Left: Patent US5787649A : Tree Styled Monopole Tower (via Google Patents); Right: Adapted from: Russell Drake, Ronald Herder and Anne D. Modugno, How to Make Electronic Music (Educational Audio Visual Inc., 1975)


Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Plant

A Series Exploring ‘Plant-work’ as Ethnobotanical Engagement

by MK Smaby

Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird reminds us that all knowing is inherently embodied, fragmented, and incomplete. We come to know another living thing only by advancing and retreating through repeated encounters, approaching it from multiple angles. Really knowing a plant, like knowing a blackbird, demands this patient parallax.

This fall I’ll be launching an interview series here on The Ethnobotanical Assembly called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Plant. Through serialized, illustrated field dispatches, the project will explore thirteen modes of ethnobotanical engagement in an effort to constellate the radical complexity of phyto-lifeworlds and the communities of humans entangled with them. Over the course of these episodes, we will learn from a wide cross-section of “plant-workers,” including geneticists, designers, perfumers, and thieves.

Within the scope of this project, I’ll be returning to the notion of “plant-work” to encompass all the conceptual and procedural ways we work with vegetal life, and proposing that how and why we conduct plant-work matters. While many of us may traffic in Kingdom Plantae, in our various subfields we concern ourselves with fundamentally different phenomena at different scales—cells, populations, supply chains. Petal colors. Foodways. Fossils. Thirteen Ways is energised by an instinct that we must marshall these diverse ontologies to effectively challenge our stock inheritance of a medieval chain of being that denies other lifeforms agency. In a climate where plants are chronically undervalued and blindly instrumentalised, finding ways to expose this vital polyphony of vegetal life seems more crucial than ever.

Stay tuned. First up: Looking Taxonomically.