How to Interview a Plant: Step 3, Reflexivity

Paradoxically, my confidence that this is indeed ethnography increases as my anxieties multiply. They are all ones I recognize as common to fieldwork. First, I worry, ‘What if my site is uninteresting?’ What if nothing happens here? What if no one will talk to me? I get that last one out of the way pretty quickly. The plants and I will not be “speaking” as I’m foregoing linguistic models of data and analysis as much as possible. Or at least, I certainly will not talk to them directly, though there are suggestions that this would have a favorable effect on the plants. Then the worry arose that haunted me until the final draft of this book: what if I don’t spend enough time with these plant subjects to learn something significant? Since the advent of ethnography, few practitioners are immune to the anxiety that we have not stayed in the field long enough to comprehend fully a way of life or a worldview.

Disappointingly, looking back on it now, I assuage these worries by realizing I have representation to fall back upon—that which I was hoping to deemphasize. Yet I find comfort in the signage around me: two round green markers, each with numbers referencing recording on self-guided tour devices; an elevated legend for the Valencian botanist, Cavanilles; and the introductory placard explaining the display. I will at least have meaning to resort to if the interviews don’t go well. As it turns out, my confidence in these etiquettes was misplaced. It becomes a lesson in what plants do when they have their way with “representation.” They unravel it. As I eventually learn, one of these plants is a colonizing invasive that has outcompeted the one original placed in this display—the identifying etiquette is now a source of disinformation and will be removed.

The ethnographer "desk"

The ethnographer “desk”

But before I succumb to these temptations, something interesting dawns on me. I realize I can discern urban dwellers’ attention to plants like a finely honed cultural artifact. It is clearest here in this spot but it is evident throughout all three of the botanical gardens where I’m working. These humans are very unfocused in approaching plants. None, in the time I’m there, stop to look at the etiquettes, and few spend more than a handful of seconds in front of any one plant. These humans are doing what we generally do—walking around. Against that activity, as a backdrop, the sessile state of plants is heightened. Certainly, contrasting time-scales are evident. Few humans, myself included, can slow down enough to appreciate the movement of plants. But the rootedness of plants against our ingrained mobility may amplify the apparent disinterest in particular plants.

A mislabeled interloper

A mislabeled interloper

The other factor here is light. Humans hug the shade as they stroll, when it is available. Conversely, the plants on the slope before me are vying actively to soak up as much sun as they can. They’ve writhed and contorted to expose themselves to that which would kill me if I was bared to it for a length of time. We need sunlight too, but not in quantities that plants do. I can only stand being close to them for so long and then I’m back to my rock.

What do these reflections leave me with? A recognition of a requirement for multispecies fieldwork. When self-reflexivity became an expectation of ethnography in the 1990s, the focus was on social diacritics, principally race, gender, and class—the positions that inform and bias perspectives, which needed to be accounted for in devising cultural accounts. Today, perhaps a second-wave of the reflexive turn is upon us, when the diacritics are components of species being. What is it in my species-being that makes it so difficult for me to interact with these plants before me? My skin and proclivity for motion, for starters. Can I calibrate these in such a way that I can learn from a plant before my attention wanes or my body aches to move? The answer, I feel, lies in whether I can use the methods for observing plants in a way that provides some detachment from the determinate power of species being. I turn Holdrege, beginning now to do some drawings, cheered by his counsel that, “In this exercise we become keenly aware of all that we bring into every experience” (67), which resonates strongly with the charge to be self-reflexive.

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