Botanical Kinships: A Tangled Taxonomy

Amy Leia McLachlan

University of Chicago & Field Museum of Natural History

May 16, 2022

Anthropological attention to the vital and varied ways in which human and botanical life make one another is just one among many modes of noticing that have lately coalesced around questions of botanical kinships. Research into plants’ capacities for sensing and communicating among the biological sciences and ecology have become part of public imaginaries of plant-relatedness. Covid lockdowns and climate anxiety have apartment-dwellers identifying as proud new “plant parents.” A sense of indebtedness to, and entanglement with, plant beings is lively in our ever stranger present, but it is no stranger to the anthropological archive.

That archive is full of plant kin whose own strangeness is worth revisiting. Enthusiasms for newly sensitized attention to our plant kin can make it easy to miss the botanical relations that have been with us all along (new kin always steal the spotlight, as older siblings everywhere can attest). Our well-rooted anxieties, grief, and hopes for emergent relations to the plant beings that give us the worlds in which we live can obscure the family resemblances and half-suppressed histories that already inform our most utopian and dystopian speculations about possible futures.

This list is part of a speculative genealogy of plant relations in the anthropological family tree. Like so many of our plant kin, it approaches reproduction and relatedness through multiple modes and methods. It is informed by my ethnographic work and apprenticeship with Indigenous Uitoto “plant-workers” (cultivators, conjurers, and healers) in the Colombian Amazon, and by the archive of Amazonian ethnography. It aims to recognize resemblances rather than consolidate lineages, and to wonder about the botanical tendencies and tendings to that persist even in hostile ground—who else but kin could be so familiar, so strange, so intransigent even in their generosity?

Borrowing a mode of attention from the histories of both botanical and anthropological kin-counting, this reading list is offered in the form of a queer taxonomy: a tangled, four-part accounting of modes of seeing botanical kinships in the anthropological archive. It includes ancestors and cousins from related lines (philosophical, historical, and political). These lists trace an unabashedly illegitimate genealogy of anthropology’s botanical relations through four lenses:

1. Seeing kinship in plants: gender and genealogy in botanical knowledge production

2. Seeing plants in kinship: botany and gender in genealogical reckoning

3. Seeing plants as kin: unmaking natures and the politics of botanical sympathy

4. Seeing kin as plants: unfamiliar kinships in the altered present.

Seeing kinship in plants: gender and genealogy in botanical knowledge production

Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature, was a paterfamilias in several senses. In his homelife he was the progenitor of seven children; in his public life, he engendered conventions for naming all of our non-human kin on an order of patrilineal reason that remains hidden in plain sight. (That logic called my attention in the midst of a Colombian botanical garden: “Nombre y apellido”—“both their given and family names,” I once overheard a docent instructing a clutch of budding kindergarten botanists, following her like ducklings through the flower beds). Linnaeus’ classificatory system not only borrowed the form of Swedish fixed patrilineal naming conventions (then only a generation deep–Linnaeus had adopted for himself the name of a linden tree on his family’s farm); it also imposed an order of classificatory reason on our non-human kin based on the conventionality or deviance of their “genital” morphologies and “marital arrangements,” as Londa Schiebinger powerfully argues.

Schiebinger’s (1993) history of the “private life of plants” offers a compelling reading of the transformation of European conceptions of the nature and politics of sexual difference as these were translated into Enlightenment botanical knowledge, from Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1735), through Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants (1789). In offering an order capable of incorporating all possible botanical difference, Pratt argues, the logic of the Linnaean system was a key technology in the production of imperial natural history and planetary imaginaries (1992).

(Elsewhere, Schiebinger [2005] develops an equally fascinating “agnotology” of the erasure of plant knowledge amid Caribbean colonial botanical exchanges. Her article on the history of abortifacient uses of the “peacock flower,” and the production of ignorance around those uses, traces the non-reproduction of knowledge in the production of colonial botany, on one hand, and the reproduction of botanical technologies of non-reproduction among colonized and enslaved women in the Caribbean, on the other).

Among anthropology’s botanical ancestors, Romantic conceptions of culture are some of the most important (and uncannily revenant). Herder’s description of the “vegetable kingdom of our Earth” (1784) articulates a concept of human culture as of a kind with plant natures, and of both as the children of a beneficent and “salutary parent” (48) who had made a world fed by the “fertile mould” of plant life: “because we cannot eat gold; and because the smallest edible plant is not only more useful to us, but more perfectly organized, and nobler in its kind, than the most costly gem”(48). Goethe’s “metamorphosis of plants” (in both its poetic and scientific versions) is an ode to the affections of and for plants that lets us see the perfection of creation in all our parallel forms:

The plant-child, like unto the human kind—
Sends forth its rising shoot that gathers limb
To limb, itself repeating, recreating,
In infinite variety (2009 [1709]: 2)

The poetics of these accounts have their persistent appeal in the face of abstracted sciences of plant life, but their afterlives include massive and lethal violence. Kosek (2006), for instance, traces the shadow kinships of Romantic and vitalist botanies with eugenics and racialized formations of nature-knowing in the US. His Understories offers a genealogy of environmentalist and conservation movements in the US descended from these ancestors, and their “racialized notions of purity and pollution” (144).

McKay’s Radical Gardening (2011), traces a similarly dark genealogy: the close kinship between Romantic vitalisms and right-wing organicisms, including far-right eugenics movements and Nazi garden aesthetics. His chapter “Organics, Left and Right”, “illustrate[s] that radical gardening can be dangerous and regressive as well as potentially progressive and liberatory.” (43) (The point couldn’t be clearer, as he quotes Nazi garden architect Albert Kraemer: ‘Only our knowledge of the conditions of the home soil and its plant world (plant sociology) enable and oblige us to design blood-and-soil rooted gardens.’” (61))

Seeing plants in kinship: botany and gender in genealogical reckoning

Claims about plant reproduction across the natural and social sciences have encoded politics of gender and race, including patrilineal politics that organize both. Those politics have also organized anthropological reckoning with kinship in its classical and critical modes. Among our disciplinary ancestors, botanical figurations articulated central disciplinary concerns. Indeed, in the formulation of anthropology’s foundational concern with kinship—whether in functionalist, structural-functionalist, structuralist, economic, or interpretive modes—we find botanical kin and kinds everywhere entangled.

A genealogy of the botanical figures and figurations that informed our disciplinary ancestors might include the taytu crops that were the locus of Malinowski’s “native point of view” (1935)—a point of view that was one trained on plant life:

Let us now concentrate on what is happening underground, where the taytu tuber is coming to life again to begin its new cycle. We shall have to watch its progress through native eyes; for, on the one hand, I am not sufficiently well acquainted with the botany of the Trobriand crops to give objective facts, and, on the other, it is the native point of view which really matters to us. (139)

That genealogy might also include the Dobu yams that helped configure Lévi-Strauss’ (1969) elementary structures of kinship:

Thus [in Dobu life] yams are real persons, for to be without them is to be orphaned. When all is said and done, the economic and social structure of the group does justify the restrictive definition of itself as a community of tubers and cultivators. (47, with reference to Fortune 1963)

In the philosophical branches of our discipline’s kinship trees, plants have been indispensable if invisible interlocutors, as Marder has argued. In dialogue with Irigaray (2016), Marder pursues a course “through vegetal being” to reflect on and revive our own vegetal inheritances, along with possibilities for expansively vegetal “sexuations”:

How do you propose to think about the sexuality of plants? What is its relevance to human sexuate difference? […] Without a doubt, sexuate difference belongs to the phenomenon of embodiment and to life itself. […] Does the vegetal world open sexuate difference, through which we attempt to encounter it, to sexuate differences that are more diverse still than what Freud referred to as the ‘polymorphous perversity’ of the human infant? (Irigaray & Marder 2016: 115)

Seeing plants as kin: unmaking natures and the politics of botanical sympathy

A longing for lush vegetal communion drives historically fringe and increasingly authoritative sciences of the phenomenology of plants. In their cult counter-culture classic (and its unmissable film adaption, with soundtrack by Stevie Wonder), Tompkins & Bird (1973) set out to prove that “plants can read your mind.” Using an array of technical and attentional metrics, they claim a natural sympathy and psychic kinship between plants and humans. The cheerful tone of their program, however, lurches repeatedly toward the uncanny—as laboratories become crime scenes, and optimistically gentle attunements turn to interrogations.

Further from the disavowed margins of new age science, recent work in phytoneurology has advanced a similar assertion that human and botanical being are phenomenologically of a kind. Evidence of the sensory, communicative, cooperative, and mnemonic capacities of plants work against the histories of disinheritance that define human exceptionalism (Gagliano et al. 2014; Yokawa et al. 2017).

Reckoning with the debts we owe to plant ancestors, Myers (2016) has offered the concept of the “Planthropocene” to reminds us that we live in the world that plants have made. Our lives are conditioned on the gift of a breathable atmosphere, and that atmosphere is one made, just as we must understand ourselves to be, through the labour of plants.

Those makings have not been one-way, however, and our contemporary plant kin include beings that we have altered beyond recognition. Haraway and Tsing work with the “Plantationocene” as a name for the “historical set of conjunctures” that comprise those remakings (with Mittman 2019). The uncanny edge of post-natural botanical relations charges the radioactive tumbleweeds that Masco has described rolling across nuclear test sites in New Mexico (2004), and the lonely Phragmite reeds growing in Solvay waste on the shores of Onandaga Lake (as described by Kimmerer 2013). Industrial, military, and chemical histories have remade our plant kin, even as those kin continue to sustain us. The always present potential curative powers of plants both invite (as Hayden (2003) describes of bioprospecting in Mexico) and mitigate (as Chudakova (2017) argues of “pharmapoeisis” in Siberia) vectors of value extraction in disparate ecologies and yet familiar ways. “Kartoshka,” little potato, is key to “surviving post-socialism,” Ries (2009) tells us, just as the intrepid “space zucchini” (described by Battaglia [2014]) and ancestral-future corn (dreamed of by Becker [2012]) soothe our imaginations of livable futures beyond this planet.

Seeing kin as plants: unfamiliar kinships in the altered present

Ethnographic translations of Amazonian kinships with plant persons have long taught us that plants are not an inert resource or passive object of ecological or extractive accounting. Amazonian kinships sustain and are sustained by deep histories of care and mutual making between human and botanical persons. “Plant kin” (Miller 2019) make human kin and remake human kinships against histories of displacement, devastation, and reinvention. They appear as the generative substance, speech, and gifts of ancestral kin in work by Candre & Echeverri (1996), Echeverri (2000), McCallum (2001), Londoño Sulkin (2012), and Rival (1998), among others. In a Mozambican context, Archambault (2016) invites us to “take love seriously” in relation to plants. 

Plant kin invite, and invite us into, the relations of love and grief that Butler (2005) defines as the constitutive undoings of attachment. Potawatomi Ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has hopefully suggested that grief and love for the kin we have unmade are also openings to repair: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again” (2013: 359).

Archambault (2016) considers what it means to “take love seriously” in relation to plants. Potawatomi Ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has hopefully suggested that grief and love for the kin we have unmade are also openings to repair: “If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart so we can love it back to wholeness again” (2013: 359).

Murphy (2017) reminds us, however, that neither love nor repair are ever that simple. In her articulation of a concept of “alterlife”, she tells us: “Our relations are not just supportive, they can also be injurious and toxic. […] Within the condition of alterlife the potential for political kinship and alter-relations comes out of the recognition of connected, though profoundly uneven and often complicit, imbrications in the systems that distribute violence” (120). “Alterlife” in Murphy’s conception lets us see the complexity of our responsibilities to those plant kin whose bodies and lives we’ve altered amid the same histories that have unequally altered all of us.

Holding together the ways in which we have made and been made by plant kin, the ways we have been remade in colonial, industrial, and chemical economies—all of us, unequally—along with the possibility that every alteration is also an opening to ethical re-making, what kin-making work is there to be done? Which of our kin might be worth losing, as Sharpe (2016) asks us to contemplate, and which modes of kin-counting are worthy of our suspicion (Clarke & Haraway 2018)? Which histories, futures, and uncanny adjacencies can we continue to feed and be fed by? Which among the worlds just now coming into view might hold the possibility of curing existing entanglements, and of fostering new ones?

Amy Leia McLachlan is a Social Sciences Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago, and a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History.


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