In this series of posts, I’m dealing with two topics: plant collections in functional trait research (see last post) and plants from the humanities perspective. This post presents Issue 8 of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the Plant Humanities. It is freely available online and definitely worth reading. There are nine articles that include poetry and visual art as well as botany and history. I cannot say that I had a favorite because I found each of them striking and memorable in some way, and all extremely well written and thought out. Kate Teltscher, author of Palace of Palms (2021, see earlier post), writes about the Napoleon Willow, a specimen of Salix babylonica or weeping willow that grew at the graveside of Napoleon Bonaparte on Saint Helena where he was exiled by the British after his defeat at Waterloo. The island is in the South Atlantic on British trading roots and had a botanical garden where species from throughout the empire were acclimatized. That’s how this weeping willow native to Northern China ended up there.
The grave became a tourist stop for French mourning the loss of their leader and British reminding themselves of his sorry end. Cuttings from the willow were sold as souvenirs, and soon the caretakers planted a grove of trees to increase production. Since the species is easily propagated from cuttings many scions thrived in Europe and the tree became popular in the United States. The willow was often planted in graveyards, as a sign of mourning and rebirth since it regenerated vegetatively. The species was also grown in such British colonies as South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia where it flourished to the point of now being considered a noxious invasive. Genetic evidence indicates that the trees in these three countries are all descended from those around Napoleon’s grave.
Teltscher’s essay is a wonderful blend of history, horticultural, and symbolism. All the articles in this issue are mélanges of several fields. Yota Batsaki Executive Director the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library writes about an art installation at the Kunstverein in Braunschweig, Germany by the South African artist Lungiswa Gqunta. Benisiya Nadawoni, Return to the Unfamiliaris a complex statement about immigration, colonization, ethnobotany and the sensory experience of plants. Lengths of razor wire were stretched diagonally across a room from floor to ceiling making it tricky but not impossible for a visitor to navigate through the space. The wire was wrapped with sage leaves held together with string and there was a scent of burning leaves. The room was well-lit and had pale green walls that, along with the scent, gave a calm feel that balanced the rather intimidating wire.
The work’s title Benisiya Nadawani means “where were you headed to?” in the isiXhosa language and is a quote from the philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo who was born in West Africa and brought to Germany as a child in 1707. He earned degrees in philosophy and law and taught at German universities. He returned to West Africa in 1748. With the wire, Gqunta references Amo’s immigration and the xenophobia he faced, while the sage leaves and the incense refer to his writings on the relationship between mind and body. She used sage on the wire because it was more readily available than the impepho or licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) that was burnt. The latter is native to Africa and used in spiritual practices to prepare a space for ancestors. Taking all these elements into account in this complex work, Batsaki does a wonderful job of making this piece come alive and weaving together culture and history.
Reading any one of these essays easily leads on to the next. They bounce off each other and evoke deep thinking about the subject at hand and those treated in other articles. The weeping willow and impepho are both plants with significant cultural meanings. They made me more attuned to “Finding the Plantness within Ourselves.” Danielle Sands and Daniel Whistler’s article begins with a quote from Monica Gagliano (2018): “How can a plant readily know us when we are hardly aware of the plantness within ourselves?” That really stuck with me even though I’m not quite sure what it means. As a biologist, it made me think of all the physiological processes and basic chemicals that I share with plants, that make up my plantness. Many in the field of critical plant studies emphasize the environmental responses of plants to light, pressure, etc. as resembling those of animals, but I have been thinking about similarities at a different level and trying to imagine my plantness in terms of respiration, production of starch, synthesis of proteins. My cells may look different from those of a plant, but they still have a lot in common. My plantness is fundamental, submicroscopic, and silent. This might seem like a form of dreaming, but to me it is a form of connection with organisms that I have never thought about that way—such broad thinking is something that the plant humanities encourages.
One last contribution to mention here is Redell Olsen’s poem called “Moonflower, 2021 or, a scarlet transfer For Margaret Mee (1909-1988),” in which she writes of Mee’s finally capturing the night blooming moonflower in a painting. Olsen also compares Mee’s notes on the destruction of the Brazilian rainforests in the 1960s to the 1980s with the destruction Olsen witnessed in today’s Brazil. Reading this poem was a very different experience from reading a report on habitat loss: much more complex, visceral, intense, and memorable.
Teltscher, K. (2020). Palace of Palms: Tropical Dreams and the Making of Kew. London: Picador.