“Anthropomorphising nonsense,” said my friend as I excitedly purchased Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, when it was fresh in at the CERES Nursery bookshop. Part of me agreed with her, and there is an often prevailing attitude from scientific scholars that anthropomorphism hinders our understanding of the world.
However there is also an emerging view that rather than hindering, the act of anthropomorphising enables us to elevate other beings to the status of personhood, develop a relationship with them, and perhaps try to save them from the fearful mechanised system we all find ourselves in.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an ecologist, botanist and Potawatomi First Nations woman. In her essay, Corn Tastes Better on the Honour System, she writes about the cultivation of maize over 9000 years by Indigenous farmers. The thing about cultivated plants (which make up the vast majority of our food), is that they require humans to grow and thrive. Kimmerer describes how it’s a traditional practice that every single seed in the care of Potawatomi women farmers, is touched by human hands. In harvesting, shelling, sorting, each one feels the tender regard of its partner, the human.
Comparing modern industrial agricultural methods of farming and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) methods, Robin describes the different relationship between corn and people:
In the western worldview, the plant is understood as a photosynthetic machine of sorts, without perception, will, or personhood. The seeds my neighbor drills into the ground are thought of as objects, hardly different than the fertilizer or herbicide, another cog in the farm-become-factory. In this worldview, plants are placed low on a hierarchy of life—a perception which is flipped upside down in indigenous ways of knowing. Over the hill at the heritage farm, plants are respected as bearers of gifts, as persons, indeed oftentimes as teachers. Who else has the capacity to transform light, air, and water into food and medicine—and then share it? Who cares for the people as generously as plants? Creative, wise, and powerful, plants are imbued with spirit in a way that the western worldview reserves only for humans.
What would Christmas lunch be like if the plants we served each other were viewed with this kind of personhood, and each of their unique flavours as a special and unique gift of the season? The berries surrounding the pavlova would not just burst with flavour themselves, but we would burst with gratitude for their deliciousness. What kinds of teachers are tomato plants? Springing from compost they teach resilience, and how to wait for the right conditions before putting down roots. Producing red, juicy fruit just when the the leaves are yellowing, they teach us that appearances can be deceiving, and that in creativity there is sacrifice.
Thank you for being a part of CERES in 2018. The newsletter will be taking a break over the festive season and will be back again in February.