by Alanna Mitchell
Their ancestors, cyanobacteria, evolved billions of years ago to perfect the art of eating sunlight. Because that process – photosynthesis – creates oxygen, and because there were so many of these organisms emitting so much oxygen, they eventually changed the makeup of the atmosphere. And since the chemistry of the atmosphere determines what can live on the planet, that means photosynthesizers became the architects of life. We buckle to their will.
And you could argue that those who study plants are seditious in their own way, too. Just ask Ann (Rusty) Shteir (honorary LLD ’06). A founder and director of York University’s graduate program in the School of Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies, now professor emerita, Shteir is one of the world’s foremost scholars of the long love affair between women and nature.
Her latest book, edited during the pandemic, is Flora’s Fieldworkers: Women and Botany in 19th-Century Canada. Based on presentations made at a workshop at York in 2017, this new collection is due to be published in the spring.
It’s part of Shteir’s lifelong passion to recover the lives of these erstwhile devotees of Flora, the goddess of plants. Many would have been lost but for Shteir’s work.
“I start with women. What can I learn about these women and what can we see through their stories?” she says.
Her research has taken her to slender entries in the archives of centuries past, when women had little access to scholarship or intellectual work. Some of the records survived by sheer serendipity, including, she reveals, a letter from one of her recent female subjects preserved because it was tucked into the folds of a letter written by her husband.
I love green and what green represents
During some of those eras, studying plants was one of the few socially acceptable scientific pursuits for women. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, women were collecting plants, identifying new ones, drawing them, pressing them in albums for the breakfast room, fashioning them out of wax and even writing popular science books about them. It was, as Shteir writes, considered both “amusement and improvement” for the female of the species. Studying these women and their work offers a glimpse into the power structures of the day, as well as the ways gender roles and ideology were enforced.
And it lends itself to unanswerable questions. What else would these women have studied had they had the chance? What was it that they derived from the work? Perhaps joy? A connection to nature? The opportunity to share their knowledge? Maybe a genteel kicking over of the traces?
The downside of this feminine passion for flowers was that, by the time the Victorian era drew near, plants had become so identified with women that men felt they had to wrest back control. For example, in a lecture in 1829, John Lindley, the first professor of botany at University College London, felt compelled to declare: “It has been very much the fashion of late years, in this country, to undervalue the importance of this science, and to consider it an amusement for ladies rather than an occupation for the serious thoughts of man.”
It amounted to a campaign to reposition the science of botany as male.
“My language is that he ‘defeminized’ botany,” Shteir tells me.
Shteir is not immune to Flora’s allure. She’s lived with a cherished staghorn fern for 53 years, among many other houseplants.
“I guess I’d be lost without plants,” she says.
Shteir can trace her own love of plants back to when she was a graduate student (her PhD in comparative literature is from Rutgers University in New Jersey). She chuckles as she remembers writing a paper comparing different translations of a poem by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca about loving the colour green.
“I love green,” she says. “I love green. And what green represents.”
Natasha Myers (MES ’01) does too. An associate professor of anthropology at York University, she describes not just falling in love with plants but being “abducted” by them three decades ago during an undergraduate class at McGill. Today, Myers, who tongue-in-cheek calls herself a “planthropologist” – which is to say an anthropologist of plants and people – is director of York’s Plant Studies Collaboratory.
That has been an incredible space for challenging all these colonial precepts about what a plant is and what a plant does
She had been on track to study biology when the abduction took place. Afterward, she found herself recoiling from looking at plants in a traditional scientific manner: dead on a dissecting table. To her, plants were far more than function or chemistry or discrete bits. She says she started to see botany as a colonial science through which all the Earth’s wealth began to be transferred.
And so, in line with emerging scholarship about how plants are sentient and intelligent and communicate with each other, she began to think about what plants get up to when they are alive. A dancer, she even began to dance plant movements, a feat she once demonstrated in one of Shteir’s graduate seminars.
For Myers, it comes down to acknowledging the unique world-making capacity photosynthesizers have. Which prompts a question: they do all that for us and other species – what can we do for them?
“If our future literally hinges on the future of plant life, for every reason – climate, water retention in the soil, purification of the water, the oxygen we breathe – then the question is, how do we reckon with these beings as being worthy of address?”
Like Shteir, she seeks to honour plant narratives that have not always had their due.
“There are other plant knowledges all around us that need to be held in conversation with the sciences,” she says. “Not as ‘Oh, it’s so nice that these people have these lovely beliefs,’ but we know what goes on because we have the universal truth of science.”
Myers has been deeply shaped by her work with the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle, a collective of Indigenous elders and others who came together in 2019 to weave a plan to restore High Park’s rare oak savannah landscapes. The savannahs feature widely spread oak trees interspersed with tall prairie grasses and wildflowers. They are sacred spaces where Indigenous ancestors once grew gardens, foraged for food and held ceremonies.
“That has been an incredible space for challenging all these colonial precepts about what a plant is and what a plant does, how plants can be in relation, and where the source of knowledge is,” she says.
She was fascinated to track the shifting relationship between people and plants during the pandemic. Forced to stay put (like plants) and worried about food scarcity, people gardened. Remember all those Instagram shots of celery stumps resprouting on kitchen windowsills?
“What I was observing was this urgent connection people were making with plants,” she says. “People experienced something really beautiful through quarantine, with plants.”
She even convinced her mother to liberate the front lawn and grow vegetables for the first time.
“Really beautiful adventures were had,” Myers says, laughing.
Lisa Der (née Tappenden; BA ’05) accomplished a similar floral rebellion. Der, a York graduate in psychology with a masters from OISE, is the adult education supervisor at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Her backyard is full of zucchini, spinach and tomatoes, with robust lashings of dandelions. The latter are for pollinators, and they love it.
I’ve become much less interested in the ornamental value of plants and more invested in building a personal garden that supports a healthy ecosystem
“I find as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much less interested in the ornamental value of plants and more invested in building a personal garden that supports a healthy ecosystem,” Der tells me.
It marks a radical shift from the gardens she knew when she was growing up. Then, the ideal was a pristine, motionless, weed-free lawn where wildlife was unwelcome. She sees her garden as habitat, as regeneration. And, because she is an educator at the botanical garden, she wants to help others nurture their relationship with the Earth.
“We can learn so much from plants,” Der says.
Strangely enough, the pandemic gave her an assist. Participation in the botanical garden’s online programs quadrupled this spring, compared to non-pandemic times. Der’s online workshop on botanical watercolour – a revered practice of the devotees of Flora in earlier centuries – was so popular this summer that she couldn’t fit everybody in. ■