Here’s a passage from the intro to the book, Multispecies Salon, by Eben Kirksey, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich…
As cultural anthropologists became focused on issues of representation and interpretation, ethnographers interested in plants, animals, and microbes began asking: Who should be speaking for other species? Arjun Appadurai has raised similar questions about the ability of anthropologists to represent other people. “The problem of voice (‘speaking for’ and ‘speaking to’),” he writes, “intersects with the problem of place (speaking ‘from’ and speaking ‘of’). . . . Anthropology survives by its claim to capture other places (and other voices) through its special brand of ventriloquism. It is this claim that needs constant examination.”10 Such critical scrutiny should be redoubled when anthropologists speak with biologists, nature lovers, or land man agers about the creatures they represent.
As multispecies ethnographers speak for members of other species—or even attempt to speak with them, in some cases—we certainly still run the risk of becoming ventriloquists.11 Bruno Latour seems unaware of this risk with his playful call for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to build new speech prosthetics: “subtle mechanisms capable of adding new voices to the chorus.”
Echoing Lewis Henry Morgan’s early writing about clever animal mutes, Latour suggests that “nonhumans” have “speech impedimenta” that must be overcome so that they might more fully participate in human society. In Politics of Nature, he proposes bringing democracy to nonhumans by drawing them into parliamentary assemblies, where they will be represented by human “spokespeople.”12 Questioning the ability of other organisms to hold their human representatives accountable initially led us to ask, rhetorically, “Can the nonhuman speak?”13 But after further reflection, we realized that this question was not quite right.
“Nonhuman is like non white,” says Susan Leigh Star. “It implies a lack of something.”14 While lacking speech should not be the defining characteristic of a broad category of beings, Latour’s notion of the nonhuman has another problem: It assumes too much about the very thing it opposes—that is, the human.”
Two new great new items to share this month:
Passages from this great article:
“Societies without a large complement of domesticated animals appear to have a different relationship with all plants, including weeds. These societies, including many in North America, traditionally practiced smaller-scale agriculture, and hunting or fishing rather than animal husbandry supplemented the plant abundance of cultivated gardens and gathered roots, seeds, and greens. Not likely to allow corn fields to be overgrown with weeds, Native American farmers nevertheless show a certain tolerance for what white neighbors would consider weeds, including a particular species of sunflower (Helianthus exilis) in the Southwest that is welcomed in their fields as sacred. Most descendents of Old World domesticated crop and animal agricultural traditions simply do not cultivate the sacred in this way. “
“As part of the legacy of Old World domestication, weeds come with a Biblical judgment, part of the original judgment of Adam, appropriate for the culture responsible for both the story of Eden and long participation in the cultivation of grains, pigs, goats, cattle, and fowl. Their culture and cultivation would by necessity have familiarized the ancient Hebrews (along with all their neighbors) with weeds as the expected and unwanted companions of their hardest work in the fields. To some extent, this ancient judgment—that weeds are not merely unwanted but bad—survives uninterrupted to this day. People have surprisingly strong words for weeds, and even the Biblical story remained appropriate in a weed identification textbook as recently as 1914. “
“It’s not the plants themselves that are weedy. The ways we cultivate and think about landscapes and cultivation—as divine punishment and reward, for example—guarantee that some of our plant cohabitors will always be seen as weeds. There are no biological qualities that define a weed, only cultural ones. Any plant that reproduces in great quantity, and that can withstand a wide range of climates and forms of cultivation and herbicide application, could possibly be a valuable crop. Value in a tradition is the key to weediness and non-weediness: Can something we know eat it? Are we likely to harvest it in some quantity for some familiar purpose? Is there a market for it? One enterprising weed inspector in Minnesota made a little extra cash selling (organic) dandelion greens and burdock root to the local food co-ops. But generally weeds don’t sell. They are exactly what can’t be bought and sold, what’s taking up space and refuses to leave, or die. “
“It’s easy to see how people could sometimes end up rooting for the weeds. What they value lies in some opposition to the status quo, an ordering of nature and society or even the sacred landscape that leaves too much out. Sculptor Tony Matelli in part celebrated this side of weeds recently in his installations of weedy plant groups in gallery floors in a show titled “Abandon,” which also acknowledged weeds as a sign of some failure. The two go together. Abandonment will always carry with it both the promise of new forms of attention and care, and the recognition of a failure of some kind, something “let go,” a judgment. “
“Weeds—as weeds—are not beautiful, just a return to disorder whose potential is both vast and untested. Weeds are the fulcrum of a change, from one order to another, whether you can complete the change successfully or not. “
“Sometimes, just the promise of change is enough. Weeds can remind people of the tantalizing possibilities of abandonment, what might come after, what life might be like.”
“To merely find weeds visually interesting, even “beautiful,” or to rub them on our minor wounds or learn how to eat them again (like fancy chefs do from time to time) is to miss a point, like saying a fire-breathing dragon can make a good welding torch. Whatever use a plant may have, a weed has an epic quality, taking on something of the significance of Biblical tares polluting the wheat, the thistles Adam and Eve hacked through on their way out of Eden. Any plant might be domesticated, but not a weed—not weediness itself. That’s permanent, a kind of backhanded gift of Old World agriculture. That’s where Daniel’s stubborn politics come from, the disorderly lens through which Carney pulled prairie out of farmland, the place Pyle looks to for the connections between broken promises and broken landscapes, where Bragg coyly salutes a rowdy southern identity, or where I looked at the end of one life for the beginning of another. As long as we have weeds, there will be characters to assault our best efforts and provide the seeds for new efforts always.”
Ellie Irons and I are collaborating on a new project: Next Epoch Seed Library.
Ellie posted our project description and call for participation on Medium. Check it out! We’ll be launching in March and hope to have a varied collection by then with many different species, locations, and contributors represented.
She also had some very pragmatic words on why native species are interesting but not all that great or important or helpful.
Now some of you may be thinking: this seems like an enjoyable, innocuous activity…sort of…but should we really be gathering and promoting the seeds of weeds? Aren’t they ecologically damaging? Aren’t they a nuisance? Good question! I ….Yes, weedy species are aggressive, often not “native”, and can be prone to altering the composition of delicately balanced, historically relevant ecosystems
BUT: maybe what we need more than historically relevant ecosystems (those that mirror a past ideal of a bio-diverse, well-functioning environment), are living, breathing plants that are up to the task of dealing with the shit-storm we’ve created. Thriving plant communities come with loads of ecological and social benefits. Is it really worth raging against the geographical pedigree of a plant introduced 200 years ago if it’s functioning to stabilize soil, feed late season pollinators, generate oxygen, cool the ground, and improve human mental health? Sure, there are villainous weeds out there (think Kudzu), but it’s all context-based, and plant communities that suffer from being overrun by a weedy villain are often not in the best shape to begin with. Or so I hear from some of the ecologists I’ve grilled on this topic.
In the end, humans have made inaccurate assumptions so many times about so many things, that I’ve decided I’d like to (in general) fall on the side of life. If something has a will to live, I’d like to give it a chance. And these weeds certainly have that in spades. If you’re unconvinced, or want more evidence, I’ve enjoyed and been edified by the sources below over the past few months. As noted by Stuart K. Allison, landscapes decimated by human activity can be restored to their “original historical trajectory” without being returned to “their exact historical past”. This is my point exactly: ecosystems can still be functional with new mixtures of plant communities. Let’s not waste human energy, time, and herbicide fixing something that’s already working. We have bigger fish to fry.
Photo taken by Ellie in a former parking lot in Providence, RI.