That special tree/plant in our lives is often rooted in a landscape of the past

One of the invitations that I give to my participants at the beginning of my nature based practices is to share a memory about a special tree in their life. I pair them up and let them talk while we walk to a next spot. Sometimes I overhear them talking, or I ask their talking partner or them to share in a circle something that touched them about the tree story.

I guided already 30 of these practices in the USA, Belgium, Japan and Norway, and a theme (among other themes) that emerges in the stories about special trees is that they do not live close to this tree anymore. Some people talk about trees close to their current home, but some stories are about trees that were cut, or even more often: trees connected to one of their childhood homes. It is often rooted in a landscape of the past.

Human-tree relationships and memories

Last week I had an email conversation with a doctoral student from the Finnish-Dutch project Trees Near Us, which explores what makes one tree more important than others. Currently they are collecting stories of humans rooting in the Netherlands and Finland.

In the same week I was reading a recent published academic article by Tina Gianquitto and Lauren LaFauci about the citizen environmental humanities project Herbaria 3.0, a participatory plant story website. The authors wrote about an initial hypothesis that people would share a story about a particular place and time, but they found out that many people wrote about memories of other landscapes that existed in their memories.

Shallow roots

Gianquitto and LaFauci illustrate even how people with shallow roots use plants as anchors to memories of places they might have visited only for a short time. It is in contradiction with some famous published nonfiction on environment (mostly by white men) which are the fruits of a long engagement with the same place.

In the (Re)*Rooting circles (especially the English ones, which are attended by mostly expats), I hear often plant stories that are about childhood and landscapes in their past. When they tell their stories, I feel their deep relationship with that place, although they are not physically there. Guest blogger Mary, living in Japan, writes about trees of her childhood in Mexico, connecting it with themes of food culture and identity, like in Guava tree and The Nanche Tree. Guest blogger Astrid recalls An Austrian Oak and a Daydream and works with two of her popular themes in her own storytelling projects: memories (of happiness) and imagination.

When I think about the plant stories that I have been collecting for plant companions, they are also about stories of landscapes in the past by which I still feel called. It is about belonging, isn’t it? For an academic journal, I am reviewing the book “The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence“, collecting 40 essays and 14 poems of human-plant entanglements, and the same theme of home, memory and belonging return in many of them.

Some weeks ago I sent a proposal for a postdoc. Let me share some ideas that I was exploring as preparation, and which were lingering in my human/vegetal mind for some time.

Immigrant people and their plant companions: Do they bring their home when they move?

The ecological, societal and psychological crises of many people in especially the western world can be explained through the alienation between men and other nature (Abram 2012; Soga and Gaston 2016). Acknowledging the more-than-human entanglements, can lead to more care for the planet and the self. In the postdoc I wanted to engage with practices in action and research that lead to more caring for others (humans and non-human nature), for the planet and for the self. I wanted to apply (eco)feminist ethics (e.g. Plumwood, 2003) which recognizes also the often invisible nature (invisible people, invisible plants).

Plants make our home too

When we study homes, we often focus on the humans that occupy the construction, structure and/or the land. In this research proposal, I focused more on the plants that occupy the house too and for which people feel care. The focus would be on indoor/house plants, more than on plants in gardens, because home can be a space where relationships can be even more intimate and at the same time where beings can be made invisible. I proposed to investigate singular plants which have a cultural value for a certain community of unrooted people, and which are kept invisible, behind doors and walls.

Immigrant people, immigrant plants

In my practice as a forest therapy guide, I have been reflecting on “immigrant plants” and their analogy with immigrant people. I walked in the Campine region in Belgium, noticing how pine trees were planted to serve the mining industry, as the many guest workers who moved in the previous century, and were all seen as disposable. A retelling of a local folktale of that valley was featured in the art exhibition of the Nature of Cities Festival 2021.

I found similar reflections in other work on people who acknowledge their entanglements with plants and question ideas like invasive, especially in countries where it means that they are “not originally from there” (whatever that means), ironically in settler colony societies as Australia (see article by Lien and Davison about Monterey pine trees in Australia).

TABOO plants

However, in this postdoctoral research I would not have looked at invasive plants. In talks with other people for previous research (e.g health gardens in Brussels), I heard from interviewees about the phenomenon of invisible plants that diaspora bring with them to a new country. For some taboo or other reason they keep them invisible, hidden in their rooms and homes. My hypothesis is that immigrant people keep their plant companions invisible, when they move to another country, city… because they are afraid of losing them, this part of cultural identity, this root to their previous country, this root to their home. It is a hypothesis, so not really tested.

I wonder if these plants are part of their idea of home. Another hypothesis is that  in countries which have these immigration policies and practices to make immigrants assimilate to the new “culture”, there are more practices of keeping these plants invisible, as some sort of resistance to keep some part of their identity and (previous) home. I also wonder how countries with very restrictions toward “foreign plants” (e.g Australia, New Zealand), how does this impact immigrants which have strong ties with plants of their country of origin/home? 

The rise of the house plant

In the same week, I heard I did not get the postdoc. Ironically, in the same week, I was eavesdropping a conversation in a coffee bar in Oslo (I heard the words PhD and environment). I ended up in a conversation with a young woman, which was about some point about the rising popularity of house plants, and what it says about human-nature connection, and perhaps this alienation with other nature outside.

In my forest therapy practice, I have not overheard stories of indoor trees or plants, but perhaps I did not give a prompt which is open/inclusive enough. There is of course the bias that people who participate in this practice have already been exposed enough to outside nature.