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#AAG2018, part 2 of 2

Megan Betz


Last week, in part 1 of 2, I shared the highlights of my time at the 2018 AAG annual meeting. While I enjoyed the critical thinking other sessions inspired me to do, the opportunity to co-organize two sessions (1, 2) on vegetal politics with Jake Fleming stands out as a turning point in how I think through, discuss, & write my multispecies work. The session was especially meaningful to me, as we received co-sponsorship from the following specialty groups:  Animal Geography, Biogeography, & Cultural and Political Ecology. Together with the diverse group of attendees, the sessions demonstrated a mass of interest among geographers in critically examining the role of plants in world-making and relationship-building, as well as an exploration of where this work "belongs"/happens/is needed in our discipline.

As seen in the session descriptions, the presentations covered a range of species, from crops intimately cultivated, to plants taken on as symbols of a changing state identity & relation to space, to plants used as means of labor reduction (or, perhaps, laborers themselves). While big questions still hung with each of the presenters (do plants have agency, can they work, are these the words that matter–even who are we to be talking about plants when there are so many human in need of our voice), one question offered by Julie Guthman, who identified herself as a vegetal geographer, has stuck with me: Why are we hinging these relationships on intimacy? Why is this the marker we're using to signal that plants are worthy of our critical analyses and attention?

While I don't think this is true in the emerging multispecies literature centering on plants–Tsing or Kosek, for example–it was a note that we each hit in our presentations & discussion that remains worth exploring. What does it bring to the table? What is it allowing us to miss? What is it saying about our positionality, work, and worldview if we are still demanding that to be noticed, plants participate in human-to-human-style relationships? 

I was happy to see Jared Margulies, our discussant in session 1, continue the conversation and begin taking up the other piece of this conversation that has stuck with me–the need to address that this is an explicitly Western-science approach to "re-discovering" and valuing plants as characters in the narratives of our work–in his blog post for BIOSEC. This was foregrounded in our session by both Juanita Sundberg, who addressed (in this session & elsewhere at #AAG2018) the need to decolonize our field work and develop means for equitably having work informed by non-Western science, and Daanish Mustafa, who pulled no punches in reminding us that–to paraphrase–Western science killed the cosmology of his/our ancestors only to now attempt their resurrection or reinvention (without similarly resurrecting the stories of those humans we marginalized & similarly pushed into extinction). 

It is this–thinking deeply on the voices that get cited & prioritized in my writing from this point forward–that has me feeling thankful to be at the beginning stages of writing my dissertation. So my question now is, how do I recenter on the works that most informed my own interest here, Kim Tallbear (as seen here) for example, while gracefully acknowledging that I am a White, cis, Westerner who can easily navigate space and who has the privilege to explore these relations, and while amplifying the knowledge of non-Western thinkers, theorists, and experts without appropriation?

To be frank, I'm struggling here–and that has a lot to do with the community I'm studying. While I'm influenced by Tallbear's work (and am explicitly distancing myself from other works that once held sway over my thinking, such as Jane Bennett and the chain/network of new materialism linking her back to Deleuze & Guattari), I am a White woman studying White folks in a very White space. I've been modeling my research methods & adapting my questions to reflect the community while also explicitly situating that knowledge production. The models I have to work from for decolonizing the field of geography are used when studying Indigenous, Native American, and First Nation populations–so that, similarly, the methods reflect the knowledge & voice of the community. (It is necessary to add that in these instances, more effort is also put into researching with the community–a feature that is framed differently in my own work.) There is significantly less risk of appropriation in those settings, as the producers of knowledge get equal voice, & such projects are incredibly fertile ground for offering new modes of reproducing the academy. 

So, really, this is a plea for help. Are there readings, methods, modes, advice you would recommend for navigating this? My plan for now is to continue being explicit about my own positionality, building a section into my work to say, "Look, this isn't new. We've given it little space in Western science, but other cultures & ways of knowing have been ahead of us for a long time. I am using a framework from within Western science to more accurately reflect the way in which the community articulated their experience to me, & the way that I experienced it based on my distinct way of being in the world." I look forward to building equitable, robust bridges among these ways of knowing, to listening, & to doing the work of decolonizing as best I can.

Thanks in advance for any resources you have to offer–and a final thanks again to those who attended & presented at our sessions. It was such a pleasure.