Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 41

March 31st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 41
Pucón—Valparaiso (this one gets a little academic, sorry)

Good Friday in Chile is a Catholic holiday where mass seems to be held on the street with everyone crowding sidewalks and restaurants enjoying food, drink, and sun. What I love most is how all the young children are part of the parade, squealing, laughing and sometimes crying but never for long (the person with the baby stroller franchise is wealthy). Really beautiful day.

Yesterday on top of Villarrica, I could look down and see the lahar paths of recent eruptions—‘64, ‘71, and 2015. What look like tangled river valleys are masses of slowly eroding lava, or tailings of basalt and andesite gravel mixed with ash. Also clearly visible is natural reforestation. Driving out of the park, the roadcut was a textbook crossection marking out the recent eruptions with thin bands of dense rock between thick layers of loose material. From the van, I could see stages of regrowth, mostly nothafagus with some Araucaria interspersed. There were island stands of old growth nothafagus alpina, but most were young, regenerating the forest fast.

A few months ago I attended a panel at an academic conference where some theorists and artists who had been working on animals were engaging in a discussion of plants (fields known these days respectively as Animal Studies and Plant Studies). While each presentation was interesting and intelligent, I kept feeling that something was missing. I think the emerging field of Plant Studies can be viewed as extending the principles of Animal Studies to other forms of life. By re-articulating the historical construction of the human, Animal Studies has figured prominently in scholarly engagement with the idea of the Anthropocene. While Plant Studies can be enrolled in the same effort, it is important to see what else it brings. For Michael Marder “Plant-Thinking starts with the explosion of identity.” While this can be read as another critique of the traditional humanistic subject, Marder is also pointing toward an explosion of individuality. In Animal Studies, the unit of analysis is primarily a semi-bounded biological entity defined at least in part by a central nervous system, but Plant Studies doesn’t focus on the individual. Plants insist on being studied as a complex and tangled relation with biological others (and actually confounding many senses of the word other—e.g, Lichen Studies). One of the talks focused on a planting in a gallery, essentially potted houseplants (which in some ways is monoculture writ large—well, actually in this case, small). While the artist might be commenting on objectification through gallery presentation, the plant itself, isolated from its own co-conspirators, is also being objectified in a traditionally humanistic way—a single entity to be named and counted. One of the other presentations was on large scale drawings of individual plants, a sort of scaling up of 19th century botanical illustrations. Again, while fascinating, this foray into Plant Studies treats them as individual monads, in much the same way that European explorers scoured the globe for specimens to send back to Kew or other repositories. Our treatment of plants as isolated individuals (defined, categorized, counted, and patented) is fertile ground for biopolitical critique.

What I thought about while traveling off the volcano through a regenerating forest were the multiple actors in that scene. The birds and mammals, and a complex tangle of insects, microbes, fungi, and minerals along with a fairly constant rain of ash and chemicals, which with the trees makes up a forest. Plants in the wild are always multiple. I have long admired and read animal studies scholars. In fact I’m friends with many of them and this is very much a straw-man argument, drawing as it does on one non-representative conference panel. But that helps make a distinction which, while not absolute, has a level of stability. What is exciting about Plant Studies is the multiplicity it demands. Regarding semi-closed biological systems such as mammals can point back toward a residual humanism, comparing like with almost-like, while plants require a much more open and fluid mode, what Marder and Irigaray term plant-thinking. Jannice Ray’s classic Ecology of a Cracker Childhood helps bring humans and their detritus directly into that mix, including, in her case, Long-leaf pine, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wiregrass, barbed wire, junked cars, snakes, and young playful children. You can’t talk for long about a single tree or plant; instead you have to think the forest.

T. Hugh Crawford