In an interview for the podcast series “Networking with Plants in the Anthropocene” released on November 20, Cate Sandilands discussed her work in critical feminist plant studies with host Kate Brelje. Asked about the “critical feminist” emphasis of her work in relation to the rapidly expanding field of plant studies, she replied:
I am of course very interested in conversations around plant embodiment and plant intelligence, but the perspective I want to take emphasizes the power and political relationships in which those plant capacities are demonstrated and practiced in concert with other species. So, I’m interested in how plants are part of gendered relationships, but I’m also interested in the ways in which plants are entangled in relations of colonization and capitalist ruination …. I’m interested in how plants are plants, but I’m also interested in how plants are with people in particular sets of what I call phytopolitical relations.
The interview is one of the many articles, presentations, conversations, provocations and creative works that are part of Cate’s ongoing project Plantasmagoria: Botanical Encounters in the (M)Anthropocene, a work of interdisciplinary “slow scholarship” that will eventually vegetate into a book-length work of narrative research on plant-human relations.
In Plantasmagoria, Cate follows specific plants in their paths into current multispecies, phytopolitical assemblages – for example, Scotch broom, Douglas-fir, mulberries, moth orchids, and stinging nettles – in order to ask critical questions about the ways plants are involved, in complicated ways, in contemporary relations of capitalist extraction, urban development, and ongoing colonialism. These plants, in her work, are both “companion species” in anthropogenic projects and exert agencies of their own that may or may not accord with the desires particular societies have for them at a given moment.
Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), for example, played a significant role in the expansion of road and hydroelectric infrastructure in British Columbia in the 20th century, but is now considered one of the most pernicious, invasive species in the province at least partly because of the plants’ ability to dramatically change soil chemistry to favour their own needs. Similarly, male white mulberries (Morus alba) were heavily planted as urban street trees in many cities in the eastern part of North America, including Toronto, due to their fast growth and resistance to pollution – and were favoured over messy, berry-producing females – but are now reviled at least partly because their extraordinarily prolific pollen ejaculations are highly allergenic, especially when there are no female trees around to receive their reproductive largesse.
Cate’s current plant companions in her slow, phytopolitical journey are stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), who have been collaborators in many temperate socio-ecological assemblages because of their affection for anthropogenic landscapes, and also because of their extraordinary generosity as providers of food, medicine, and fibre almost everywhere they are found. Because of their eponymous stinging qualities, however, they are strongly disliked in many contexts, and are even officially listed as noxious weeds in several provinces.
Last summer, her research took her to the Archives at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in London, where she found an especially interesting chapter in the global history of nettle-human relations. During World War II, Charles Metcalfe, Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew, was tasked with experimenting with readily-available plant materials to develop alternative sources of paper and cloth, and the UK’s abundant nettles were an obvious focus. The Archives contain several very fat files documenting Metcalfe’s years-long attempts to secure a stable, commercially viable quantity of the plants; to develop cooperative partnerships between companies potentially interested in using different parts of the plants for different industrial purposes; and especially to find an efficient, mechanical and/or chemical process by which to separate the strings of nettle bast fibre (on the inside of the stem) from the leaves and woody chaff.
The enterprise was a complete and absolute failure: the nettles simply refused to be industrialized. The last page of one of the archival files is a handwritten note by Metcalfe, which states, simply: “This is a record of a monument of folly. It represents one of the least useful chapters in the history of the Jodrell.” Drawing on Jack Halberstam’s ideas in The Queer Art of Failure, on Cate’s own extensive writings on queer ecology, on Kew and other archival sources, and on place-based research with nettle relationships in the BC Gulf Islands (which continue to include, for example, millennia-old Quw'utsun traditions of use), her essay “Grasping the (Queer) Nettle” will appear in the journal Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture in Winter, 2024.
Plantasmagoria resources available online:
- Green Dreamer episode 362, “Botanical Colonialism and Biocultural Histories”
- “Bea’s Garden: Restorying the (M)Anthropocene,” Cornelia Goethe Colloquium, Frankfurt
- “Mulberries: A Biopolitical Love Story,” Environmental Humanities Center, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
- “Loving the Difficult” Cogut Institute for the Humanities, Brown University
- “Thinking the Feminist Vegetal Turn in the Shadow of Douglas-Firs,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience
Cate Sandilands is a Professor of Environmental Arts and Justice in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University, Toronto. Her research areas include queer and feminist posthumanities, critical plant studies, biocultural histories, ecocriticism, public environmental engagement through literature and storytelling, and fiction as a mode of inquiry. Her sole-authored and collaborative publications in these fields include over 80 essays, stories and articles, as well as the books The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment(UBC Press, 2004), Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire(Indiana University Press, 2010), and Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times(Caitlin Press, 2019).