. I don’t know if members of the Tiny House Warriors would agree with the broader significance I read in those houses, but my intent is to encourage others to see more in those houses than they might otherwise see. I hope that this enables me to contribute to what I believe is a noble and urgent cause.  Can landscape criticism really do that? Stay tuned; I’m going to keep working on it.

 

Collective gardening as research (it might not be what you think)

Last summer, my husband and I built a small garden-on-wheels: it was a large rectangular planter mounted on the wheel base of an old wagon, planted with three tomato seedlings, a kale plant, a marigold, sage and parsley. After it was finished, we posted a message to our neighbourhood Facebook group, asking if anyone had a sunny spot where we could park the garden for a couple of weeks, at which point we promised to find another home for it. We asked the hosts to water it for us, but other than that, and a bit of staking and periodic fertilizing (by me), the garden required little care. It toured the neighbourhood for the summer, producing a healthy crop of heritage tomatoes and fresh herbs that we then shared in various ways with the hosts and other people in the neighbourhood. It was a fun thing to do, and everyone who helped out seemed to enjoy it. We met some of our neighbours and discovered a shared interest in gardening that we might not otherwise have known about. But it was more than this–or at least, I think it could be.

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I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out what that ‘more’ could be, and specifically, whether it might constitute a kind of research. Obviously it would be a different kind of research than gets done in universities. But after spending the last eighteen months or so on a partial hiatus from the academic world, I am very interested in that possibility. What if research was done by people whose contribution was motivated by something other than an academic career? Would it produce a different kind of knowledge? This is of course not to discredit academic research, but to treat it as a foil for the production of something else. After this little experiment, I don’t think I am qualified to say exactly what that something else is, but I am beginning to have an idea about where it might lead.

Let’s say that, in a general sense, the point of research is to produce knowledge. Any project undertaken by human beings in settings where there are unknowns, will produce knowledge of some kind. But I am not, for example, talking about local or horticultural knowledge (what gardeners learn about growing particular plants in a given location). And though I think there is important social and practical knowledge gained through this kind of undertaking (e.g., how to share the work involved, as well as the food produced), what I am after is more than this, too. I think that, undertaken in an open-ended fashion, and accompanied by a certain amount of reflexive discussion about how things are being done and why, collective gardening might be a way to develop new ways not only to do but also to think about gardening.

For example, the successful cultivation of our orphan tomatoes, tended by a series of strangers in several different locations, showed that gardens can do things other than what some garden historians and theorists have argued they most fundamentally do (i.e., stake a claim to territory or express an attachment to place). In fact, if we are being generous, these tomatoes turn the whole history of agriculture on its head: staying in one place and ‘putting down roots’ is supposed to be a way for human societies to increase the efficiency of food production and therefore the quality of life. But the orphan tomato plants produced bigger fruit in greater quantity than those I grew on my back deck, which had a head start but received less sunshine, and were also somewhat neglected while we were on holiday for two weeks.

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A ripe ‘Black Seaman’ tomato, with ‘Blanche du Québec’, not quite there yet.

They demonstrated not only the importance of sunshine and attention from a human being (which every gardener already knows about), but also that these needs can be met collectively, on the basis of resources other than that of arable land, which is where much research on the politics of collective gardening has so far focused. Though this focus is perhaps due in part to the way differences in access to land overlap with environmental and economic inequalities that are in themselves urgently important to address, it might actually conceal a more fundamental condition of collective gardening: the coordination of attention to the needs of plants. In times and places where arable land for collective cultivation is in short supply (i.e., in cities), the problem of how to source and coordinate an adequate amount of sunshine and attention deserves research and action alongside work on improving access to land.

It is important to note that this preliminary, partially-formed insight into the socio-political dimensions of collective food gardening, started with a relatively disinterested doing. I wanted to garden with others, but I live in a city where there are few existing opportunities to do so–in part because many people have space to garden in their own yards. We had an old wagon, and extra tomato seedlings, so a garden-on-wheels presented itself as a straightforward but fun thing to try. It was not only an altruistic act (which is how many of our neighbours saw it), but also a socially speculative one. To the extent that it can lead to the development of knowledge, it’s going to require more doing, of a similarly open-ended nature but with a greater involvement of others–including I hope, more discussion about what it is we are doing. However, if we succeed, and manage to refine or correct or extend what I have sketched out above, it will be because we wanted to, because we enjoyed doing it, and because the work–as well as the talking and thinking–could be integrated into our everyday lives.

This means that the knowledge we produce will be something that we share–not only as an accomplishment, but as a sense of belonging and purpose and competence that might enable us to do other things together. Like stand up for our local environment, or convince more people in the neighbourhood to grow food too. Then knowledge might have value not only in itself, or for what other knowledge it enables, but also because of what it allows and motivates and sustains the researchers to do, with others.

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The work of gardening

For the first time in my life, I have my own garden. That is, my first garden larger than a recycling bin or whisky barrel. I have spent many hours caring for other people’s gardens, making and tending collective gardens, and, more recently, many hours writing about gardens, but this is the first time that I have land of my own to plant and care for. It is an exhilarating time of my life. Also a daunting time–how do I do this right? That is, how do I garden in such a way as to recognize and somehow make good on the privilege this land represents?

Perhaps it is not surprising that I find myself paralyzed by indecision in certain moments, or even that I should find ways to avoid working in the garden (that is, the area that will eventually be recognizable as a garden). Not because I don’t want to do it, but because there seems to be so much else to do. Gardening is what I do instead of watching tv, or reading a novel or going out for a drink with friends. In some ways, I find this is appropriate. We are living in times where there will never be enough time for all the things we should be doing. Increasing inequality, racism, environmental degradation, runaway corporate power–these facts of contemporary life demand our attention. Finding ways to contribute in some way to the struggle to make things better–or at least, to preserve the possibility that we might one day have the chance to do so–is an urgent problem of the everyday. On the other hand, how is it that filing my taxes on time, getting windows washed, purchasing birthday gifts or installing moth traps are items that reliably make it to the top of the list, and create a never-ending reserve of anxiety and/or guilt? Maybe this is what some gardeners mean when they say, ‘gardening is resistance‘.

Gardening as a leisure activity is not at all in line with my vision for a better future. If we saw and talked about the work of planting and caring for plants as vital and productive activities, then we might have the impetus to create more spaces for the pursuit of those activities by greater variety of people. Then we would have, not only more gardens, but more abundant and diverse green spaces. Even better, we might find the support to work together in their creation and care–at which point, gardening could become visible as a solution to some pretty big problems (e.g., food insecurity, social isolation, pollinator decline, biodiversity loss). Of course, particularly in times when social relations are so strongly structured by property ownership and economic competition, working cooperatively and inclusively, in a way that doesn’t burn people out or depend on temporary, outcome-oriented funding, takes a lot of time.

In fact, maybe it is less a question of finding time–as if all the other things did not have to be given up–and more of actively making the time in which to tend to plants and their environments. That is, for a start, by changing the things we give importance to on a daily basis. For example, can we consciously (and hopefully graciously) decline to do certain things, or at least, refuse their false urgency?  Rather than saying, ‘in an ideal world, I would have more time for gardening’, say ‘in an ideal world, I would get the windows washed, but for now it is more important to plant a pollinator garden, or talk to the neighbours about getting some fruit trees planted in the park.  There are some people who actually believe that clean windows are more important than pollinators or freely available fruit, but we might find that they are not so many, if we start putting our time where our hope, as opposed to our fear is.

In order to do that, some of us–those who are otherwise susceptible to pressures to be ‘good’ at tending to the status quo (in the realms of home ownership, personal finance, social norms etc.)–are going to need support in re-organizing the values and expectations that structure our lives. This is going to involve some apologies, and some difficult, politicized discussions.  The world needs our time and energy right now. Gardeners can make a substantial contribution to a lot of problems, but to do so we have to figure out how to turn gardening from an individualized leisure activity, into a collective work of cultivation and care. Its going to take practice.

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Le jardin des nations, collective food garden in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

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.

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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.

 

On Leaving Scotland

Life in Quebec is easier than life in Scotland, and therefore happier; it feels like home. I am not sorry we left, but I do miss Scotland. I miss the stimulation of living in a landscape that is not home–in this case, a wild but also deeply historical landscape for which I was frequently missing a good part of the story. Now that I am gone I can see this as a specific kind of pleasure–the pleasure of innocently taking places for what they are–or at least, for what they appear to be. It is similar to reading a novel that takes place in a place you have never been. Though everything you come to know about that place is imagined, you feel as if you understand it. It is not an understanding that would withstand being spoken about, even in cocktail party conversation, but something that makes up a layer of what you know about the world–something you draw on to make sense of other people’s lives. I feel lucky to have this feeling about Scotland, even if it is already too late to write about it knowingly.

The last place we visited before we left was Easdale Island, a tiny little island south of Oban covered in abandoned shale quarries and gardens overgrown from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We rented a cottage there so we could have time with friends after we had moved out of our flat and shipped all our belongings. It was the beginning of July: wet, windy and sometimes sunny; a wilderness of shale and salt spray, low skies and indigo water, cascading fuschia, foxglove and orange freesia. We walked the footpaths that criss-crossed the island, skipped stones, marvelled at the sky. We were there for five days, just enough time for coming to know what you cannot know about a place.

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I miss Easdale now, though it is not the specific place so much as the time of being there. There is privilege in living outside what you know, in a state of perpetual openness to the world. Of course there is also vulnerability in that openness, which takes it toll, and which is part of why we decided to move back to Canada. Of course, as anglophones, we can never be perfectly at home in Quebec either, and I am reminded that for us the true gift of Scotland was being there with friends–with others who knew how we felt, and who were in a similar state of not knowing. So when I say I miss Scotland, it is never separate from missing them. All the important things I know about those landscapes, I know with them.

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