Cultivating for a better world
Notes towards a vegetal feminism, by Anna Souter
Earlier this year I listened to an interesting talk given by Anna Souter called “The Women Who Speak to Plants: Plant Knowledge & Patriarchal Archetypes” for the London Drawing Group. In it, the idea of vegetal thought or plant-like thinking and how we need a feminist future and equality for all was explored.
As the scales begin to fall away from our eyes and we increasingly come to understand how our dominant systems are not serving the majority of people (human and more than human) on this planet in the face of climate breakdown, ecological crises, racism, poverty, food insecurity and gross disparities in wealth, as well as understanding who suffers the greatest brunt of all these issues, we can see a need for different frameworks and stories for new ways of perceiving, thinking and being. This is something that “vegetal feminism” points us towards and I’m thrilled that Anna agreed to write an introduction to it here for us.
(P.S. Off the back of Anna’s talk, I also watched this video of a talk given by Suzanne Simard: Mother Trees & the Social Forest. I highly recommend it. Stick around for the Q&A in the second half as so much fascinating stuff is covered there too, including how trees have memories and how salmon can end up inside of trees.)
Notes towards a vegetal feminism, by Anna Souter
Vegetal cellulose is the most common organic compound on earth. Plants are everywhere, including in the most apparently lifeless environments. Even in places designed to suppress plant life, you’ll find them growing in the cracks, flourishing, carving out an existence for themselves. Plants are also the ultimate source of all our food and the air that we breathe. Every time you take a breath, you’re taking into your body oxygen that’s been produced by a plant. They perform essential roles within the ecosystem to create habitable living conditions for almost every form of life on the planet.
And yet we don’t tend to see them. In the West, we have somehow trained ourselves not to notice plants. We often fail to see them as living beings at all, especially when considered in comparison to animals whose physiology is more like our own. We are subject to what scientists have started to call “plant blindness”.
For many people from minoritised groups or who identify as female, this sounds somehow familiar.
In their research paper “The Feminist Plant: Changing Relations with the Water Lily,” writer Prudence Gibson and biologist Monica Gagliano argue for a feminist approach to the vegetal, which they see as essential for reformulating human relationships with the nonhuman in an era of ecological crisis. They write, “in terms of the water lily as a feminist plant, it is time to speak together about the potential to learn from the behavior of plant life in order to formulate better models of human collectivity and communicative cooperation.” This act of speaking together (with other humans and with plants) is a form of feminist world-building – a way to cultivate a better future.
Speaking together with plants and vegetal thought are feminist practices, because studying the modes of being of plants involves exploring modes of being that break patriarchal, capitalist, and colonialist paradigms. This is primarily because plants challenge dualistic, binary modes of thinking – modes of thinking that are essential to the upholding of the dominant patriarchal-capitalist-colonialist system.
Once we start studying plants, we begin to realise that they don’t fit into a neat taxonomical dualistic system. And once we start re-applying that knowledge to human beings, we start to realise that we don’t fit into those systems either.
The power of plants can be found in how they explode into the world. They don’t keep to themselves: they cross boundaries; they dispel their seeds; they spread their roots; they share their resources. These vegetal explosions don’t destroy life, but create it. The philosopher Timothy Morton talks about ecological thinking as an “explosion of context” – an ongoing recognition that everything is connected to everything else, and that things are always in the process of unfolding into other things. Plants enact an explosion of patriarchal paradigms in a similar way, unfolding in infinite directions. Of these myriad processes, these are three that particularly stand out to me.
Plants explode the dangerous myth of individualism. When trees grow together, they act not as individuals but as forests. The forest-as-superorganism crosses species-boundaries; to consider the forest, you have to consider trees and mycorrhizal fungi together.
This is helpful for thinking about the human body as assemblage. We’re living in an age of great discovery about the microbiome – the nonhuman living things that make up 67% of the cells in our bodies. These microorganisms are essential to most of our bodily functions. You wouldn’t exist without them; they are what makes you, you. And they are constantly leaking out of you and into others. Your body is not a sealed container, but leaky and porous. Whereas the patriarchal system pushes on us the idea that human beings are separate, self-serving individuals, looking at plants can be a way in to recognising that we are in fact no such thing.
Plants explode the mind-body divide. Patriarchal hierarchies assume the truth of the Descartian notion “I think therefore I am,” which implies a firm separation between the mind and the body. The mind is characterised as pure, masculine, white, and logical, and the body as impure, feminine, non-white, and sensuous. This is both source and symptom of violences against marginalised groups in a system based on hierarchies.
Plants do not have this mind/body divide. They don’t even have recognisable heads; eco-philosopher Michael Marder describes plants as being “all middle.” Unlike animals (including human animals), whose bodies are organised into discrete organs, plants have a dispersed physiognomy; the processes they need to exist are carried out throughout their bodies. It is possible to cut off part of a plant without doing it any harm, and many plants are intentionally edible.
Attached as we are to our understanding of the logical skull-bound brain and its separation from the sensuous body, plants’ distributed biology is somehow uncanny. But the mind/body divide is a myth in human beings as well. It is impossible to consider the mind without the body, and vice versa. Taking a step towards recognising this is a step towards dismantling the patriarchal pyramid of hierarchies.
Plants explode gender binaries. The most common category of plants is the hermaphrodite, or plants whose flowers feature both male and female sex organs. Some plants can self-fertilise. Others change gender when they reach maturity, or if their circumstances demand it, such as if they are growing among other plants of the same gender. The water lilies Gagliano and Gibson explore in their feminist essay have the ability to self-reproduce through a process of self-cloning, and they also go through male and female “phases.” Gender and sexuality are fluid in the vegetal world – as they are in ours.
Plants explode the dualistic thinking of the patriarchy. They explode the tendency to put things into boxes and categories and, importantly, hierarchies. Feminism is looking to break open those hierarchies with new systems and new ways of thinking. I would therefore like to make an argument for practicing a vegetal feminism.
The basic principles of vegetal feminism might be as follows:
Vegetal feminism respects plants as agential living beings in their own right.
Vegetal feminism rejects human supremacism and practices humility in relation to the nonhuman world.
Vegetal feminism recognises that plants are essential to human life on earth.
Vegetal feminism looks to plants for models for alternative ways of living and conceiving of the self.
Whereas the patriarchy looks at a tree and reduces it to a simplistic model of patrilineal descent in the form of the so-called “family tree”, vegetal feminism looks instead to the forest as a model for collectivity and community and intergenerational multidirectional relationships and the complex entanglements of multispecies assemblages.
Plants are essential to human life, but we treat them as though the opposite is true – and this will ultimately lead to disaster. To abuse plants (whether ancient forests or crop plants) and allow them to be destroyed is one of the main ways in which we fuel the climate crisis and the main way in which we risk damaging our food security.
Human beings have routinely oppressed plants in ways that are startlingly familiar from our knowledge of how human beings have oppressed other human beings. Plants grown in monocrop agriculture and forestry settings lose their ability to communicate with each other and to link up with the mycorrhizal network. They often can’t share chemical messages about approaching blights or pests, so they are doused in pesticides instead, or whole fields or areas of forest are lost because the plants have been forced to forget their ancestral wisdom and their ability to protect themselves. Through these capital-driven approaches to plants under the colonialist patriarchal system, we have deprived plants of their communities, their paths for communication, and their ability to reproduce without intervention.
We need a feminist future that doesn’t just reproduce all the failures of the patriarchal past – which will only lead us towards other forms of discrimination and an environmental crisis. We need a feminist future that is truly ecological and which believes in equality for all, because climate justice and social justice are inextricable.
Environmentalism is always an intersectional issue – and I hope we are also looking to practice intersectional feminism. And intersectionality is in itself ecological, even vegetal. Ecology is a study of interconnections – of how things come into being in connection with others – how things exist in their context. It is a study of webs and networks, of the rhizomatic rippling impacts of indivisible lives and of all other things that impact on each other in their everyday unfoldings.
Feminism is like that too: a rhizomatic, networked, collective practice which looks beyond familiar sociocultural structures. Feminism should be an ecological practice. Which is to say, feminism should be a vegetal practice.
Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant, 2018
Prudence Gibson & Monica Gagliano, ‘The feminist plant: Changing relations with the water lily’, in Ethics and the Environment, December 2017
Luce Irigaray & Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives, 2016
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013
Michael Marder, Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 2013
Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, 2021
Anna Souter is a writer, researcher, and curator based in Bradford on Avon and London, UK. She is interested in the intersections between contemporary art and ecology. Her writing has been featured in publications including The Guardian, Hyperallergic, Resurgence & The Ecologist, and It's Freezing in LA!. She also works on curatorial projects and writes fiction.
Anna has been paid for this article.
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Photo credit: Sui Searle