Editorial Profile: Catriona Sandilands

Posted on Oct 1, 2013 in Editorial Profiles | 0 comments

DSCN1613Catriona Sandilands is Canada Research Chair in Sustainability and Culture at York University. Her work lies at the intersections of queer and feminist theory, environmental philosophy and political theory, and cultural studies. She is the author of The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy (Minnesota, 1999) and co-editor of Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Indiana University Press, 2010).

Editors: We asked members of our Editorial Board/Team to provide a short reflection on a photograph of their choice that they felt says something important about or to the environmental humanities.

Plant Stories

DSCN14791. Plants are part of the stories humans tell about ourselves
Michael Marder, in his fascinating book Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (New York: Columbia UP, 2013), traces some of the ways in which ancient and contemporary philosophy asks questions about the nature of vegetal/human relations. Plants complicate philosophy: they are alive in ways that are both related to and unfathomably different from human (and other animal) lives; encounters with their specific ontologies insert into human contemplation possibilities for sensation, embodiment, temporality, wisdom and even ethics that disrupt both human exceptionalism and anthropomorphism. Humans share with plants what Marder calls a vegetal heritage, one that has left numerous traces on Western thought, for example, in the Nietzsche’s idea “that all living beings are alive, participate in the act of living, to the extent that they are able to be nourished, or share nutrition as a common mode of being” (45-6). Further, plants “are the weeds of metaphysics … growing in-between the categories of the thing, the animal, and the human” (90); they tendril through subjectivity, consciousness and individuality in ways that show that much of the anthropological machine is premised on botanical, and not just animal, disavowal. And yet plants elaborate modes of being – iterability, heteronomy, existential non-identity, incompletion – that are always ultimately obscure to human understanding, philosophical or otherwise: the plant is irreducibly Other. 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.

2. Plants are always caught up in storied histories
The particular plant featured in the photograph, Cynanchum rossicum, is commonly known in North America as dog-strangling vine. Its appearance in human conversation is, currently, almost entirely confined to the discourse of invasion biology; it is, for example, “considered the single most virulent invasive vascular plant species in Ontario, and it made the top twenty list of prioritized invasive plants in all of Canada” (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, 2008). DSV (for short) is an aggressive invasive exotic; it has infested large swaths of land in the Great Lakes Basin; it impersonates common milkweed to attract monarch butterflies (whose larvae cannot feed on the leaves); it out-competes and dominates native vegetation; it advances, deters and, of course, strangles. As Brendon Larson points out in Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining our Relationship with Nature (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2011), the discourse of biological invasion is born of mid-twentieth century, militaristic rhetoric in which alien species are understood as threats to national ecologies; like more obvious forms of xenophobia, this environmental story both organizes our biopolitical actions toward lives like DSV that are deemed undesirable (in another language, always already killable), and prevents us from seeing other options, in this case, for C. rossicum/Homo sapiens interactions (such as the story that DSV is highly adaptive and successful in precisely the terms that neoliberal capitalism values, and thrives under precisely the conditions that it affords; it is also our companion species in ever so many ways). Plant/human relations are always already organized by human stories: in a broadly Western imaginary, at least, gardens are tinged with The Garden, farms can never quite extricate themselves from their Georgic legacy (a powerful weapon in Monsanto’s public relations arsenal), the Victorian language of flowers means that red roses do embody true love (as opposed, in the fifteenth century, to Lancastrian loyalties), and some trees are more noble than others. Good plant stories, here, involve close readings of the sedimented myths, metaphors and meanings that germinate and situate specific plant/human encounters.

3. Plants tell stories
Plants communicate chemically. Dog-strangling vine communities, for example, exhibit what is called the allee effect in which, once a plant group achieves a certain size, it begins to expand exponentially rather than arithmetically: the plants tell each other, phytochemically, that they have achieved a certain critical mass, and then they act accordingly. Douglas fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) also tell stories among themselves; young trees are connected to older “hub” trees through mycorrhizal (fungal) networks in the soil that allow for increased transfer of carbon, nitrogen and water from the old trees to the young ones. Yet other plants are able to talk to insects: wild tobacco plants (Nicotiana attenuate), when threatened with an overabundance of predatory hawkmoth caterpillars, send chemical signals into the air to attract another insect that in turn eats the hawkmoth eggs (see the documentary Smarty Plants at http://meritmotionpictures.com/portfolio-items/smarty-plants-uncovering-the-secret-world-of-plant-behaviour/). Following Michael Pollan, whose work in The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001) demonstrates some of the ways in which specific plant genera (apples, tulips, potatoes and marijuana) enmesh human desires in their evolutionary webs, we might also ask how plants tell chemical stories to and about us. What am I to dog-strangling vine? (One story might be that I am its maid and midwife, having participated in preparing ideal conditions for its reproductive flourishing, but I would be interested in learning more about my involvement in the chemical complexities of DSV storytelling.) Such an agential reversal is, of course, unaccustomed in a milieu in which plants are almost always understood as beings whose capacities are, and should be, subordinate and instrumental to human needs (nutrition, clothing, building material, design, technology of expression). But telling 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. (Subconsciously at least, as John Wyndham showed us in 1951 in The Day of the Triffids, we are already worried.)

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