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.

Spending time inside liminal space

By Amy Hornsby

Researching a world behind bars offering violent landscapes has been an incongruous summer research project, yet does prison space have to be this way? Are all this way? Do many of us really know or have given it a second thought? And most importantly, is carceral space really only behind bars? This post will discuss briefly my visit to a public open access café at a Category D (low-security) prison – that shall remain unnamed – which includes inmate workers in the café. This post shall lay the ground for exploring the new realm of carceral geographies, an increasingly vibrant subfield of human geography.

10. Amy blog imageImage: View directly opposite the Category D prison (image author’s own).

The carceral geographer Dominique Moran has argued carceral space is everywhere, and increasingly so. The school, factory, office, university, hospital, prison, immigration detention centre, housing estate, are for Moran, all carceral spaces. Carcerality is a term to move beyond perceiving incarceration (being locked away) as the only form of discipline or indeed punishment. Ultimately, Moran highlights the porosity of prison borders. Carcerality follows on from the philosopher Michel Foucault (1977: 304) who identified the “carceral texture of society” operating through restrictive norms of behaviour.

The UK incarcerates more people per 100,000 than any other country in Western Europe and its prison population has doubled in size over the past twenty years (Moran, 2013). In news of overcrowding, underfunding and soaring prisoner suicide rates in the UK, maybe it is time to reattend to the function of a prison, bringing to light the vast number of UK prisons under ‘special measures’. This is such an epidemic there is at present an ongoing case where an inmate of a prison in Holland was called to a prison in the UK but the authorities of Holland say to send the inmate to the UK Prison would be in breach of his human rights. HMP Bristol is, for instance, reported as home to carceral critters: cockroaches and rats.

Within 12 months of release, 40% of prisoners reoffend in the UK (Moran, 2013). Moran discusses the notion of a liminal space, asserting dominant spatial imaginaries plant the prison space as outside ‘our’ own worlds, but certainly a place where one goes ‘inside’, disparate and Other to ‘society’. This operates as an affective binary perpetually reproduced: an instrument of punitive normalisation, Foucault too highlighted. For Foucault, the ethical question does not even concern if we should have prisons or what indeed they should do, but the ethics regards the violence of normalisation itself. Normalisation as a power that seeks to categorise all bodies and shun from ‘society’ in the name of ‘civility’ anything beyond that norm, even fleetingly. Prison borders are not only porous due to advancing technology allowing for the flow of drones to circulate goods, not only due to the flow of bodies and ideas in and out, but in that prisons are not merely a response to crime in society. Carceral geographers posit prisons as a function of our current punitive, unequal and unjust society. Afterall, prisons do not spring up from nowhere, although they are increasingly architected to blend in, appearing as if they are not there at all.

Moran (2013) has explored the long-known fact in traditional criminology and prison sociology that recidivism (ending up back in prison) is less likely for an inmate who experienced greater time in the visitation room engaged with family or friends. This rings true across nations and methodologies and time itself. Yet, this profound positive effect of visitation has long been cited as underexplored. Moran argues carceral geographies, with human geography’s concern with affect and emotion, offers the perfect space to explore this; Moran names the visitation room a ‘liminal space’. Liminality in its original definition did not only mean the inbetween but also a site of transformation. The visitation room offers liminality in multiple forms, one being the visitors themselves are somewhere betwixt prisoner and ‘free’. Comfort (2008) has described female visitors as making their male partners ‘docile bodies’ in completing their sentences with good behaviour, serving as reminders of what the ‘outside’ has to offer, but also goes beyond this, the visiting experience affects in subtler ways. In San Quentin, California, long-visits (3 day visits) can be applied and paid for, reproducing a pseudo-domestic setting. I will not say it prevents prisoners from becoming fully institutionalised in their upkeep of relations that are less hierarchical than prison-guard-inmate, as the prison site is more-than-institutional serving as a point along a single carceral continuum. But within this liminality, between ‘inmate’ and ‘outsider’ the affect experienced is cumulatively transformative with increased chances one will not end up in prison again. This challenges the function of the ‘prison’ itself, if those who spend more time in the area that least resembles it, succeed in staying ‘free’.

The affects the site of a prison orchestrates are architected with precision. The first layout of which may come to mind is Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular structure with the watchtower that is visible from all cells to remind prisoners that someone may always be watching, but you can never tell when. Some prisons, such as HMP Wandsworth maintain this structure and are ‘failing’ by all static measures. Other prisons with dire reports such as the local HMP Bristol are also the products of old architecture, in this case Victorian. A volunteer in prisons I interviewed said they now refuse to work there and referenced the architecture itself resembling an asylum. The US is said to have the worst prisons with extreme security that anticipate inmate violence at every move, operating to some extent as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Norway however, with the lowest recidivism rate in the world, is praised for its architecture which swaps barbed-wire for forestry. It does not anticipate violence from inmates but aims to prevent that at its core, with low-security embodying a greater sense of humanity in its perception of inmates (Wright, n.d.).

As I arrived at the unnamed prison on a summer’s day in a rural, idyllic setting it was as if perhaps they had been inspired by the successful Norwegian model where a low-stone wall followed by grazing cows was the reality. The inmates working at the café could run out in a flash if they wanted to, contesting dominant imaginaries of prison-space. Flower boxes decorated the café. The inmate workers were free to share with me this outside seating space in their breaks too. Yet, was it merely a case of playing pretend? To my right through a glass window there were signs reading ‘no offenders past this point’ and a list on a whiteboard of contraband.

The liminal space of the café was betwixt two systems of the US and Norway still enmeshed in a structural evasive set of processes that teach punishment and violence in the face of wrongdoing. I was in the site the Daily Mail brand ‘the Ritz of prisons’ fuelling the pro-punishment rhetoric that feeds our policy. I was there as part of my research to produce an autoethnographic account of my own feelings in that space and on my way there. This is a response to Moran’s (2013) call that carceral geographies can overcome the main criticisms of affective geographies, instead using affect to prove more-than a conceptual point in recounting the embodied sensations within oppressed sites, but instead delve into something static representation knows as true but not why.

The space was liminal once more, being betwixt the sunshine, flowers, rolling hills, smiles and sugary delights and the heavy veil of intensity. The cited ‘intense atmosphere’ of incarceration was palpable. With the list of contraband visible through a window to my right, labels everywhere, and the long one-storey buildings that I wondered what was happening inside of? The affective geography of the site was something heavy, and I could feel the vulnerability of the bodies serving me to a higher authority and a space prone to disease, violence and even homicide.

[P]risoners tend to wear a ‘mask’ to conceal their ‘true selves’ in the intense atmosphere of the prison. (Liebling, 2004, pages 306 and 353)

The performativity of the prison space is, in the perspective of critical carceral geographers, a heightened manifestation of everyday self-discipline following Foucault’s Panopticism. The architecture of spaces and the woven fabric of society itself must change, if ‘prisoners’ and recidivism rates are to change too. The increased vulnerability of imprisoned bodies under the current system does not lead to changed or healed people.



Comfort, M. (2008) Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Liebling, A. (2004) Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moran, D. (2013) Carceral geography and the spatialities of prison visiting: visitation, recidivism, and hyperincarceration. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31(1), pp.174-190.

Wright, C. (n.d.) The most successful prison system in the world is also the most radically humane. In: Wake Up World [Online]. Available at: <> Accessed on 1st August 2019.


Using satellite data to investigate land cover change

By Kilian Mayer

Medium resolution satellite images give us the chances to see how humans reshape the world. The publicly available dataset CCI-LC (Climate Change Initiative Land Cover), based on satellite images of the European Space Agency, offers a detailed look on our planet’s surface and how it has changed from 1992 to 2015. The great achievement of this project is its high temporal consistency, which enables the comparison of land cover distributions over time. The most pressing issues we can tackle with the data is how our species is affecting its environment and the changing ecosystems. IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), an intergovernmental body established by the United Nations that is dedicated to provide policymakers with an objective view on the state of our World’s ecosystems and biodiversity, just published a report, which concludes that we are facing a serious biodiversity crisis. Over one million species are threatened by extinction. One of the major reasons for the critical condition of our planet’s biodiversity is the loss of natural habitats (Díaz et al. 2019). The CCI-LC dataset enables us to explore the connection between human activities and land cover changes on a larger scale, which will help us to protect and restore healthy ecosystems. Changes in the ecosystem can be the result of different factors. In order to draw real conclusions, we must carefully choose a mode of inference that identifies the effect of human activities. I have chosen a research strategy called regression discontinuity design. Hereby I look at state borders, focusing on how the distribution of land cover changes over time. This will allow me to estimate the average impact of policies and socioeconomic changes (e.g. more livestock farming or an increase in GDP on changes in land cover).

09. Kilian image 1

In my thesis I want to look at savannahs and grasslands at a broader scale and investigate connections to socioeconomic developments. It is important to understand how we influence ecosystems to take action against the loss of natural habitats. In 2015 according to the CCI-LC data set around 10 percent of land area worldwide was covered by grassland, while forests covered around 35 percent, sparsely vegetated and barren area 25 percent and agricultural area 18 percent. The remaining 12 percent are made up of 10 percent shrubland, 1.5 percent wetlands and 0.5 percent settlements. Considering that grasslands also occur in the form of savannahs and agricultural areas, these types of ecosystems are certainly among the most widespread in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that, depending on the definition, between 20 and 40 percent of the land area is grassland. These areas contribute to the livelihoods of more than 800 million people. They are a source of food, a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, and they store carbon and water (Panunzi 2008). They thus play a fundamental role in the protection of our waters and in the fight against climate change. A report by the IPBES concluded that we’ve reached a critical point at which one million species are threatened by extinction because of the disappearance of natural habitats (Díaz et al. 2019). However, we are not only losing unique species and ecosystems, but we are also losing a piece of human history. The upright walk, the domestication of animals, the use of crops, and many other evolutionary steps that we have gone through on our way to the modern era are connected to the African savannah. To protect these precious sites, we need to understand how we can protect these habitats from the encroachment of woody plants and from desertification.

09. Kilian image 2

Case studies suggest that grasslands can respond very quickly to changing conditions, making them vulnerable to land-use shifts and the effects of the climate change. The CCI-LC dataset allows us to study the changing distribution of grassland and the impact of socioeconomic developments on an international or global scale. Many publications suggest that a large part of grasslands, especially in tropical areas, are in a sensitive equilibrium. These landscapes are characterized by the constant battle between grass vegetation and woodland. The existence of tropical and subtropical savannah ecosystems, characterized by a closed herb layer and an open layer of shrubs, depends on two factors:  on one side the population of trees and bushes must be kept within limits, and on the other side deserts cannot continue to expand. Humans are suspected to have a decisive influence on both developments. As a result of livestock farming, the extermination of large herbivores, and changes in fire regimes, we influence the spread of woody plants in these ecosystems. At the same time, man-made climate change and destructive land use practices are a driving force of desertification. However, these are hypotheses and we cannot yet say exactly how we can ensure the survival of these precious ecosystems. The CCI-LC dataset offers us a new source of information to better understand the effects of human action. Compared to other global land cover datasets, the information from the CCI-LC show higher spatio-temporal consistency which offer a better framework to investigate land cover changes. We can use the dataset to compare land cover distributions over 23 years and investigate patterns that hopefully give us useful insights for the conservation of these ecosystems.

09. Kilian image 3

In satellite images, we can see changes in the landscape and investigate how different types of land cover are distributed. Sometimes conspicuous patterns are visible which can reveal how the influence of people changes the landscape. Taking a look at the border between Namibia and Botswana, we can see how grassland dominates the land on the Namibian side, while shrubland prevails on the side of Botswana. The abrupt change of the land cover that coincides with this administrative border suggests a relationship. However, the question is whether the demarcation of the border was influenced by the landscape, or whether the different institutional and social realities affected the land cover. If the natural environment has not played a role in defining the border, then such a pattern is probably the result of the specific socio-economic and legal reality in the country. The changes in land cover along the border could therefore be used to study the impact of institutional differences on the Earth’s surface. The Repressive colonial regimes randomly assigned people and areas to administrative units on the African continent. Around 80 percent of the state borders are based on meridians or parallels and have no relation to the population or the natural environment (McCauley and Posner, 2015). Therefore, they lend themselves to study the impacts of artificial borders on the environment, examine cross-country differences, and the effects of jurisdictions and policies. This kind of research design, which relies on the arbitrariness of a border, is also called a regression discontinuity design. It is seen as a form of quasi-experiment and a very robust method to study cause and effect without conducting a real experiment. In this case each pair of states along a border would be interpreted as a treatment and a control group. The question that I want to tackle with this method is how economic and social developments influence the expansion of grasslands. Do the data from the satellite images indicate the spread of deserts and is there a shift to more tree-dominated vegetation within the grassland/savanna forest complex? If these changes can be observed, then I would like to use the regression discontinuity approach to analyze if features of government systems influence these developments.  The analysis of land cover along administrative borders is a promising approach for that which can also be applied to other issues. Especially with constantly improving data sets, the number of research questions that can be addressed with this method continues to increase.



All images author’s own.

Land cover information is made available to the public by ESA Climate Change Initiative and its Land Cover project. Copyright notice: © ESA Climate Change Initiative – Land Cover project 2014-2017


Díaz, S., Settele, J., Brondízio, E., Ngo, H., Guèze, M., Agard, J., Arneth, A., Balvanera, P., Brauman, K., Butchart, S. and Chan, K., 2019. Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn: IPBES Secretariat.

Marston, C., Aplin, P., Wilkinson, D., Field, R. and O’Regan, H., 2017. Scrubbing up: multi-scale investigation of woody encroachment in a southern African savannah. Remote Sensing, 9(5), p.419.

McCauley, J.F. and Posner, D.N., 2015. African borders as sources of natural experiments promise and pitfalls. Political Science Research and Methods, 3(2), pp.409-418.

Panunzi, E., 2008. Are grasslands under threat? Brief analysis of FAO statistical data on pasture and fodder crops. Rome: UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Reid, R.S., 2012. Savannas of our birth: people, wildlife, and change in East Africa. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.