* Plant Humanities Lab is a singularly ambitious and generous project in Digital Humanities
* It has been lonely, continuing to advocate for the creation of a culture and vocabulary for talking about plant life
* Ashley Buchanan, her ever-enthusiastic and supportive voice and spirit, explained how the cookbooks had led her to wonderful discoveries about plant life
It wasn’t until after we had temporarily said goodbye that I realized we had all been talking about food. By “we” I mean those of us who graduated from the Plant Humanities Lab at Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees of Harvard University. The Plant Humanities Lab is a singularly ambitious and generous project in the field of digital humanities, a project that will allow plant life specialists to find resources on a single platform. I, deprived of a library on plant literature, having to rummage through electronic copies on the Internet, and, more importantly, rely on the generosity of specialists in history, literature and botany to write about the plant life in India, I was hungry for the opportunity. My sweet ambition, by taking the residency, was to train myself in the creation of the discipline of plant human sciences in India.
I watched – on Zoom, of course – with a mixture of wonder, pleasure, and light envy as my co-residents spoke about how they taught plant humanities in their classrooms. Wonder and rapture at the magical ways in which they studied plant literature, and envy for two reasons – I wish I had been a student in their classrooms; because no such course was offered in India. It has been lonely, continuing to advocate for the creation of a culture and vocabulary of talking about plant life without the ready-made apparatus of botany or environmental science, doing it alone. and over and over again, until I find myself repeating the same things and looking like a maniac, a plant-crazy person. It was wonderful to finally have company, to be able to learn and chat.
Yota Batsaki, Principal Investigator of the Plant Humanities Initiative, shared with us the “roots” of the project, now supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation: a 2013 symposium, “The Botany of Empire Throughout the Eighteenth century ”, one that led to a publication in 2016 that she co-edited with Burke Cahalan and Anatole Tchikine. As I heard him talking with Tchikin about how they coined the term ‘plant humanities’, and how they were trying to bring together disciplines and academics, librarians, designers, developers, artists and others. scientists, I listened with emotion but also – again – deprivation. When Ashley Buchanan, her ever-enthusiastic and supportive voice and spirit, explained how cookbooks had led her to wonderful discoveries about plant life, I found myself thinking about cookbooks in Indian languages and the way in which they had been ignored by the ‘serious’ humanities.
I wrote down everything they said: Christopher M Blakley on plant-human interactions and pharmacy; Kyra NKrakos on her work of introducing students to the plant world (and always making a joke or another, like “The golf course is a castrated space in America”); Alicia L Monroe on race and rice and plant mobility; Ashanti Shih on the history of species membership and the natural sciences as a colonial force of settlement in the Pacific and the American West; Citlali Sosa-Riddell, a specialist in Mexican-American border regions, on how she has incorporated plant literature and its haunting archives into the courses she teaches; Amy ETraver, who spoke about refugee gardens in New York City and the intersection of agriculture, race and ethnicity in a way that moved me to tears. Leah Sobsey was the artist in our group and she explained how she works with plants in her commercial art projects. Romita Ray’s extraordinary work focuses on the visual archives of tea in India, but she has brought her knowledge to the field, whether in a passing remark on the role of the Jesuits in the history of plant mobility or in mentioning the work of a scholar on the history of plantations, to all that has been discussed.
I write about this only to record my greed and my expectations. The words are buzzing in my head: Plants, pollinators, medicinal cannibalism, history of trees and transplanted bodies, ethnobotanical knowledge, postcolonial food activism … And I wish academics, but especially educators, would use this way and this bias of reflect on their curriculum in schools, colleges and universities in India.
When I think of the discussions at the residence in Dumbarton Oaks, I notice that we have all been talking about food. Abhijit Majumdar, my university professor, and the son of Charu Majumdar, the leftist revolutionary, suggested something to me when I was a student. “When a child sits down to eat, ask him or her to rethink the history of the plate, the origin of everything on it,” he said. Calculate backwards – from the plate to the floor, all the joints in the process, every turn, from production and distribution to the kitchen and the people who prepare it to our plates. The linguistic history, the layers of the journey and the argumentation, the history of the farmer, the history of the distributor, the history of the market. I call it the “Your Breakfast Story” assignment. Maybe we could start from there?
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree;@SumanaSiliguri