Plants as Teachers, Researching with Plants: an Experiment in Method

By Stanley Connell-Longman

My research stems from a curiosity about what can happen when theoretically engaged scholarship encounters the possibility of plant teaching. My understanding of plant teaching stems from my learning with Nathaniel Hughes, a practitioner and teacher who has developed a School of Intuitive Herbalism, based in the Stroud valleys. Intuitive Herbalism is an approach to and philosophy of herbal medicine premised on the healing potential of communicating and forming relationships with plants. Plant-human relationships and communication is an experiential, holistic and embodied process. Sight, smell, taste, sound and movement as well as colour and drawing are ways to challenge habits of perception and communicate with plants. Attending to these non-linear, subjective, processual, heterogeneous and uncertain experiences as valuable forms of knowledge forms a key tenant of intuitive herbalism. As such, these find resonance in a number of methodological and philosophical turns affecting the arts and social sciences, and which also resonate with the MSc Society and Space curriculum. Both scholarly and herbal practices then, challenge perceptive habits through which understandings of subjectivity, materiality and spirituality, non-human communication and thought itself are made. These challenges extend to broadening what is considered knowing and research beyond the predominance of linguistic-cognitive[1] forms of representing experience: language, symbols, text, rationality. The philosophy of intuitive herbalism and the philosophies encountered in my scholarly training find much sympathy, but there is also a great difficulty in pursuing plant communication as a form of research. The following reflects a process of struggle in which I think through and sketch the (firstly) methodological challenges of researching with plants and (secondly) the political and ethical considerations these demand.

11. 20190630_131515Image: Painted stinging nettle, which may symbolise strength and fortitude, resilience and resistance. I found this on a wall of a squatted, self-sufficient community in Barcelona that has frequently and successfully defended itself against state eviction. (Photo author”s own)

Beginnings …

The recurring question I am turning over is: what would it mean to take a plant as a teacher?

The second question immediately arising out of this runs: what does it mean to ‘research this’? What are the methodological, ethical and political responsibilities, limits and uncertainties?

A third nagging doubt emerges from these two: academic scholarship and plant teaching are at odds. Despite what I read I don’t believe plants can be heard from within the academy. So why attempt this translation?

The two preliminary questions stand in tension together, with and against each other. They are productive of each other. I want to explore this tension. I might thus better formulate these questions together as: what would it mean, indeed what is required, to engage – that is, to listen and recognise – plants as teachers and then represent that encounter within scholarly limitations (conceptual, textual, methodological)?

Yet, this formulation is only partly helpful. The tension my research hinges upon is still inadequately formulated here. The scholarly is still imprisoned within the very frameworks that constitute its encounter with the ‘non-academic’ as ‘problematic’, indeed that constitutes the possibility of such a strict divide. The matter of communicating between worlds and categories – the academy, a human, a plant, a medicine garden – no doubt warrants caution. Yet it is important not to limit what academic inquiry and its concomitant categories of understanding could become in such an encounter with plant teaching.

A third formulation might run thus: what could it mean to take plants as teachers and how might such an invitation demand, challenge, and engender different scholarly understandings and practices?

Within these intuitions further caution arises. Asking what the academic can learn from  (i.e. gain)  studying alternative knowledge practices is to slip into a logic both appropriative and undermining (of itself and the plant as teacher). Indeed, it is not a question of research on plant teaching. The assumptions of from and on run counter to the spirit of encounter and gift, two understandings significant to understandings of plant teaching. Therefore, to extend the prepositional analogy further, I am seeking to research with plants. Exploring how this methodological engagement engenders different sensibilities and understandings of human-plant relations from other engagements – such as botany, ethnobotany, anthropology – will form a significant part of my research.

After all these revised sketches I am still left wondering: but how do I make sense of and communicate my (past and potential, future) experiences of being taught by plants as part of or in tandem with scholarly practice and research method? Furthermore, why seek such an uncomfortable confrontation? The point of my inquiry is not to resolve this predicament. Nor is it an attempt at a most accurate representation (even if we broaden what is permissible beyond linguistic analysis to include prominent bodily sensations and awarenesses).  Making sense of an experience of and relationship with plant teaching must necessarily also be about making sense of sensemaking itself. This is becoming a thought experiment in method (and a methodological experiment in thought?).

To take plants as teachers – to engage in somatic communication and healing with plants – is already to assume their agential capacity as lively communicators. How, if at all, can their agency, communication, and capacities be recognised, listened to, and understood? What is at stake? Asking these questions leads me to question my own assumptions about our commonality and difference. This space of encounter will prompt me to be sensitive to my categorial understandings and habits of perception, communication and representation in relation to other forms of life. This sensitivity is methodological, political and ethical all at once, for I acknowledge that ways of making sense carry consequences (they matter both literally and figuratively).

The answer to any of these doubts is not a foregone conclusion. Another intuition, which I have tried to demonstrate through my toing and froing, follows: I am reluctant to engage plant teaching through conventional critical scholarship. I am afraid, indeed anticipating, that I will not be able to ask these questions. I am uncertain from the outset how to ask them and whether they can be answered. What if my experiment does not succeed? What if the difference between worlds is incommensurable? But what do I think I’m trying to communicate and what could constitute failure to that end?

If so much of plant communication is non-verbal[2], and if entering into common communication requires inhabiting largely non-linguistic modes – such as smell, sound, taste, movement – then textual limits are soon reached. My inquiry extends then to how I navigate these limits. It further extends, following theoretical turns towards a ‘new’, materialist semiotics[3], into how attention to non-linguistic representation can inform our very understandings of the limits and boundaries of representation, language and the symbolic. In doing so I draw on plant teaching as a guide. I do this whilst engaging ideational theory itself as a form of sensemaking. Plants and ideational theory then, in guiding me, might speak to each other. In a holistic and cyclical way, this dialogue has the potential to disrupt and reconstitute the very terms of the dialogue itself. Herein lies a potential to challenge what we or I understand by research method – to experiment in its creative sense – and especially resist the assumptions of success, certainty and intelligibility that so often underpin it.

The invitation to ask: what does it mean to take plants as teachers demands a response in keeping with the ethic of plant teaching itself. In this way, the inquiry, if it is to be honest, if I am to respect my not-knowing, becomes an ethical and political endeavour, for there is a responsibility in answering this question. As I have said, it is not research on plants for the academy, but rather with plants and through theory. I do not yet know for whom[4] . This responsibility encompasses not only reformulating the very terms of the problem of research and representation, but also attending well to the tensions that inevitably and necessarily arise. Plants may teach acceptance of not-knowing, of uncertainty and intuition if one is receptive. How do I reconcile intuition and ambivalence with formal academic requirements while simultaneously engaging a theoretical craft rigorously and creatively? Can concepts in fact enable a receptivity to non-human teaching and communication? What would it mean to hone that as a method? These are some of the questions I want to explore and experiment with in this project.

Here, I have given a sense of my dissertation research through an explicit methodological framing. Grappling with some of the methodological challenges it presents and appreciating this grappling as a constituent research process will be a central refrain in this thesis. It reflects the holistic approach of intuitive herbalism allowing the plants themselves to act as guides to the methodological processes. Thus, the research understands itself as a dialogue whereby researcher, research, theory and practice are aligned (distinct but in continuity). Challenging the terms of engagement – the assumptions that underpin these distinctions and their consequences – might just enable alternative understandings and practices to emerge. The challenge may also be too great. It is a risk and I do not yet know what is at stake in trying to bring plant wisdom into the academy. Nonetheless, I am curious to try.

[1]  Linguistic and (‘rational’) cognitive forms of representation are usually understood as correlative with the ‘symbolic’ or ‘semiotics’. There are however, a number of theoretical turns that are concerned with broadening the remit of the ‘symbolic’ beyond such forms of representation. These seek to find not just alternative modes of representation to the symbolic (which would reinforce its linguistic-cognitive domain) but more fundamentally challenge the predominance of linguistic representation by incorporating other forms of representation within and as symbolic too. Crucially I am not interested in rejecting language but rather appreciating it as a form of symbolic representation among many.

[2] I may be guilty of conflating the verbal with the linguistic. A challenge and intention of my research will be to grapple with such representational nuances and try to articulate them through language, well.

[3] see footnote 1.

[4] That is, other than my supervisor and board of examiners, whom I hope to convince of my experiment. Yet is it even permissible to research for myself, with, and to some extent on myself? I wish to make these ambivalences central to the research process and the inquiry itself.

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