Phytographia – or writing with plants

I am involved in several projects where we want to cultivate more nature connection and a deeper conscious how connected we are with more than human beings, like plants. One of the big problems – and root causes of other big problems – is our alienation of the more-than-human world. We move the whole time indoors, leave the house via the garage, using our car, enter another building for work, and then travel again inside a car to another indoor environment. At my new work, I was helping writing a funding for a project to improve the indoor environment, and in this way the health of humans, because yes, many humans spend a significant time inside. Although I advocate to spend more time outside and want to look in structural ways that people can do some of their activities like education or work outside, in the meantime it is also important to take care the inside is healthy(ier).

But yes, the life in indoors lead to the problem that many humans do not know so much about plants, cannot even recognise. Many people are plant blind or plant illiterate. It is like reading Mongolian writing for them: many think it is beautiful to watch, but they do not understand it. . Some people can argue why do we need to understand plants (or Mongolian) . If we would understand the stories and wisdoms that are harbored, we might find solutions or ways to improve our individual and community’s wellbeing.

Helping a knowledge platform in Brussels to reduce plant blindness

I am involved in an initiative that wants to create some sort of low-tech knowledge platform where citizens in Brussels can find opportunities where to learn more about plants: Health Gardens Brussels. It takes an experimental approach, with ideas about knowledge systems and leadership that resonate with the Rhizome concept of Deleuze and Guattari.

Last weeks we are working on an article for a special issue of the academic journal Cities, where we take an autoethnographic approach and reflect about the disappointments, fears, desires, expectations and the tensions, to show how certain mechanisms and social structures in Brussels hinder this kind of community work and these kind of knowledge platforms.

At some point, we decided to invite urban plants to also share their observations about us, the humans. Although the project was about the platform itself, we never deeply engaged the plants itself in the process. But as in other rhizomatic work, it is never too late to go a step back and invite new actors. So we have been shapeshifting in different city plants and write short flash fiction stories. We have an open cloud document where people can write anonymously stories. We set some rules (like not critisizing or correcting other plant stories). It is interesting how some opinions get expressed suddenly, but also that different opinions rise. Plants are bringing this opacity that human testimonials do often not envelop.

We submitted the first draft which will be circulated to authors of other papers for this special issue. If our paper gets selected, we still have a couple of months to improve. We plan to invite more members of the project to submit their plant stories, and also see what happens. It is again a bit of an experiment.

Phytography refers to human writings about plant lives as well as plant writings about their own lives.

ryan 2020

In academic literature, we found some researchers from literature studies that look into what they call phyto-graphia, or use it in some extent to discuss culture. One interesting paper is by the ecofeminist writers Prudence Gibson and Monica Gagliana. They engage with the water lily to talk about feminist ideas about mobility:

It is also what we do with the plant stories. We shapeshift to give critique and to make others more emphatic of the queerness/weirdness of the plants and other more than human beings around us and to challenge the labels and categories that society tries to impose us, but actually limits many of us to be authentic and healthy.

I plan to explore phytographia more and deepen some practices I was using already in the online circles with people rooting in Belgium that I started to organise since February, about rooting, belonging and authencity, but also in my art and academic work. I will share probably next week another blog with reflections and findings of the experimental method and how it changed our relationship with (in particular urban) plants.

Looking forward to read your experiences with working with plant stories, to give critique, to educate, or to create more empathy for plants – and if you noticed it had profound changes on the way you or others view the world, talk about identity, belonging and health. Please share them in the comments of this blog post, so others can learn from you too 🙂

Further readings:

Other news?

My new book in the making (and this time it is in English): Plant Companions ; this will be a collection of selected short stories (of maximum 2500 characters) about life experiences, where plants have sometimes a big role, because they gave me some wisdom, or where plants have not a big role, but bring some new perspective. You can read some stories online for free, give comments, and help to chose which stories will make it in the end. A professional will do the language editing. Visit this page for more information. The book will be published in August 2022 and available in any online store. 

I am excited to announce that more guest blogs will follow soon. I invited talented women from Mexico, Argentina and Brazil to write a guest blog, so expect in the coming months more wood wide web stories from that continent. I hope that an academic in religion will share a blog about sacred trees in Ethiopia, and how religion can play a role in preserving or cleaning spaces in cities. 

This gives me time to be more outdoor and root deeper in my new home. Since end of August, I live and work in Gjøvik in Norway. I am already in contact with “mental health and learning” researchers, working with schools, and the local branch of DNT, Norway’s biggest outdoor life organization, to demonstrate some forest baths in the coming weeks, and I hope that it would mean that next year I can guide forest baths again. 

Lastly, I am still active in the network of Belgian forest bathing guides. The website is now also available in English – but the newsletters are in Dutch. I write the newsletters and I get many positive reactions. If you can read Dutch, or know Flemish or Dutch people who would be interested, do not hesitate to read or share it with them. Here is the latest issue (October 2021).

For the rest, I wish you a beautiful autumn!