I have written about aspects of the plant humanities before (see 1,2,3), but I have tended to stay away from critical plant studies because I feel more at ease on the scientific side of the plant studies fence rather than on the literary and philosophical side. I see the relationship of art and history to plants as occupying a middle ground, which I do love to explore but haven’t felt comfortable beyond that point. However, plants are so important to all areas of human experience that this is an untenable position if I am going to appreciate all aspects of plant/human interactions.
As with so many other parts of life, covid brought a change in my perspective. I became more active on social media, began attending virtual conferences and seminars, and became connected to groups such as the Literary and Cultural Plants Studies Network through its listserv. While I don’t follow every lead they send, I have looked into a few. Recently, there was a message about a Botanical Speculations conversation between Giovanni Aloi, who hosts the series, and Randy Malamud (2021), author of Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. It turned out to be an interesting event, a casual interchange between the two about the book, which I had read.
Hearing a writer speak about his work can put it into a new perspective. As the subtitle suggestions, Malamud focuses not on growing plants, but on those whose reproductive development, and perhaps even their life histories, have been interrupted by human intervention, often simply for the pleasure of bring blooms inside to be appreciated in a different and perhaps manipulated context: crowded together with other species, shown off in splendid isolation in a vase, or hung up to dry to become fall or winter decorations. The book moves quickly from one topic to the next, with a thread running through the chapters going from flowers in writing and art to flower sellers: the girls and women who sold flowers in the Victorian era and the mass production of flowers in former imperial colonies today. Then there’s a chapter on gender, sexuality, race, and class, and finally a very affecting chapter on flowers and war, something not often touched upon. The emphasis throughout the book is literature with references to poetry, novels, stories, and essays, which is not surprising since Malamud is a professor of literature at Georgia Southern University.
This romp made more sense after listening to Malamud, who joyfully jumped from topic to topic in speaking with Aloi. This was obviously a byproduct of his absolute enchantment with his subject. Enthusiasm bubbled out of him, and I could picture him sitting down to write about all the flower-related topics that caught his attention, from the daffodils in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to William Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, all within a few pages. In the book, Dickinson comes up several times and her bound herbarium is mentioned. After all, it is made up of cut flowers. Malamud and Aloi explored what it means to cut a flower, to dismember a living thing, to impose human will over the plant. I think people in the plant humanities consider this question much more closely than do botanists collecting in the field who are more focused on labeling what they’ve cut and getting the material into plastic bags or between sheets of paper for preservation.
At the end of his free-ranging discussion with Malamud, Aloi asked for questions and comments from the Zoom audience. One observation came from the artist Melissa Oresky, whose work was unfamiliar to me. When I looked her website, I found that she does amazing art, including sculptures, collages, and prints, all with imaginative use of plant forms. She has even created artists books (2016, 2020) based on herbarium specimens. So my introduction to Botanical Speculations was definitely a positive experience, which I will write more about in the next posts, along with more on some of Aloi’s other projects. These include a quarterly online journal he edits called Antennae, which is freely available on the web and combines critical plant and animal studies in fascinating ways that weave science and the arts together.
I gravitate toward the scientific approach with efforts to learn about plants and save biodiversity. However, I am beginning to understand that those in critical plant studies think otherwise. They see their work in probing human-plant interactions as vital to human and ecosystem survival and health. These relationships include everything from writing poems about plants to growing them in gardens to examining the roles of plants in indigenous cultures. Some investigate the results of botanical imperialism in former colonies including environmental disruption, changes in food culture, and the aftereffects of plantation economies. Corinne Fowler (2020) a British writer has recently written a rather unusual book that makes a case for how slavery and colonialism shaped not just British colonies but Britain itself. She uses both historical records and literary works to make her case. In addition, she includes examples of literary works, some her own, to broaden the perspective and to show that these can definitely make the argument richer, deeper, and more memorable. Like Malamud’s book, hers is flooded with information and ideas, and her argument is well-documented.
Fowler, C. (2020). Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural Britain’s Colonial Connections. Leeds: Peepal Tree.
Malamud, R. (2021). Strange Bright Blooms: A History of Cut Flowers. London: Reaktion.
Oresky, M. (2016). Ghosts. Brooklyn: Kayrock.
Oresky, M. (2020). Finder. Brooklyn: Kayrock.