In this forthcoming series, guest editor Charis Boke, a medical and environmental anthropologist whose work dwells first in activist commitments to justice and restoration, seeks contributions that work among the intersections of plant medicine, Indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and global wellbeing in order to reimagine what kinds of questions about health and plant medicine are possible, necessary, and productive today.
For this series, we invite papers that engage with the wide array of knowledges about plant medicines across settler-colonial contexts (including but not limited to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand) to examine what kinds of lessons for thriving in difficult ecological circumstances—and, perhaps, for “unsettling” those circumstances—can emerge from working with plants.
P lant knowledge, and human knowledge about plants, is essential for coping with life on a damaged planet. The stakes of the moment we live in are no less than survival—of humans as well as of other-than-human beings. At their most expansive and hopeful, the accounts of this moment attend to the question of what it means to thrive, drawing out stories of possibility. Plant life has undoubtedly more experience with thriving in extreme circumstances of heat, cold, drought, drowning, and more, than humans. Although our physiologies are different, practitioners of plant medicine as well as many Indigenous communities around the world have long suggested that humans have much to learn from plants (e.g. Geniusz and Geniusz; Myers; Kimmerer).
Those who practice healing in partnership with plants are sometimes called herbalists, sometimes healers, sometimes doctors or other titles. Whatever their title, their work can offer insight into the long use of plants as medicines from many parts of the globe. Plant communications existed before western scientific validation of their existence—but for many western herbalists in the United States, the emergence of these “findings” has strengthened their claims to the importance of recognizing plants as life forms with capacities beyond our imagination, if not with sentience. Human collaboration with plants, and with communities whose long-term relations with plants have yielded similar observations many hundreds of years earlier than western bioscience, is key to building right relations across species difference on a planet whose conditions for living are changing quickly.
The term “herbalist” glosses many kinds of practices, grounded in different cultural forms and knowledges. In the Global North, and in settler-colonial spaces in particular, those forms and knowledges are pointedly shaped by the ongoingness of colonization (Coulthard; Tuck and Yang; Wolfe; see also Vizenor). Indigenous and local knowledges about plant medicines have historically been erased and re-transcribed as what is now called “science” through colonization’s global power dynamics (Hayden; Schiebinger; Nappi; Ellen and Harris). Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang suggest moving towards “unsettling” understandings of social and ecological wellness. Many people who practice with plant medicine are well aware of the politics of their knowledge, engaging awkwardly and partially with the tension between the ways that practices with plants have been historically communicated and reformulated through systematic violence, on the one hand, and on the other, with a desire to rely on plants to do better work around health and healing.
We welcome practitioner-scholars, activists, and aligned communities to examine how understandings of what a plant is, and what kinds of capacities plants can hold, are translated and transmuted back and forth across domains of knowledge, and what the consequences of such translations may be. You are invited to submit essays, photographs, videos, and audio content engaged with broad current conversations about the possibilities and challenges of plant medicine today.
Possible guiding questions include, but are not limited to:
- How might scholars, practitioners, and activists account for legacies and continued practices of colonialism in health, food, medicine, and relation to plants, as well as contemporary resistance those practices meet on occupied lands?
- What kinds of power can (plant) medicine in occupied spaces enact, and for whom?
- How do the plants themselves shape enactments of power? Does that power change when it is taken up—by invitation or by historical accident—by settler-colonist communities?
- How do practitioners of many relations with plants and their medicines resist, or succumb to, colonialist practices with plants, ecologies, and humans in their work?
- How might scholars, practitioners, activists and others center Indigenous knowledge and practice sovereignty in work to demonstrate the medicinal possibilities of plant life?
- What are the strictures that shape what counts as medicine?
- What other questions and considerations matter for this kind of conversation?
If you are interested in getting involved and contributing to the series, please contact Charis or the TEA team explaining why you are interested and with a brief proposal for what you would like to contribute to the series.