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Welcome to the Planthroposcene: A Conversation with Natasha Myers

Natasha Myers, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University, Toronto, is the convenor of the Plant Studies Collaboratory, a space for collaborative interdisciplinary research on plant-based ecologies and economies. In 2016, she coined the term ‘Planthroposcene’, articulating a vision of the future grounded not only in the human, but in relationship between plants and people. The Planthroposcene is, as she suggests, ‘a site for land-based justice, for healing and restoring relations with human and more-than-human kin, for growing livable worlds’.

Georgina Reid: You say you’ve been abducted by plants. What does this mean, and when did it happen?!

Natasha Myers: It happened over time, but there was a particular moment where the depth of the connection was made. I had the most amazing professor at university. It was clear that he was fully abducted by plants. He was teaching us about how plants respond to red light. Red light is a really important cue for plants, particularly around times of flowering.

It was in the middle of the lecture that I suddenly realised that the red light that the plants were responding to was the light of dusk and dawn. In that moment, I could feel the kind of reverence that plants have for the sun; how they are with the sunset, and with the sunrise. And all of a sudden, I could sense them bowing to the sun in its remarkable revolutions.

That was the moment I realised that they are cosmic beings. I could feel how it was all connected. Somehow, in that moment, I got access to a sentience that they have. Even though in that classroom we were learning about the technical, molecular mechanisms of how the plant is responding to light, my understanding transcended the dryness of that language and was animated in a way that really brought home the connection. My love of plants took off from there and consumed me.

GR: Often we’re told not to imagine things, particularly not to anthropomorphise. I’ve been thinking about that lately because I’m imagining new ways of being with plants, and being with the world. And to close that door, it shuts down so much imaginative capacity to empathise or be with plants.

NM: I’ve thought a lot about anthropomorphism. My first book was about molecular modellers, scientists who work out the molecular configurations and shapes of protein molecules. I learnt from them that in order to understand how proteins moved and formed inside of cells, they needed to enact those movements themselves. Literally, the scientists I was working with were dancing it out, reasoning through molecular form with their bodies.

What I’ve learnt is that the plants are the ones teaching them about how they grow. And the scientists have to learn how to observe in this really deeply embodied way.

So, much of the work I’ve been doing is questioning what we thought science was, and showing rather than this disinterested practice of objectivity, it’s about all these kinds of embodied and affectively charged modes of inquiry.

We think of anthropomorphism as something childish, right? Anthropomorphism becomes an accusation hurled at many non-Western people. They get called ‘primitive’ or ‘animists’ as if they are seeing life where it isn’t. What I’ve come to realise is that the charge of anthropomorphism is central to the ways colonialism uses science to secure its power; rational, disinterested science becomes a tool to stamp out all other ways of knowing. You can hear it palpably in the ways that settler states configured around liberal, multicultural values of tolerance navigate Indigenous knowledges: ‘Oh, that’s nice for you to believe plants can sing, but we know the world actually works like a machine.’

As I see it, mechanistic metaphors are themselves a colonial form of disavowal of an always already enchanted world. They are an attempt to pretend that everything is under control, that nothing escapes capture. There’s all this work that goes into policing animisms and anthropomorphisms of non-Western people in order to preserve this space for science to hold the status of universal truth teller. But I see the mechanistic metaphors of colonial science, which attempt to turn the living world into machine parts that can be made do to work for us, among the most virulent forms of anthropomorphism. For me, mechanism is about rending the world into service of humans; putting nature to work for us. Metaphors like this can severely constrict and constrain how we think and act in relation to the living world. This limits our imagination and keeps us from engaging the fullness of other beings.

On the other hand, if we begin with the assumption that plants are sentient beings, we are immediately drawn into relation. We have to learn how to address them, which is learning about what they care about and how they do life. To do the work, my sense is that we have to work on ourselves to expand and vegetalise our sensorium. This requires us to let go of our anxieties about anthropomorphism, because otherwise we’ll disconnect, we’ll police ourselves, we’ll restrict ourselves. The point is to become more receptive rather than imposing, to close the gap between people and plants, rather than widen it.

GR: Yes, I agree entirely. I think the garden is a great place to begin exploring the practices that you speak about in terms of being with, and listening to, plants. But then, gardens are often so diminished. Often the way we think or talk about gardens is as a kind of a lifestyle or aesthetic pursuit, and that’s it. There’s no talk of politics, of any of the big stories, but actually they’re all so deeply intertwined with how we garden and why we garden.

That’s a rambly question. Why do you think we’ve done so well at diminishing the richness of the garden as a space and as an idea?

NM: Awesome question. We could begin by asking: What is a garden? What do we think gardens are for? Who do we think gardens are for? How do we rethink the colonial form that informs our answers to these questions? There’s a long history of gardens and gardening in the West to be sure, and if we are going to talk about Western gardens it’s important to talk about the aesthetic garden forms that take shape in a contemporary techno-scientific context. But there is also an incredibly rich non-Western history of gardens and gardening that we have to think about.

Think about the colonial economic botany collections of many botanical gardens, with their coffee, tea, cacao and sugar plants proudly on display with no mention of the slavery and genocides that made plantations of these cash crops possible. Botanical gardens are really profound places where we see how colonial nations stage their relationships with plants, and model their relationships to the living world. They are important places to diagnose cultural practices, to diagnose what people think their relationship to plants is.

If a garden is designed as a space for human control, or to display colonial power, we can look at the relations a garden stages between people and plants, not only within that garden’s enclosure, but also well beyond.

But can we stage relations with plants otherwise? What if gardening were about staging livable relations with the living world? What would it mean to grow a garden not just for us, but for the pollinators, the animals, all the other creatures; to garden as a way to cleanse the waters, airs, and soils for everyone else?

One way to think about the politics of gardens is to look at plants that get called weeds. In one garden, one particular plant is deemed a weed and they pull it out; and in another garden, that’s the plant that gets tended, watered and cared for. In conventional gardens, for the most part, it is the people who decide who lives and who dies. That is political, to be sure. And yet, there’s so much room for rethinking those relationships, for recognising how the gardener is being cultivated by the plants. There are many ways to practise different politics in the garden.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it might mean to break the enclosures around gardens that circumscribe the boundaries of a gardener’s control. We make a fence, encircle a perimeter, plant into containers: we design all of these garden features as if we are enacting a kind of singular human control over the garden, rather than seeing ourselves as co-designing in relation to other beings. How could a garden be an occasion for people to apprentice with plants to experience other ways of being and learning and knowing? I like thinking about a garden as a site for becoming human in relationship with plants and all their allies.

GR: You’ve just articulated everything I’ve been thinking about for many years! My home garden is sandwiched between a river and national park, and my policy is to let all the endemic plants that pop up from the seed bank grow wherever they want. I’m trying to make space for them. But I still pull the weeds out. It’s all quite irrational and highly interesting. I think a garden is such a fascinating place to sit with that tension of aesthetic, relationship and growth.

NM: It sounds like you’re in a beautifully responsive relationship.

GR: I’m trying to be.

NM: Some people are like, does this mean you can’t weed? Obviously if you are growing food, you have to make room for those plants to grow. The point is that you don’t have to use pesticides, and you don’t have to pull out the plants you don’t want with such aggressive zeal. What if you start by connecting with the plant? Learn about it, where it comes from, who its pollinators are, how it is interacting with the soil, or what its healing properties might be, so you might consider nurturing it and perhaps even harvesting it tenderly. Perhaps you don’t want it right next to your tomatoes, but you could encourage it to grow elsewhere. We have to realise that we can have conversations with them.

GR: You say a garden is a place where humans stage or explicitly stage their relationship. ‘Stage’ – it’s kind of performative.

NM: It is, yes. I think so much about plants themselves as dancers. I use this concept of performance, in part because I think a lot about performance in science and in the arts, and there are so many similarities in gardening. I like thinking about the durational dimension of a plant’s life as a performance. It’s not an event, it’s not a single slice in time, it extends over time. In a garden there is also this element of design, and with garden design we have this responsibility to set up these plant performances and stage them well. And of course plants have all kinds of ways to undo our designs and stage their own relations.

There are all these obvious ways that people sharing their gardens on social media are also staging particular relations with the plants in their gardens. The critical question is on what ground are we shaping not just our individual relationships with this world, but are we showing the world what a good relationship with plants looks like? What counts as a good garden or a beautiful garden? Here the issue is with the moral order that governs garden aesthetics.

I feel it’s important to really consider what moral orders we are setting in motion in our gardens, and how these reiterate often colonial norms and Edenic aesthetics.  

GR: This brings me to your thinking around conspiring with plants. Maybe that’s a good way to think about gardening – as conspiring, because as you say, conspire means ‘to breathe together’. I didn’t realise that!

NM: My colleague Timothy Choy at UC Davis is an anthropologist who works on breathing and air pollution. He has been developing the concept of conspiracy to think about the ways that we as humans can conspire to push back against industrialism and its emissions to create new kinds of political formations around breathing well together.

A couple of years ago we were giving talks together on a panel and listening to him, I realised it’s not just about collaborating with the plants: we have to conspire – we have to learn again to breathe with them; to realise this breath we share with them.

If we’re going to conspire with the plants, we have to get on their side. How do we render ourselves of service to them so they can continue to breathe us into being? What would it mean for us to be in solidarity with the plants, to build solidarity projects with the forests, with the trees … what would it mean for us to intervene in the world in a way that would support their flourishing? This would be a plant/people conspiracy.

I’ve been working through this concept of a Planthroposcene and this concept of conspiracy really helped me understand that the primary relations we ought to be concerned about is this relation we have with plants, that plants are integral to what it means to be human. We are only because they are.

Natasha Myers. Illustration: Ameli Tanchitsa

GR: I am so onboard with the Planthroposcene. So much dialogue around the Anthropocene is about this apocalyptic ending, where humans are wiped out and plants take over. People seem to love ‘apocalypse porn’ – images of abandoned cities with plants growing through pavement and inside decrepit buildings. People regularly say to me, ‘If only we humans could get out of the way and let the plants be,’ but there’s something problematic about this idea. I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

NM: There’s an animation circulating on social media of an apocalyptic scene of plants taking over New York City. Plants start growing up the sides of buildings, reaching into every crevice, rupturing and transforming the city. It narrates a world after people disappear, as if it is only when people are gone that plants can fully express their powers. Plants take on a sinister power in this animation. The underlying story reiterates old ideas about civilisation as the taming of nature: it is as if our job was to keep the plants in check, a narrative that stages plants as a destructive force we must resist.

How do we learn to read images of wild plant growth differently? How do we learn to appreciate the aesthetics of uncultivated lands? Rather than seeing these scenes as signs of ruin, how do we learn to recognise and value plants’ unfettered expressions of their powers? What can we learn from plant powers, and how can this learning shift our relationship with them? Can we rearrange our relations, from relations of extraction to relations where we see ourselves in service of plants, and therefore planetary life. Something that is undeniable today is that it is our obligation and responsibility to learn how to be in responsive relation to the beings around us.

From this perspective it seems like stirring up apocalyptic imaginaries – like dreaming a world without us, or giving up on this planet to colonise another – seems like an utter abdication of responsibility to our relation with plants.

The Anthropocene names ‘Man’ as the most powerful agent terraforming the planet today. But we have to remember that not all people embody the destructiveness of self-aggrandising man. Where the Anthropocene concept erases all other ways of doing life, the Planthroposcene is a way of reckoning with the ways that our very being hinges on our relationships with plants. A Planthroposcene is a kind of garden in which people work with plants and their allies to make a livable world for all.

What if our idea of ‘advanced civilisation’ was a lush forest-garden instead of concrete and sprawl? What if wild plant growth were not read as a threat but as the opportunity for a plant/people conspiracy that could grow livable worlds?

I’m interested in challenging the ways of seeing plants, trees and land that are entrenched in our culture. How can we alter them, and learn to read landscapes differently? And it is a different aesthetic, right? In Toronto, residents who also happen to be ecologists are trying to grow wild gardens in their front lawns, creating pollinator gardens and they’re getting fined for breaking bylaws. This is happening at the same time as the city is giving out grants for pollinator gardens; gardens that would presumably break their own bylaws. This rift is so revealing about the moment we find ourselves in, as we confront the deeply violent ways that we have policed gardens and severed plant/ally relations in cities.

So in addition to rewriting bylaws around plants in cities, there needs to be an aesthetic shift. I think design and aesthetics really matter here. How could we design our cities to create affordances everywhere for plants to take root and grow? How do we create surfaces that can support their growth, so that instead of their roots breaking things like pipes and bricks they are actually integrated into the design?

GR: it’s interesting how we find it easier to imagine the end of our species than it is to imagine new ways of being with other life forms. Breathing with the plants and growing together. Humans are so curious.

NM: And luckily, we are so imaginative and creative. So, we can change our practices. We really could.

GR: Yes. Your concept of the Planthroposcene helps us imagine our way out from under the shadow of the Anthropocene as an imaginary framework for being.

NM: Yeah, definitely. We’re so good at defining the horror, and what we don’t want. We’ve got all of these terms for the Anthropocene coming out – the Capitalocene and the Plantationocene, the Anthrobscene. There are amazing formulations for realising who and what and how we don’t want to be. But what do we want? What do we want to create? What kind of scene do we want to seed instead?

There are already ways of doing life, practices that have existed for thousands of years, alongside those that are being newly invented today that can grow livable worlds. And this is the other crucial piece: Planthroposcenes hinge on decolonisation and racial justice. This means giving land back to people whose relationships with plants have been severed. Dispossession affects both people and plants. Plants who lose their people suffer too. Plants need their people. I am thinking here of the #LandBack movements for Indigenous resurgence and at the same time about reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans who were severed from their lands and traditional plant knowledge.

Planthroposcenes take shape in efforts to struggle against white supremacy’s colonial forms. How might growing a garden be an act of staging a political formation that is grounded in racial and social justice? I think revolutions like this can take shape in gardens.

So, this perhaps this is what a Planthroposcene looks like – it’s a site for land-based justice, for healing and restoring relations with human and more-than-human kin, for growing livable worlds.

GR: So, here I am, gardening in suburban Sydney or Toronto or LA – what might decolonisation mean and how might it affect me in my garden, and how can I start seeing that in a way that might enact change?

NM: How do we learn to be allies to the Black and Indigenous people who are doing the decolonisation work? I think that is a better way of formulating it. We can participate in anti-colonial projects, and work as accomplices alongside BIPOC folks, but white people don’t get to decide what decolonisation looks like.

But yeah, absolutely, what does it mean to grow an anti-colonial garden? I ask that question myself all the time. Right now, my garden and the place where I live is on land that used to be ancient oak savannah. It was all razed about 150 years ago. They just levelled this unbelievably beautiful landscape of rolling hills, tall grasses, wildflowers, and trees. I think, what can I do to participate in healing this?

Access to land is the very first kind of problem and question. On whose land have we built our lives? For everyone who has a plot to garden in, it’s time to sit with that question.

We also need to look at property lines. What if we started taking down the fences between urban properties and declared all lands a shared responsibility?

That might take some time. For sure, you will want to make sure that your garden encourages native species to flourish, because you will want to support the local ecology. But we have to remember: ecologies are not just made up of nonhumans. Indigenous people shaped their ecologies actively, so without their presence, ceremonies, kinship relations, and protocols, just selecting native plants for your garden misses the mark.

I think a lot about the kinds of work that allies can do to support local Indigenous land sovereignty projects and urban Indigenous resurgence. We could make space in our gardens. Urban Indigenous earthworkers where I live in Toronto have responsibilities to plant and tend particular foods and medicines, and often they don’t have their own gardens to do that work. So how can we open up our gardens, reimagine those perimeters, those spaces?

GR: We’ve got lots of work to do, don’t we?

NM: Yes we do.

GR: Where do you sit on the horror and hope scale?

NM: I find the horror is paralysing. We’re all a bit overwhelmed right now. When I woke up this morning you could see that it is a cloudless day, but the sky is not blue. I am so many thousands of miles away from those massive fires raging across California and Oregon, and the disintegrated bodies of all those beings are hovering over me now. Yes, this is a catastrophe, but somehow being in action, being an activist, being an artist trying to change how people see things, being in the act of growing a garden, it feels like we can make these small changes, one garden at a time. Yes, we need to connect up those gardens. And we need to learn different ways of gardening. But I do feel like every time I’m in the garden and with the pollinators who are just thriving and the birds are all around, I can feel how radical it is to conspire with the plants. And so I take direction from that cardinal who chirps at me when I have pruning shears in my hand and reminds me not to prune that rose or that lilac, so that they will have seeds to eat over the winter. That certainly helps with the horror.

That’s what makes the Planthroposcene concept so generative – it’s so actionable. And we can do this one neighbourhood at a time, one city at a time. We can make really practical interventions when we ask simple questions like: What do the trees need here? What plants could heal the lands on that industrial site?

When we’re in service to the plants and their allies, we’re supporting everybody, not just humans and not just plants. There are people all over the world who are already doing this work, it’s just a matter of collecting us all up.

GR: I think you’ve touched on something with the Planthroposcene. The way you tell these stories and frame these ideas is really powerful.

NM: I feel like the plants are channelling through me. I really do feel they’re giving me the words.

GR: Really?

NM: Absolutely. I feel like I’m just a conduit at this point. Abducted, I’m doing their bidding.

GR: They’re doing a great job. You know, one of my favorite compliments ever was from a friend – we were in the bush looking at plants and she said, ‘George, you are at least eight-seven per cent plant.’

NM: Yes! When I was doing a lot of my work as a dancer and trying to choreograph with plant movements, I got so good at sculpting my anatomy around plant form that when I went to movement-based human anatomy course, I was amazed to discover I had human organs. I was like, oh wow, I have a liver.

GR: The plants are everything. They do all the guiding and the holding in ways that I can’t articulate.

NM: And they’re so quiet. They’re so quiet about all of it. So perhaps they need someone blasting at the megaphone?

GR: We’ll keep doing it. Me over here and you over there. And all of the others in between.