When I introduced myself at the first HIAS fellow gathering, I blithely said I am studying seeds from an “environmental humanities” perspective. However, I forgot as I often do that Environmental Humanities is not a familiar term, let alone concept, for many people and it seems as if that might be a good place to begin.
By training I am a Germanistin – a scholar of German-speaking cultures, but especially of literature. My work often centers around familiar questions of how language is used to represent concepts, objects, and events, mostly in fictional works, and in my case primarily in contemporary literature. I am interested in gender, in the representation of history, and in the many ways literary narratives respond to the question of what a “national” culture means in the shadow of 20th century history and in the multinational spaces where German is spoken today.
However, the strongest thread in my research is environmental. I began working on the representation of environment in the works of W.G. Sebald at the end of what might be called the “first wave” of environmental work in the humanities in the US. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, scholars and creative writers engaged in what came to be known as “ecocriticism.” On the one hand, creative writers produced so-called “nature writing” which often but not always embraced a neo-romantic “back-to-the land” view of nature. On the other hand scholars sought for a deeper understanding of how so-called nature was represented in literature, particularly in the romantic era, and almost exclusively in English and American literature. German literature was late to the game, for a variety of good reasons, among them the political upheavals that were taking place during those years and the ways in which nature imagery was and still is appropriated by nationalist movements.
The field of Environmental Humanities developed from these ecocritical roots and has shifted toward embracing more capacious understandings of environment, no longer taking the concept of “nature” for granted, and responding to the complaint that ecocriticism was “undertheorized” by creating a burgeoning field of theoretical and philosophical works that attempt to bridge the gap between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Philosophers, cultural critics, and humanities scholars working in literature, art history, film, music, and other fields are increasingly asking the question what it even means to think of nature as something outside ourselves, insisting on the acknowledgment and study of agencies beyond the human, and, increasingly, looking to more diverse global cultures to learn about other cultures’ and contexts’ encounters with the environment.
This is the context out of which my recent work has developed. I focus on the concept of non-human agencies and the agency of matter to act, even without intention or even sentience. Like others working in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities, I am fascinated by the ways in which the environment – both “natural” and built – pushes back against us and shapes our behaviors. I am fascinated by how our understanding of the world can shift when we regard animals and other actors in the environment as having agency. And now, thanks to my fellowship at HIAS, I have time to extend these questions to the world of plants.
While in Hamburg, I am beginning work on a book project on cultural narratives and material practices around seeds and other forms of plant propagation, with special attention paid to weeds – or to use the fantastic German word, “Unkraut” – plants that almost don’t deserve to be called plants. I am exploring the ways in which we humans demonize weeds and other plants that propagate themselves beyond our control while simultaneously valorizing seeds and positioning seed collecting as an insurance policy for humanity’s future.
As ever, I will be studying the representation of seeds (and weeds) in literature, not only from Germany, but also from the anglophone world. Those narratives often, but not always, focus on humans’ ingenuity in making plants do what we want them to do. For example, think of Eduard’s sophisticated grafting of trees at the opening of Goethe’s Walhverwandtschaften or Elective Affinities. Here we see some wonderful unintentional(?) German wordplay at work – Eduard does his work training trees in the Baumschule or the tree school and also makes use of a classic piece of gardening equipment, a Setzkasten – or seed tray. However, not only is a Setzkasten a place for sprouting seeds, but it is also the tray printers use for sorting and storing pieces of moveable type. It makes sense, then, that this particular kind of garden work is deeply artistic, since seeds share a conceptual space with the letters that are used to write the poem that is the garden.
I focus on the concept of non-human agencies and the agency of matter to act, even without intention or even sentience.
This kind of metaphorical reading of plant matter in literature is not the only approach I will take. In recent years, environmental humanities scholars have increasingly called for attempts not to objectify or generalize in our work on other-than-human actors in the environment. Instead, we should learn from other disciplines and work with thinkers across the intellectual spectrum to regard specific species and individuals, rather than archetypes. For me, this means engaging in the interdisciplinary work of studying humans’ material interactions with plant matter. These will range from the mundane, my own garden fight against Bermuda grass – tellingly also known as dog’s tooth grass, or, even more luridly, devil’s grass, which spreads not only by seeds, but also by nearly ineradicable rhizomes as well as stolons, all the way to the futuristic, for instance the development of global seed vaults, the purpose of which is to secure genetic diversity and, thus, food sources for some indeterminate future.
My project will use the various mechanisms of vegetal reproduction as ways of thinking through humans’ interactions with plants as we face issues such as intensifying food insecurity, increasingly challenging agricultural conditions, food sovereignty and agricultural colonialism, and the urgency of the climate crisis. I will explore the ways in which plants are used literally and metaphorically to learn from the past and plan for futures in which we may be increasingly dependent on plants for our survival, whether through their ability to isolate carbon or provide sustenance.
I am thrilled for the opportunity to work with Dr. Thea Lautenschläger, the scientific director of the Hamburg Botanical Garden and to learn about the living and preserved botanical collections in the city. I am particularly interested in Hamburg’s role as a global shipping center in both colonial streams and in the tangible movement of plant matter around the world. As a humanities scholar, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work together with scientists on the one hand to further develop my understanding of the biological process at work and on the other hand to develop an interdisciplinary dialogue that may be of use in facing the climate crisis and can serve as a model to other humanities scholars working on the environment.
I am grateful to HIAS and the University for granting me the time and support to focus on research. As a professor at a small liberal arts college, my work weeks are primarily dominated by a heavy teaching load and advising responsibilities, as well as significant administrative work. Even having the time to prepare these few lines has felt like a luxury and I am thrilled to have the next months to delve into this exciting new project. I am also extremely grateful for HIAS’s support in relocating my family to Hamburg, without which I would not have been able to accept the fellowship.
On a final, personal note, I am also so happy to be back in Hamburg. Twenty years ago I spent a year studying abroad at the Universität Hamburg in the Institut für neuere Deutsche Literatur. That year was foundational for everything that has happened in my academic – and honestly, personal – life since. The chance to come back is truly a full circle experience for me. I decided to become an academic after a phenomenal intellectual experience in a seminar at the university and a conversation with my undergraduate adviser just down the street from HIAS, but truly it was the starry-eyed fantasy of returning to Hamburg as director of my study abroad program and living in the Gästehaus der Universität Hamburg that was decisive. While that particular career plan didn’t work out, this version is perhaps even better. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Emily Jones is Associate Professor of German Studies and Environmental Humanities at Whitman College. She engages material ecocritical theory, botany, environmental planning and policy, and economics in order to explore the valorization and demonization of seeds and other plant matter in discourses of climate change, sustainability, and agriculture. Her HIAS Fellowship 2023/2024 is provided by the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and the federal and state funds acquired by Universität Hamburg in the framework of its Excellence Strategy.
Stinging nettle (1739), Elizabeth Blackwell (Scottish, 1707– 1758)—Artvee, Public Domain