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April 24, 2023

The Plant Revolution and 19th Century American Literature

During the 19th Century, growing international trade and imperialist conquest combined with new technologies to transport and care for flora led to a burgeoning fascination with plant life. American writers, from Emily Dickinson to Frederick Douglass played with plant imagery to make sense of their world and their country and to bolster their political arguments. 

Joining me in this episode is Dr. Mary Kuhn, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of The Garden Politic: Global Plants and Botanical Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century America.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode music is “Down by the Salley Gardens,” performed by Celtic Aire, United States Air Force Band; the composition is traditional, and the lyrics are by Willian Butler Yeats; the recording is in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. The episode image is from Plate VI of Familiar Lectures on Botany, by Almira Phelps, 1838 edition.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On this episode, we're discussing changing views of plants in 19th century America, and how writers used literature to explore and shape those views. In 1866, poet Emily Dickinson, from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote to friends, "My flowers are near and foreign. And I have but to cross the floor to stand in the spice aisles." A 21st century listener might take for granted the idea that plants that originated across the globe could be available in one's home. But the 19th century poet still found this remarkable. By the early 19th century, as trade and imperial conquest expanded countries' reach, there was increasing interest in transporting plants across the globe. But many live plants were fragile and didn't survive the lengthy journeys by land or sea. London physician, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, began to experiment with growing plants in glass cases, which protected them from the terrible air pollution in London. And within a few years, he had a thriving garden under glass, what journalist, John Claudius Loudon, described in 1834, as, "The most extraordinary city garden we have ever beheld." Within a few years, the so called Wardian cases, were in wide use, transporting live plants on long ocean voyages. In 1840, the privately held Kew Gardens, in southwest London, became a National Botanic Garden and a Center for Scientific Research. Now under the direction of Sir William Hooker, the gardens were opened to the public. A year later, Sir William's son, Joseph, a future director of Kew himself, used Wardian cases to successfully bring plants from the Falklands to Kew for public display. In the late 1840s, Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, used Wardian cases to smuggle 20,000 tea plants from China to British India, where the Chinese variety of camellia sinensis is still used in Darjeeling tea. Across the Atlantic, the revolution in global plants' availability, captivated the attention of 19th century Americans. In 1829, a teacher in Troy, New York, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, published her first textbook, titled, "Familiar Lectures on Botany." The book, written to be accessible for beginners, encouraged students, especially young women, to learn about the natural world around them. "Familiar Lectures on Botany" was wildly popular, going through 28 editions. One young woman who learned from Almira Phelps' textbook was Emily Dickinson, born in Massachusetts, in 1830, who attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847, where, along with subjects like Latin, philosophy, and geology, students learned about botany. As a teenager, Dickinson assembled an herbarium, pressing 424 specimens of dried plants into an album, each plant accompanied by its scientific name, hand written by Dickinson. Fittingly, in Dickinson's own copy of "Familiar Lectures on Botany," the dried flower pressed in between the pages by Dickinson. For Dickinson, a keen gardener, the language of plants suffuses her poetry, as in this verse from 1859

Flowers - well, if anybody                                                                                                                                           Can the ecstasy define,                                                                                                                                              Half a transport, half a trouble,                                                                                                                                With which flowers humble men,                                                                                                                         Anybody find the fountain                                                                                                                                       From which floods so contra flow,                                                                                                                                   I will give him all the daisies                                                                                                                                   Which upon the hillside blow.                                                                                                                                    Too much pathos in their faces                                                                                                                                   For a simple breast like mine.                                                                                                                                  Butterflies from St. Domingo                                                                                                                               Cruising round the purple line                                                                                                                                  Have a system of aesthetics                                                                                                                                        Far superior to mine.

 Another New England gardener, whose plant imagery abounds in her writing, is abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, born in Connecticut, in 1811. Like Dickinson, Stowe press dried flowers into books. She also created floral paintings, some of which can still be seen in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Stowe, with a keen eye for plants, understood the importance of botanical accuracy in her symbolism. When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, returned from a tour of the American South, in 1856, Stowe wrote to him asking for details. "Of what species is the pine of which you make so great mention, and of which the greater part of the pine forests are composed? Are the mosses and flowers which grow under them of the same species that grow in the pine forests in the northern states? It is absolutely necessary for me to get a perfect definite idea of the country where I suppose the scene will be laid. And in conversing with you, I could do it." Fellow New Englander, Nathaniel Hawthorne, born in Massachusetts in 1804, developed a love of nature as a child, while living with relatives in the wilds of Raymond, Maine. He later wrote,  "Those were delightful days, for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods." Even after returning to Massachusetts for schooling, and longing for the freedom of Maine, Hawthorne was surrounded by nature. His uncle Robert Manning, with whom he lived, was a founding member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Hawthorne's writing often plays with the tensions between the wilderness of nature and human attempts at order, as he wrote in 1837, "A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible, as to make a conquest over nature." It was not only native New Englanders who were captivated by plant life. Frederick Douglass, born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, also understood this tension between humans and plants. He witnessed enslaved people who worked the land, growing crops for plantation owners, who then denied the food from those crops to the very people who had grown them. In 1849, after he had escaped slavery, Douglass wrote in the North Star about growing pumpkins, saying, "It is not so much the good quality of pumpkins, to which we should call attention, as to the good moral we have extracted from them. The ground was prepared, seed sown, and the plant cultivated by our own colored hands. And although the soil is American, it took no offense on account of our color, but yielded a generous return for our industry. From this we infer that the Earth has no prejudice against color, and that nature is no respecter of persons. It pours its treasures as liberally into the lap of colored industry as into that of white husbandsmen. The Earth is a preacher of righteousness. It inculcates justice, love and mercy, repudiates the fractious distinctions of pride and prejudice, and it owns all the sons and daughters of men without regard to color, as its own dear children." At the end of his life, Douglass lived in the Anacostia neighborhood of DC, in a mansion he named Cedar Hill for the cedar trees on the property. At Cedar Hill, Douglass gardened extensively and like Dickinson and Stowe, pressed floral specimens into books. Joining me in this episode, to discuss the changing views of plants in the 19th century, and the literary explorations of them, is Dr. Mary Kuhn, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and the author of, "The Garden Politic: Global Plants and Botanical Nationalism in 19th Century America."

Unknown Speaker  11:52  

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:32  
Hi, Mary, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Mary Kuhn  12:35  
Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:36  
So, I want to start by asking just a little bit about how you got interested in the notion of plant studies and literature. How you came to this topic?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  12:48  
Sure, yeah. I mean, there are always so many ways to to answer a question like that. One answer is that I grew up right in front of a swamp that separated my parents' house from the regional high school and I spent a lot of time out there as a little kid. And so I've always been interested in and I worked in backcountry huts during the summers of my college shops. I've always really been interested in spending time in, in and among sort of planty spaces and worlds. And when I got to graduate school, I knew I was interested in ideas of place. And I started while I was reading for coursework, I started seeing plants pop up everywhere. And I got really interested in domestic fiction, which is a really popular genre in the mid 19th century. And there was so much plant life in this domestic fiction. And you know, at one point, Hawthorne talks about plants as part of the family and I got really interested, what does it mean for plants to be part of the family? How do we think about our relationship to plants, you know, that are not just out and about in the world, but part of our homes, some of the things that we relate to in the everyday and the ordinary. And as I started to do research, and I discovered that in the 19th century, there's just this efflorescence of botanical interest. You know, there are kind of these horticultural crazes or all of these changes in technology that change access to plants. And so there's a lot shifting in this period that makes it really interesting to sort of think about, about plant life. And when I started thinking about this project back in, you know, I entered grad school in 2007. Animal studies was, you know, a field and Harriet Ritvo was at MIT, you know, someone who's done amazing work in animal studies, and there wasn't a lot on on the study of plants or the the conversations about plants in domestic literature were largely focused on sexuality and gender, which is a huge part of the story. But there wasn't a lot of conversation about the kind of political dimensions of of these plants which you know, the history of science and environmental history has really uncovered and talked really deeply about the ways in which plants mobilized imperial reach, you know, and were the objects of of imperial desire, right? So, cinchona becomes this, this tool for empires to, you know, extend their reach, and very coveted as such, you know, and so I was thinking, how do these two things relate to one another, the history of plants as political objects, in terms of, you know, the history of bio prospecting, and also the history of plantation slavery, and these plants that people are encountering in their, their everyday lives?

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:37  
Yeah, I realized, as I was reading your book, I read a lot of currently written, so contemporary mystery novels about the 19th century, especially in England, but you know, some in America too. And I, I realized how often plants show up in those stories in poisons that they're doing, or the, the murder happens in Kew Gardens or something, you know, and it really does, even looking back, it shows up a ton. So that was, that was really interesting.

Dr. Mary Kuhn  16:06  
It's amazing, when you start paying attention to it. I mean, I think that was a really fun part of the project. I was like, it's everywhere, and you know, across all these different genres. And when you get into the 20th century, and science fiction, I mean, there's all this, you know, the "Day of the Triffids." And, I mean, you get all of this really incredible sort of, you know, imaginative work on on plant agency and consciousness. And one of the cool things that I discovered during the research for this is that, you know, a lot of the conversations about plant animacy and intelligence today, like there's a 19th century analog to that, which was really cool to see playing out across periodicals. And...

Kelly Therese Pollock  16:44  
Yeah, so what are some of the technological things happening in the 19th century that, that really changed the game a lot, and these authors that we're going to talk about are really reacting to?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  16:56  
So I mean, one thing is the invention of the Wardian case, which is a glass box, essentially, that allows for you to ship a plant and have it stay alive, because it can live on the deck of a ship, and get the sun that way. But it's protected from the saltwater, the kind of corrosive effects of of saltwater. And this really revolutionizes the number of plants that are able to take long oceanic journeys. So whereas there was a very slim survival rate for plants, you know, in previous versions of kind of wooden boxes packed away, suddenly, you have a lot more plants, able to make it these like long, long distances. So that's, that's one big shift. Another is shift in greenhouse technology, the ability to you know, like iron hinge sash bars that let you kind of raise and lower the roof of the, of the glass. So you and then you have places like Kew Gardens that become these centers where people can come and basically, you know, in the palm house, you can go up a spiral staircase, and then stare down at the kind of imperial bounty. So there's this way that Kew becomes a kind of organic and, you know, I'll put that in heavy quotation marks symbol of the kind of the reach of, of the British Empire, and you know, the naturalness of that there's this kind of like, oh, look, isn't this amazing and natural. And so that's a big shift as well. Another shift is that there's the development of horticultural societies in the US. So there there be it becomes really a sort of middle class, it becomes access more accessible to the middle class to, to both have things like greenhouses like Dickinson has a hot house attached to the side of the house. I grew up in Amherst. It was not there when I was growing up, but they've since they did an archeological dig beneath it to make sure they weren't going to erect a replacement over something archeologically interesting. And then they and then they put it back up about five years ago, I think. So suddenly, you know, that that's, that's something that that is accessible to the middle class, not just to sort of see these plants, you know, that are from other climates, you know, in a greenhouse in New York or London, but to see them growing in your own home. So and at places like Kew, there are actually tunnels running coal underneath the palm house to heat the palm house and then another tunnel that's basically funneling the smoke away, so that it can so that aesthetically it kind of looks like there's no labor or input to this magical system. And then and then seed catalogs are this other, you know, suddenly you have all these access to all these seeds. And seed catalogs are telling you where these things are originally from and originally from, again, is in quotation marks because that's kind of a conjecture and plants are found all over the globe, but there's a real fascination. "Oh, this came from Australia. This came from this particular mountain region." So Rebecca Solnit talks about photography and other technologies that kind of annihilate space and time, and the greenhouse and the seed catalog kind of function in that same way so that someone like Dickinson can say, "I only have to cross the floor to stand in the spice aisles." And that might not be exactly what the right quote, but it's something it's something like that. So that idea of these other geographies being somehow rendered material in some way to the imagination through the cultivation of plants at home.

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:39  
So then you you mentioned earlier domestic literature. So you find these authors within the US. And of course, you're writing about a lot, but you have sort of five main authors that you're talking about in in your book, how did you choose the people you wanted to write about, the texts of theirs? You know, a lot of them have enormous catalogs, you know, but how did you hone in on on what you wanted to look at to do this analysis?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  21:06  
I mean, I think one of the things that was kind of fun to discover is that a lot of popular writers in the 19th century were gardeners, were passionate gardeners. So you know, Stowe was a prolific gardener by, by all accounts. She's writing newspaper articles about about the garden. And for her, it became really noticeable reading her second big abolitionist novel "Dred," that plants are just everywhere in that novel and become, you know, her thinking about modes of ecological relation is something that she mobilizes towards abolitionists. And and so I really just got interested in in authors who were were gardeners. So Hawthorne is the nephew of one of the 19th century's most famous pomologists. And so he has this sort of incredible window through his uncle into some of these, you know, horticultural experiments. And he also was, you know, experimenting in his own garden and you know, complaining about things that you know, garden failures. And it was interesting there to to see the kind of overlap or the way that crosses over into some of the botanical figuration in his stories. So the rosebush by the prison door in "The Scarlet Letter" and the hothouse flower that Zenobia wears in her hair in "The Blithedale Romance," and it's all over "The House of Seven Gables," Alice's posy,which is growing out of the roof of the house. And, you know, there's some horticultural Pyncheon who had buried some seeds away. I mean, it's just, it's all over some of these texts. So in reading the works of of these authors, it just becomes really ubiquitous. And Douglass, too, his wife was, by all accounts, really the his first wife Anna Murray was, by all accounts really like the prolific gardener in the household. But at Cedar Hill late in his life, he was growing strawberries, he had a peach orchard in Rochester, and Rochester was this was the center of sort of horticultural innovation also. And so James Vick, who becomes a sort of, he edits "The Horticulturist," and, and also has one of the most widely read seed catalogs. He's a support, early supporter of Frederick Douglass' papers. So there are all of these sort of modes of crossover. And Lydia Maria Child, who's in the first chapter of the book, her husband does an experiment with beet, an ultimately unsuccessful experiment with beet sugar farming in Western Massachusetts as an alternative to cane sugar, and the sort of plantation labor associated with that. And Dickinson, as I mentioned before, was, you know, sort of incredible gardener and she's receiving these cuttings from friends, who are missionary wives in Syria. She gets cuttings from India, Germany, various places that these are all in her herbarium. So it's, yeah, the choice of authors was really guided by the fact that they both were authors who are authors and gardeners, and that those identities were really linked.

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:21  
I want to ask a little bit about method, I interview a lot of historians. And so you know, I think people understand sort of going into archives and stuff. I want to talk a little bit about when you're writing about authors who've been read a lot. You know, there's a lot of secondary literature about someone like Hawthorne, of course. How do you how do you sort of take the everything that is known about these people's secondary literature and stuff? And then use your own reading of a text in your own mode of analysis and your own lens through which you're looking at this? Just a little bit about how you do that? What your approach is? 

Dr. Mary Kuhn  24:57  
Yeah, I mean, I think, I'm married to historian, so I think I have historical methods. And, and I, I also, when I was sort of figuring this project out, I realized that the history was incredibly important to them to telling the story that, to understand how these authors are engaging with plants, I needed to understand things about developments in horticultural technology, and, you know, gardening practices and how they transform over the course of the 19th century. So, you know, I did a lot of secondary reading was, you know, reading the works, the literary critical works, and then a lot of reading of histories of science, environmental histories, and then spending time at places like Kew Gardens and the British Library, and, you know, various sites in the USA doing some of that kind of archival reach, but then also thinking about, you know, what does, what kind of lens can literature, or what kind of insights can can literature offer? Or how does literature, engage with history? You know, and in certain ways, how did you know, Hawthorne, famously, you know, uses historical fiction are, you know, to kind of engage with contemporary issues for him. And so, I'm not sure this is sort of like, you know, I feel like method is an ever evolving, ever evolving question, but sort of trying to figure out, what does it mean, for instance, that, you know, in 1824, Lydia Maria Child is writing a book that ends with a Native American man, as a gardener standing outside the nation, which is described as, you know, a mighty tree. So the gardener figure but being excluded, and sort of thinking about, "Okay, what's, what's the kind of story that she's that she's telling here? How does this relate to what's happening in terms of with various laws?" I guess, like your own reading, it's a kind of back and forth between reading the close reading the story and thinking about what are the the historical things that might be shaping what what the individual is saying? So I mean, again, that's kind of a new historicist approach, I guess, to kind of think about how is this, this plotline being shaped by things that we know are going on at the moment?

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:25  
Yeah. So one of the things, of course, going on at the moment in the 19th century is this desire to impose order on everything and sort of systematize everything, understand everything. And of course, nature doesn't always want to respond to that. Nature is wild, but they're trying to do this through things like their gardening. So can you talk a little bit about in the the authors are looking at this, this tension that plays out the wanting to impose order versus nature being wild? 

Dr. Mary Kuhn  27:56  
Yeah, I mean, I think I mean, I know Hawthorne felt this, because he seems really bothered by something like by failure. And I think one of the, one of the things to just sort of think about in terms of domestic gardening, I guess, is how much failure was a part of the story. And it's not a part of the story that's often you know, celebrated or put forward, because what's being put forward is like, "Look at this amazing, you know, camilia bouquet, that I was able to harvest," the successes, right, but that the actual experience of living with plants was, you know, one of like, there's there are pests, there are frosts. Things, things fail to thrive, you don't know why. And so I think, in the home sphere, there is this attempt to kind of cultivate plants in terms of an orderliness and all of the rhetoric around this is, you know, there's a rhetoric of cultivation that extends to, you know, human education as well. So the idea that, like, cultivate your garden, and you're cultivating good morals, and you're cultivating a good, you know, keen sensibility. It's one of the reasons why botany is celebrated for women in the late 1820s and 1830s, as sort of botany becomes part of the curriculum at women's educational institutions, is that it is, you know, there is this sense of, of orderliness and that that will translate into domestic orderliness and good morals. And yet there's, there is constantly a sense of things, things, not things not working out, and people having to kind of adapt. And then there are also the ways in which plants themselves challenge these categories. So one of the things that people cannot really determine, in the mid 19th century is like, "Where does the animal end and the vegetable begin?" So Edward Hitchcock gives a lecture like one of his lectures on botany at Amherst College is basically, you know, ruminating part of the lectures ruminating on this question of like, "We don't really know where the animal ends and the plant begins." And so, you know, there is constantly, and this is a point that Harriet Ritvo makes in "The Platypus and the Mermaid," like, the more you try to impose tax them on a taxonomic order, you discover plants or animals and things that that challenge those efforts to impose order. And so that was a really interesting thread of this, of this story. And there's this 19th century text by a French author, XB Saintine called "Picciola," about this man who makes an attempt on Napoleon's life, which doesn't end well. So he ends up in prison. And he is sort of, there's this redemption arc, where he falls in love with this plant growing up through the cracks in his prison courtyard. And he becomes totally obsessed with keeping this thing alive. And the sort of climax of the book is when the when it's the plant has gotten so big that it's threatening to be, it's outgrown the little crack. And so, the daughter of another prisoner's, like, "I will write to Napoleon on your behalf, and, you know, like plead for them to sort of help save your plant" And so there, there are all these, you know, moments of, of people thinking through the challenges of what does it mean to keep this other form of life alive? And I kind of challenge that, both the kind of intimacy of these experiences, and just the sense of not being able to communicate with this other form of life, and the kind of guesswork involved.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:25  
Yeah, yeah. Another theme, of course, in the 19th century, especially in the United States, is racism and slavery. And there are lots of moments where people are seeming to use to use plant life as an analogue for race in various ways that you that you outline. And then also, several of the writers that you talk about are using plants, or using botany to think through slavery. And, you know, I think it reminded me a little bit of the way that people use the Bible, right, like, you could use the Bible to support this side, or you could use it to support this side, you know, the really, you could use this idea of plants of horticulture in, you know, in various arguments that you wanted to make, but the authors that you're looking at, what, what are they doing here? How are they thinking through these ideas of race and of slavery?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  32:21  
Yeah, so there's, the answer is, there are many, many different ways. Back to your question about sort of categorization, one thing that there's, you know, "the great chain of being," and ideas of sort of hierarchies of being and one thing that happens with plants, ideas of plants as being animate or sensitive, suddenly challenges the idea that they're, that they're, that it's passive life. And so then you have a sort of sense of, you know, authors saying, "Well, can we use this to kind of push on other hierarchies of life," in the, in the 19th century and constructions of life. And that's that, that's one way that, you know, someone like Stowe is trying to kind of think through the, these categorizations of of life and, and push back against ideas of racial hierarchy. Another thing, you know, that you see is gardening and the kind of the kind of care practices of taking care of plants, various authors use that to push back against the, to push back against plantation slavery and plan and plantations. So one thing that happens across the 19th century is there's a lot of soil exhaustion in the south. And Kristin Ellis has written a really good article about the way that Douglass, you know, mobilizes that as an abolitionist argument, but one of the sort of interesting things that happens is that you have something like scientific agriculture emerge across this time with ideas of, you know, chemical applications to soil to rejuvenate them, that is used to very different political ends in, in the north and in the south. So southern periodicals, you know, across the middle of the 19th century, are thinking about how do we horticulturally innovate to sustain this system? Right. And, and so someone like Douglass, I think, as an editor of several newspapers is is, you know, paying attention to that, and also paying attention to what are the other ways that we might imagine agriculture and agricultural system that does not depend on on slavery, so the kind of mobilization of, you know, different imaginations of, yeah, different imaginations of how agriculture. So there's a good article by Jennifer James. It's called "Buried in  Guano," where she talks about the history of guano applications and how that is used to divergent ends in the north and south as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:57  
Yeah, I was thinking through too, it's so Interesting, this idea that in slavery society and plantation society that people who are working the land who, in some ways must have the most expertise about what is working are not the people who, who are empowered to make decisions and, you know, are not the people who are benefiting from the land, either. I think you've talked about some of that that tension as well, I think, but I think it it really challenges some of these notions of what can we do to get ourselves out of this problem of, you know, soil depletion or something? Well, there are people who are experts right here that you're not talking to about about the ways and of course, who would have no incentive to continue this the system of slavery.

Dr. Mary Kuhn  35:44  
You know, and there are small garden plots, you know, so like, Douglass' grandmother is growing, growing food that she's selling you know, and she's helping other people with their own cultivation. So there are, there were frequently, you know, near large plantations, there were small garden plots that enslaved people, where enslaved people grew food and medicine for themselves, family, friends, and there's less of a of an archival record of, of these sites of expertise. But, you know, thinking again, about other spaces of cultivation that exist alongside these spaces of extraction, I think is a really, really important part of the part of the story.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:38  
Yeah, yeah. You mentioned earlier that animal studies was a growing field, and plant studies has not gotten the same sort of attention. Can you talk a little bit about that? Why is that and why plant studies is important. And you know, but perhaps will and should get get more attention?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  36:58  
I think, I think that one thing that's been really exciting is that there's been a real burgeoning of interest in in plants. So books like "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall, Kimmerer, "The Overstory" by Richard Powers then, you know, there are books, like "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. And, you know, those are just a, those are just a couple, you know, but I know like, Radio Lab did a "Smarty Plants" episode, like there's Michael Pollan wrote an article in The New Yorker that came out when I was in grad school called the intent, I think it's called "The Intelligent Plant." There's been a sort of shift back to thinking about these questions of plant says, animate light. So I think some of that has to has to do with received ideas of plants as passive better to be subject to, you know, our own whims, modes of meaning making. And so plant studies, you know, there's been a sort of rise in conversations about thinking about, like, actually, plants are, everywhere, they're everywhere in the literature, and they're everywhere in our lives. I've been, you know, really interested with with the pandemic, how much, you know, like, if you look at the numbers of plants sold, like houseplants sold during the pandemic, it's skyrocketed. Right. And, and thinking about gardening practices in in the pandemic, I think it's sort of I don't think the pandemic is what caused the shift to, to plant studies. But I do think you know, that there's been just more attention recently returned back to  plants.  I think the climate crisis also has something to do with that. I mean, reading about shifts in, you know, when I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and, you know, I went maple sugaring, and a lot of the sugaring is shifted north as climate has, has shifted. So I think, you know, plant studies, I think, in general, there's been a shift towards thinking about multi species, how you tell a story that is not just about plants, or not just about animals, but also about microbes, and viruses, you know, if you think about that, that to really tell a, a sort of complete history of, of what's happening. I mean, this is, again, I think, a lesson from environmental history, you have to think about agents that are non human and non human more than human. And think differently about modes, modes of relation and the modes of relation that have kind of led us to our current moment as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  39:33  
So could you talk a little bit about the challenge of the language you're using, though? You talk some in your book about that, that, you know, you don't want to fall in the trap of anthropomorphic language, but what do you use then and so, what what does that look like?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  39:45  
Yeah, it's a really, it's a really good question. I mean, I think that is, that's something that has sort of long interested me is what happens when you run up against the limit? The limits of language? I mean, the and this is a this is a very literary question, right? And I It's why I think poetry can be so powerful that kind of thinking through these, these ideas of, you know, how do you explain? How do you explain life lived otherwise, that you don't have, you know, full understanding of, you know, and there's been really interesting recent work by Hope Jahren, "Lab Girl," you know, so kind of says like, "Don't try to compare plants to us because that reduces them in a certain way." Like it reduces the complexity of the way that they, they they live. And so there's this real, I think, effort to sort of acknowledge what we don't know about, about plants. And so thinking about, you know, there's a lot of I mean, these are loaded terms, you know, talking about plant consciousness, plant intelligence, but I think it's, it's really productive to interrogate, "Well, what what do we mean, when we, when we deploy these these terms? What kind of associations come with them? And how do those associations and ideas lead us to sort of think about the assumptions that we make in our daily in our daily lives?" So I think language can be a really useful way to into these questions of what kind of assumptions do I make through habitual, the kind of habitual language that I reach for? And how does drawing attention to some of these words actually help us think about relation differently, and again, I think this is a point. This is something that Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about in a chapter in "Braiding Sweetgrass," where she talks about learning the language of animacy where she says in Potawatomi you can be a bay that the animacy is inherent in a lot in a mountain in a bay in in things that English calls "it," you know, and treats as as a as a passive object. So that grammar is a way of this is her point, you know, grammar is a mode of relation. And so how can we call attention to that to again, think about and interrogate our relationships?

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:07  
So if people would like to read your book, how can they get a copy?

Dr. Mary Kuhn  42:10  
You can order it from your local bookstore is probably the best way or the NYU website or I think it's available on you know, Amazon and all those other interweb spaces as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:25  
Well, Mary, thank you so much. This was a fun book and a fun conversation.

Dr. Mary Kuhn  42:29  
Thank you so much, Kelly. I really really appreciate it.

Teddy  43:40  
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Mary Kuhn

Mary Kuhn is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Virginia.