Stories of the Present: Herbalists Practicing
How can plants change minds? Herbalist students cultivate connections to Plant Time as part of their training in learning about medicinal plants and health, both human and ecological. They learn to embody human obligations to environmental others by “getting down to Plant Time.” Sitting with plants in the garden shifts students’ encounters with the world, as medicinal plants become sensible creatures and active collaborators. In this way, “getting down to Plant Time” is an embodied sensory practice. It takes time to learn and requires repetition. The iterative nature of many sessions of sitting with plants builds bodily attunements that enable attention and care across biologies.
I learned about the concept of Plant Time from a community of herbalists learning, practicing, and cultivating medicines at a school teaching Western herbalism, a broad subdiscipline of herbalism, in the rural Northeast of the United States. Teachers at this school use plant time as a practice to shift their own bodies’ sensory attunements toward plants. Herbalists understand this vegetal mode of bodily presence as a first step in healing relationships between humans and plants. Building intimate, sensory relationships with plants enables herbalists to understand their own animacy—their own lives—as inextricably bound up with the plant-others of the world. This sensory partnership with plants teaches herbalists how to care for a world with beings, and needs, beyond the human.
As a loanword, Plant Time aims to make space for cross-species connections, communications, and modes of animacy. It is a bodily practice that enacts a shift in the sensory attunements of the herbalists’ body as she approaches vegetally paced life. Plant time honors the difference between human time and vegetal temporalities—the cycles of germination, growth, maintenance, seeding, and dormancy or death that are months, years, or decades long. If Western herbalists articulate their own experience of a world of boundaries, borders, and notions of linear progress as a challenging one, characterized by the unstoppable cascade of calendar time, Plant Time describes the slower, cyclical time-lives that our vegetal kin inhabit. Anthropologist Natasha Myers calls this process of paying attention to the material entailments of other elements of the world “attunement.” This era we live in, called by some late capitalism and by others the Anthropocene, comes with more than its fair share of environmental, economic, interpersonal, and bodily challenges. The confluence of these challenges demands that we learn to pay attention in new terms. Our attentions are always shaped by the materials of the world, whether proteins, plants, or protozoa. By attempting to move into Plant Time, herbalists construct a fleshy, embodied mode of attuning to such social and material entanglements. Herbalist attunement, the process of sitting and learning to attend to plants and their seemingly small worlds, and to what we experience as that vegetal pace distinct from human time, is the first tier of learning how to relate across species difference.
As an herbalist practice, “getting down to Plant Time” involves sitting with a growing, living medicinal herb—for ten minutes, three-quarters of an hour, until dusk. This practice shapes how herbalists learn to pay attention to the lives, cycles, connections, ecologies, and capacities of plants. Practitioners are motivated first by a sense that medicinal plants have much to offer, and next by a sense that medicinal plants have something to teach humans about plant life, and life in general. Not only does vegetal biochemistry offer medicine for humans (or poison, depending on the dose) but plants also teach herbalists a different way to experience being entangled in place and to be responsible to other critters. Entanglement and responsibility can be both concepts and practices, and they manifest in both ways for herbalists’ practices with Plant Time. Physicist Karen Barad helps me to think about what herbalists are doing with Plant Time by using these terms in both ways: as concepts for understanding human presence in the world, and as practices for living more fully into our presence. After Barad, I might call Plant Time a process not just of becoming intimate with plants and building sensate bodily relationships sensitive to communication across species, but also of becoming animate with plants. Agency is not a property of a bounded individual but an active process, produced in collaboration between multiple sorts of beings. Coming into being, and into capacity to act in the world, is always something that must, must at a quantum physical level, she says, happen together with the other stuff in the world. Action is always intra-action, and agency is always intra-agency. Action and agency cannot happen without mutual relationships among different kinds of materials and actors.
These entanglements mean that our actions and agencies are always in implicit relations of responsiveness to each other, entanglements Barad approaches with her theory of agential realism. Barad suggests, along with science studies scholar Donna Haraway, that we must learn to attend to our response-abilities. Working with this idea of response-ability, I suggest that part of what herbalists do when they get down to Plant Time is learn how to become coanimate with vegetal others, coordinating across complexly embodied and divergent experiences of temporality.
Plant time practices attune human bodies and senses to be present to what is and what could be. Herbalists try not to appropriate from Indigenous cultural practices that already understand plants as kin and as worthy of respect, attention, and relationship. Herbalists’ efforts to be inspired by Indigenous ways of engaging with plants without engaging in yet more colonial violence trace a tension around what kinds of practices can be taken up, how, and by whom. The “slow violence” of colonial imperialism has made some kinds of knowledge available to white herbalists by putting the idea of “traditional ecological knowledge” on a pedestal. The confluence of these tensions, histories, and sensations lays the groundwork for herbalists’ movement toward Plant Time–based communications with plants. Herbalist practices with Plant Time try to “unsettle,” in Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s felicitous term, a commonsense white relation with environments and plants. They seek to deindustrialize and un-rush human experiences of the world, to carve out a space and time where human sensory experience can shift into another register, dropping its addiction to the calendar and the clock. This is what Plant Time might teach us: it works against a notion of an Anthropocene that centers specific kinds of human agency, power, and experience as isolated processes. Herbalists building relationships with plants through Plant Time work to re-embed human sensibilities within our ecological realities.
Instructions for Plant Time
Sally seats us on her sloping lawn in a warm late June patch of sunlight. She’s here with twenty-five herbalist students to share practices and perspectives on getting to know plants as lively critters we live alongside, critters with whom we can relate. She says,
We live in a society where it’s easy to forget that we are connected with other parts of the world. With plants, with animals, with the Earth. This disconnection, our sense of disconnection, is at the heart of many ailments we see today. But it’s not necessary—this disconnection is part of a system that is broken. I want to tell you, to remind you, that it’s our birthright to be in connection—not separate from nature, but part of it.
Looking around the circle, she makes eye contact with each student.
I have a friend, another herbalist, who has been teaching about plants and herbal medicine for many years. He had a practice in his workshops of asking people, as they open the workshop, to touch the earth. Over many years, everyone would close their eyes and touch the ground or the floor beside them. Only one person ever touched themselves.
She pauses. There is a silence around the circle. Some people nod in agreement; some eyes widen in surprise and realization.
We are all a part of the earth already. This practice of sitting with plants has helped me recognize the value of vulnerability. It’s easier to be vulnerable with a plant, with a tree. We still have to work to listen to what they share because we are so accustomed to being defensive. But as you recognize those defensive parts, it becomes easier to hold your own power in a soft and gentle way, to open, soften, make space. With this practice, we can respond differently to what arises in the world.
Sally gave the students an assignment that day: sit with plants at least four times before the next class. The instructions for how to encounter and interact with plants that students sat with were as follows:
With the plants:
- • Introduce yourself.
- • State your intention clearly—why are you here with this plant?
- • Ask for what you need in another person, in a plant or tree, in the land.
- • Practice being present with yourself.
- • Pay attention to the shifts that happen in your body when sitting with a plant.
Herbalists like Sally frame Plant Time as a sensate bodily state that involves slowing heart rates, attention to breath and the immediately present green growing world, greeting and thanking a plant, and “listening” for what it might have to “say.” I put these terms in quotation marks because they are imperfect representations of herbalists’ intended meanings: “listening” and “saying” represent the ways that humans sense plant communications viscerally and intuitively, with eyes and with ears. Biologists have recently demonstrated that arboreal entities such as trees, herbaceous shrubs, and grasses communicate with one another. For the most part, these communications are accomplished through pheromones released into the air, or through connections between plants in the soil facilitated by signals conveyed through mycorrhizal networks of fungus (aka the “wood wide web”). Some communications happen only between individuals of a particular species clustered near one another. For instance, a deer gnawing at the bark of a poplar tree can cause the tree to release a pheromonal signal that travels across the grove of trees of the same species, triggering a surge in the production of certain browse-deterring chemicals in the bark of its neighbors. Other cross-species communication relies on mycelial fungal networks to facilitate the exchange of resources—water and nutrients—among the root clusters of plants connected by that network.
Native, Indigenous, and First Nations peoples have long known that plants, as well as other critters, have the capacity to communicate. Anishinaabe scholar Wendy Makoons Geniusz has pointed out that “traditional knowledge” is imagined as both natural and idealized, while at the same time it is positioned as “primitive.” She suggests this is something that can only happen as a result of the ways that settlement and colonization unfolded in what is now called North America. Thus, while biologists’ “discovery” of plants’ abilities to exchange information and resources thrilled the world of Western biosciences, it was not news to everyone. The fact that plants communicate differently than humans should not be a barrier to understanding that they are capable of communication. As biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it,
[Science concluded] that plants cannot communicate because they lack the mechanisms that animals use to speak. . . . There is now compelling evidence that our [Indigenous] elders were right—the trees are talking to one another. . . . The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. . . . They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking.
Here Kimmerer describes a materially grounded approach to understanding plant communications. For her, “materials” include the interactions of molecular components such as carbohydrates as much as large-scale critters such as trees and deer. In order to think about what is involved in communication, she focuses on carbohydrates and pheromones. Though those material components might be microscopic in size, they are more tangible to the average reader schooled in and committed to the logics of Western biosciences than loose concepts such as “plant speech,” “energy,” or “intuition.” Each individual plant is because many plants and other critters are—in what Barad might call interagency,and what I think of as becoming animate together. Herbalists understand Plant Time as a mode of bodily attention that can help humans develop similar relational capacities. It blends biological frames with human sensory experience to posit that plants choose when, how, and with whom they communicate.
What might it mean for humans to become animate with plants? Herbalists contend that feeling our way into presence with plants can help us root ourselves, in the mess and muddle of our humanity, into the growing world of the planet we live with, whether green and lush or sandy, stark, and succulent. The world requires of us, as it always has, that we pay attention—to our bodies, to the experiences of other humans, to the cycles of living and dying of the critters who share the world with us.
Human bodies, like plants, offer evidence for what is occurring. We hurt, we grieve, we startle, we anger, we fear, we sicken and die, we shout with joy and welcome. If Plant Time’s bodily practices teach us how to pay attention, then we may be able to tune in more clearly to the ways that these reactions demonstrate our ability to become animate with plants and the rest of the world. Barad’s notion that agency only emerges in relationship, in intra-action, grounds my articulation of Plant Time as a bodily method for learning how we become animate, intentionally, with plants. Our bodies can teach us how to open possibilities beyond what we already know to be failed practices—extraction, colonization, a culture of control and power and profit. For the herbalists who use it, becoming attuned to Plant Time is a learned shifting of bodily sensibility. Changing corporeal orientations to others—starting at the intimate and moving outward into reshaping community, polity, and ecology—can change the world as we know it, and Plant Time changes how we know the world. This is what the plants can teach us.
Stories of the (Near) Future
The question plagued her as she wandered around the encampment, unable to work. She hadn’t been sleeping well, waiting for what she thought was coming next, and what she knew had already happened. Years earlier her teacher had told her that without the ability to listen to plants, whatever that meant, humans’ lives would end—or their meaning might. The teacher had demanded that she remember the right questions. What kind of kin are plants? She turned toward the edge of the cleared area, walking up to a small flowering tree. A few offerings of shell and glass and bone and metal, remnants from the lost twentieth-century world she barely recalled, rested on a sun-heated boulder beside the tree. She put her palm to its trunk, sharing her name silently, thanking the tree for its presence, asking to sit with it. Settling on the broken ground at its roots, she leaned on the trunk and closed her eyes. The sounds of the camp blended with the sounds of its beyond, past the tree. What kind of kin are plants? I can’t remember. Tree, can you help? She paused, remembering to listen.
Friends. We can be friends. Still.
She opened her eyes. The sun shone through the blowing patches of silica particulate, glinting and shimmering. A bird—she thought maybe it was a robin, but she’d never been sure what they sounded like—croaked through its soot-scarred throat. As she looked toward the center tent where the circle would shortly start, she noticed more. Her belly felt settled, her brain-body clear. She had only asked and heard those few things in words, probably not the tree’s words—her own translation. But still, she felt clearer than when she had sat down. She felt ready for the questions the council would ask each other—ready to ask them to remember their training, ready to ask them to bring that kind of attention and clarity back to their conversing. She smiled, palmed the tree in thanks as she stood, and pulled a few strands of her hair to leave with the shells and metal and glass.
Another Path: Sehnsucht
1. See Natasha Myers, “Ungrid-able Ecologies: Decolonizing the Ecological Sensorium in a 10,000 Year-Old NaturalCultural Happening,” Catalyst 3, no. 2 (2017): 1–24. See also Natasha Myers, Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015); and Myers, “Sensing Botanical Sensoria: A Kriya for Cultivating Your Inner Plant,” Centre for Imaginative Ethnography, n.d., http://imaginativeethnography.org/.
2. See Alex Nading, Mosquito Trails (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); and Eben Kirksey, Emergent Ecologies (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).
3. See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); and “Intra-actions: Interview of Karen Barad by Adam Kleinman,” Mousse 34 (2012): 76–81.
4. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway; Karen Barad, “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am,” differences 23, no. 3 (2012); and Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016).
5. See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013).
6. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization 1, no. 1 (2012).
7. See Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions, 2015); and Sabine C. Jung, Ainhoa Martínez-Medina, Juan A. López-Ráez, and María J. Pozo, “Mycorrhiza-Induced Resistance and Priming of Plant Defenses,” Journal of Chemical Ecology 38, no. 6 (2012): 651–64.
8. Suzanne W. Simard, David A. Perry, Melanie D. Jones, David D. Myrold, Daniel M. Durall, and Randy Molina, “Net Transfer of Carbon between Ectomycorrhizal Tree Species in the Field,” Nature 388, no. 6642 (1997): 579–82.
9. See Wendy Makoons Geniusz, Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2009).
10. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 20.