Explore

Plant humanities: A discipline takes shape

Sumana Roy | Updated on July 23, 2021

Sumana Roy   -  BusinessLine

IMAGE: ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

The words buzz in my head: Plants, pollinators, medicinal cannibalism, history of transplanted trees and bodies... And I wish for educators to use this slant of thinking into their curriculum

* Plant Humanities Lab is a singularly ambitious and generous project in Digital Humanities

* It has been lonely, to continue to make a case for creating a culture and vocabulary of talking about plant life

* Ashley Buchanan, her voice and spirit always enthusiastic and supportive, spoke about how recipe books had led her to wondrous discoveries about plant life

***

It was only after we had said goodbye to each other temporarily that I realised that we had all been talking about food. By ‘we’ I mean those of us who had been awarded a residency by the Plant Humanities Lab at Dumbarton Oaks, trustees of Harvard University. The Plant Humanities Lab is a singularly ambitious and generous project in the Digital Humanities, one that will allow scholars of plant life to find resources in one platform. I, deprived of a library on plant literature, having had to scavenge on soft copies on the internet, and, more importantly, rely on the generosity of scholars from history and literature and botany to write about plant life in India, was greedy for the opportunity. My soft ambition, in taking up the residency, was to educate myself on how to create the discipline of Plant Humanities in India.

I watched — on Zoom, of course — with a mix of awe, delight, and slight envy as my co-residents spoke about how they were teaching Plant Humanities in their classrooms. Awe and delight for the magical ways in which they were studying plant literature, and envy for two reasons — I wished I was a student in their classrooms; because no such courses were taught in India. It has been lonely, to continue to make a case for creating a culture and vocabulary of talking about plant life without the ready-made apparatus of botany or the environmental sciences, doing it alone and over and over again, until I found myself repeating the same things and sounding like a maniac, a plant-mad person. It was wonderful, to have company at last, to be able to learn and discuss.

Yota Batsaki, the principal investigator of the Plant Humanities Initiative, shared with us the ‘roots’ of the project, now supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation: A 2013 symposium, “The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century”, one that led to a 2016 publication that she co-edited with Burke Cahalan and Anatole Tchikine. As I heard her and Tchikine speak about how they had coined the term ‘plant humanities’, and how they were trying to bring together disciplines and scholars, and librarians and designers and developers and artists and scientists, I listened with thrill but also — again — deprivation. When Ashley Buchanan, her voice and spirit always enthusiastic and supportive, spoke about how recipe books had led her to wondrous discoveries about plant life, I found myself thinking about recipe books in the Indian languages, and how they had been ignored by the ‘serious’ humanities.

I made notes of everything they said: Christopher M Blakley about plant-human interactions and pharmacy; Kyra NKrakos about her work in introducing students to the plant world (and always making a quip or another, such as ‘The golf course is a castrated space in America’); Alicia L Monroe on race and rice and the mobility of plants; Ashanti Shih about the history of species belonging and the natural sciences as a settler colonial force in the Pacific and American West; Citlali Sosa-Riddell, a scholar of Mexican-American borderlands, on how she has integrated plant literature and its haunting archive in the courses she teaches; Amy ETraver, who spoke about refugee gardens in New York and the intersection of agriculture and race and ethnicity in a way that moved me to tears. Leah Sobsey was the artist in our group, and she spoke about how she was working with botanicals in her commercial art projects. Romita Ray’s extraordinary work is on the visual archive of tea in India, but she brought her scholarship in the field, whether in a passing remark about the role of Jesuits in the history of plant mobilities or mentioning a scholar’s work on the history of plantations, to everything that was discussed.

I write about this only to record my greed and expectation. The words buzz in my head: Plants, pollinators, medicinal cannibalism, the history of transplanted trees and bodies, ethnobotanical knowledge, postcolonial food activism... And I wish for scholars, but, more importantly, educators to use this manner and slant of thinking into their curriculum in schools, colleges, and universities in India.

When I think of the discussions at the residency at Dumbarton Oaks, I notice that all of us spoke about food. Abhijit Majumdar, my professor in college, and the son of Charu Majumdar, the Left revolutionary, had suggested something to me when I was a student. “When a child sits down to eat, ask them to think back to the history of the plate, of where everything on it came from,” he said. Calculate backwards — from the plate to the soil, all the joints in the process, every bend, from production through distribution through the kitchen and the people cooking it to our plates. The linguistic history, the layers of travel and argument in it, the farmer’s history, the distributor’s history, the history of the marketplace. I call it ‘The History of Your Breakfast’ assignment. Maybe we could begin from there?

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;@SumanaSiliguri

Published on July 23, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor