Some thoughts following a “Native Species” talk
Last week I took part in an in-person roundtable talk at the University of Greenwich on Native Species. Organised by the Landscape Architecture department, it was an engaging, interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Naturally (given the audience and the organising/industry members of the panel) the conversation centered around plants and often came back to the relevance and practical applications for practitioners in the landscape industry. But the thing that interested me most were the threads teased out in terms of belonging. What does it mean to be native (or indigenous)? And what does this mean for our understanding of belonging? How do these terms (“native”/“non native”) serve us, or not, in the face of the many social, environmental, even existential challenges we are confronted with? What can the use, or misuse, of the word native, and the implications of this when it comes to plants, teach us about what it means and feels to be “native” and to belong to a place as human beings?
“I do suspect that this notion of indigeneity as a fixed identity, as a static state of affairs, as something to return to, is itself a product of white frames of knowing. And by this I mean to say that no one knows what it means to become indigenous. Not even the ‘indigenous’.”
“Just as nature is ‘undefined’ and enacted, what it means to be indigenous is indeterminate and fully dependent on practices of seeing.”
The discussion certainly prompted me to revisit some thoughts on what it means to belong.
I’m not going to repeat the points made in an earlier Radicle piece by Gareth Richards on native plants. But there are some lines of inquiry when it comes to being “native” that I think is interesting to think on further and I thought I would share some of them here… (in no particular order):
Who decides what belongs where?
If whether or not a species is native to a place depends on a classification decided by humans (a classification that has at its core a separation of humans from that which is considered “natural”), who gets to decide this arbitrary classification? Who decides what does and doesn’t belong where? Are not all species native or natural to planet earth? Is it not natural for species to move and migrate around the earth (whatever the means)? Are the actions of humans unnatural? Who gets to decide which species should belong where? Why should humans be seen as external or above “nature” and what is “natural”?
As part of the roundtable discussion, a member of the audience asked a provocative question: it stemmed from wondering whether biodiversity then was the answer to our discussion (i.e. is the important thing not whether a plant is “native” or “non native” as to whether it should be used or useful, but rather, should it come down to its contribution to biodiversity?). This then led to the question of: who decides what the focus and purpose of the planting scheme should be? The landscape architect? The client? Who gets to impose their view? Who is right? What if your client was a nationalist and only wanted “native” plants to be used?
I found this interesting because it brought us back once again to a question of domination (a theme that crops up again and again). That either the client or the designer has to be somehow “right” or dominant. Instead, perhaps the designer-client relationship could be seen as an opportunity for partnership and collaboration. An opportunity to exchange ideas, perspectives and outlooks. For listening, discussion and understanding. Perhaps it can be viewed as an opportunity to find common ground to agree on. As an example, a chance to understand why one party may only want “native” plants. What is the reason for this specification? Might it transpire that, at the root, what all parties want is actually a shared goal - for the planting to be beneficial to biodiversity and the environment? To be resilient in the face of climate chaos? Plants that are appropriate to people and place?
Does belonging have to lead to exclusion?
This also led me to wonder - if belonging, as I believe, is a freedom to be who we are and the space to express ourselves fully and to be accepted, do certain people necessarily have to be excluded? How do we cultivate an environment in which everyone feels they can belong? In which everyone feels liberated to be who they are (if they cause no harm to anyone else…).
The usual stories
There were, as always, recurring themes of domination, separation, division and scarcity: between humans and the rest of the living world and between humans themselves. This seems to be something we continually return to - systems of domination - so deeply ingrained is it in our psyche and our way of seeing. Something we can be alert to and actively challenge and dismantle.
When it comes to plants, the discussion turned towards those “non natives” that stay within their “bounds” or “behave” and also those that may have “naturalised” to a place. In other words, notions of acceptability. According to my Oxford Dictionary of Plant Sciences (admittedly dating from 2004), the definition of “naturalized” says: “applied to a species that originally was imported from another country but that now behaves like a native in that it maintains itself without further human intervention and has invaded native populations”.
So interesting and telling, the language we use and the narratives these can create in our minds…
As touched on above, for me, a key part of belonging (as a human being) comes back to a feeling of safety and acceptance. Of having space to be seen and heard, to feel held and secure, to be comfortable enough to express ourselves as full human beings. These are factors that can meaningfully make us feel as though we belong.
It’s interesting to consider that, as we expect plants to behave in a certain/idealised way as to whether or not we accept them as belonging to a place, so we do this to human beings too. In what ways do we expect or demand people to conform and how might we (harmfully) police the behaviour of others? Who decides the standards and what/who do they exclude? Do we do this to the detriment of people seeking a sense of belonging? How can we do things differently to the benefit of all?
It made me recall this passage from Toko Pa’s book, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home.
“So long as we keep aspects of ourselves hidden from view because we believe only an edited or presentational version of who we are will be accepted by others, we are depriving ourselves of belonging. And depriving others of belonging with us.
What if worthiness depends on our belonging together? Worth is really another way of saying ‘plenty’. It is the resting state of abundance. This is our natural state when we live in solidarity with others and in harmony with our environment. When we each contribute our unique gifts and abilities to the whole, we always have more than we need. Conversely, when things go wrong, we shoulder it together, lessening the load for us all.”
Perhaps, then, to be radical is to love, accept and recognise every plant/person/being as belonging unconditionally. Regardless of how they look, where they originated from or how they behave. No species is seen as “wrong” or “bad” for simply existing. How might this paradigm shift away from fear, division and domination and towards love and partnership change things? Is this how we make a move towards collective liberation?
I can’t help but feel that ultimately, perhaps what we need to see is that we all belong to each other. How do we find our way back to ourselves, to each other and to the earth? This seems to me such a pressing question for our times.
There is much to consider and more to say but I think perhaps this has already been long enough. These are just some of the thoughts that came to me following the talk. I would love to hear your thoughts on it too.
A few questions to think on:
What does it mean to you to be native and to belong?
Why does belonging matter?
What makes some people feel they belong and others not?
What/who has a right to belong where and why?
How do we help to foster a sense of belonging, for ourselves and for others?
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