The Lives of Signs and Signs of Lives

Shaila Seshia Galvin

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

November 2019

School mornings, in my home at least, rarely afford hospitable moments for thinking about ethnographic theory. But a few weeks ago, walking with my children to school, I noticed the appearance overnight of cardboard signs tied with string around the thick, deeply grooved trunks of some thirty oak trees that line the path we follow each day. All of the signs were handwritten, often in an array of multi-coloured inks, paints, and oil pastels. On some, the lettering looped and curved, on others it was narrow and pointed. Virtually every sign was written in more than one language. Each one included a hashtag. For example:

#My name is


#Je m’appelle Paula

What might it mean to name a tree? Or rather, for a tree to bear a sign declaring “#Je m’appelle Fred”? Initially I thought that these signs must be a Halloween trick, perhaps a joke of some sort, so unusual and out-of-place was their form in this corner of Geneva. I was also fairly convinced that the extremely efficient municipal services in our neighbourhood would ensure they soon disappeared. But they have remained, even though November’s unforgiving winds and rain caused some of them to tear from the string, or fold over on themselves, and the colours to bleed into sodden cardboard.

Anthropology has much to say about names and practices of naming.  Reviewing an edited volume on the subject, Martin Holbraad notes “how names constitute or dissolve persons, how they reveal or conceal, how they cross or maintain cosmological and social boundaries, how they temporalize or are themselves temporalized, and how they work as instruments of power.” Efforts to theorize naming have focused on the significance of names in notions of personhood and also place. Mauss’s 1938 essay on the person, quoted by João de Pina-Cabral in the inaugural entry for this series, takes the practice of naming, and names themselves, as revealing of shifting ideas of the person.

After a day or two of walking and cycling back and forth from the school, mystified now as much by the persistence of the signs as by their appearance in the first place, I could not help but wonder whether this naming of trees was nudging passers-by to consider trees as persons. Could it be understood, somehow, as an effort to challenge and transgress the limits of what is typically taken to be the provenance of human social worlds? Was the act of placing these signs around these trees also a kind of reckoning, as Theodoros Kyriakides (drawing on Isabelle Stengers) has suggested, with “the present as everyday life haunted by a backdrop of potential extinction which structures imagination and being in the world?”

I have no answers these questions, nor to the many others that one could pose in relation to the life of these signs, and the lives that they name (what to make of the hashtag, for example?).  Their origins remain a mystery, though it seems potential extinction may have brought forth this act of naming.  As we passed by one day, a seven-year-old friend of my daughter volunteered that names had been given to the trees so that they would not be cut down. A little google-ing led me to a newspaper article published a month prior detailing how, amid ongoing processes of densification and property development in our neighbourhood, the trees were being felled in order to expand the adjacent narrow two-lane road.

These signs, then, appeared also to be an act of protest and, perhaps, a plea to see the world (or at least these trees) differently. But the key in which this protest registered seemed different from other resistance struggles mounted in response to the felling (or burning) of trees and forests. Iconic images of the Chipko movement, from the state of Uttarakhand where I conducted my doctoral research, depict trees marked for commercial timber extraction embraced by women whose lives and livelihood are intertwined with them. Elsewhere, resistance has taken the form of tree-sitting, featuring people dramatically occupying trees. In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation, and resistance to it, unfolds through violence that is both physical and structural. These forms of resistance have people’s lives at their centre, at times visibly and tragically so.

Along the line of trees that I follow, however, human presence is traceable only through signs that, in language and naming, call attention to the humanity of trees. If, as Eduardo Kohn suggested in his provocation that forests think, part of moving anthropology beyond the human involves conceiving of representation beyond linguistic and symbolic realms, it seems both paradoxical and telling that written signs affixed to trees push out everyday ontological boundaries. Naming illuminates more than human relations too.

In his 1954 doctoral research on Hanunóo agriculture, Hal Conklin noted that the Hanunóo had over 1,600 names for different plant types. Hanunóo Agriculture, published a few years later, contains a six-page table listing adjacently Hanunóo, English, and Latin botanical names for 87 crops planted in Hanunóo swiddens. Conklin’s ethnography upended received understandings of swidden agriculture and problematized conventional divisions of the wild and domestic, nature and culture, forest and field, in ways that very much speak to more recent engagements with these anthropological problems. As others have noted, it did so not through directly engaging theoretical issues, but through meticulous ethnography produced, among other things, by endless questioning.

Fine ethnography is also a characteristic that Smita Lahiri notes in the work of Mary Steedly. Though in many respects their work could not be more different, Conklin’s attention to practices of agriculture that have long been misrecognized and Steedly’s interest in the non-recognition of women’s speech and stories share some broad similarity. In Rifle Reports, Steedly remarks how she approached her study of popular nationalism not with the intention of “solving” a puzzle, but through an effort to “retain a sense of puzzlement, to use it as a guide…” These two extraordinary ethnographers seem to strive in their work for something different from portable concepts and generalizable explanatory or diagnostic frameworks. What might this mean for how we think about ethnographic theory? As notions of what does and doesn’t count as theory seem to harden through the expectations, practices, and structures that shape scholarly work, their scholarship offers examples of how ethnographic theory resides in different places. Perhaps, and maybe even most of all, in an abiding sense of puzzlement?


I am grateful to Michael Dove and Patricia Spyer who, respectively, introduced me to the depth, significance, and insight to be found in the work of Hal Conklin and Mary Steedly.


Conklin, Harold C., “The Relation of Hanunóo Culture to the Plant World,”(PhD diss., Yale University, 1954).

––––. Hanunóo Agriculture: A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines.  Northford: Elliott’s Books, 1957.

Holbraad, Martin. “The Anthropology of Names and Naming, by Gabrielle Vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn.” American Ethnologist 35, no. 1 (2008): 1030-33.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Steedly, Mary Margaret. Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.