Poison, Power, and Possibility: Building Relations with Medicinal Plants will be my first book, and I am knee deep in creating it. In it, I attend to the poetics, politics, and practices of contemporary herbalists in North America, leaning on ethnographic research, botanical histories, and lived experience to examine what it takes to remedy what ails us.
The ethnographic bulk of the book centers on what kinds of politics, histories, and affective ties arise with herbalists and plants based on my fieldwork in herbalist teaching and making spaces in the United States, 2014-2018. Although there are extensive scholarly examinations of "exotic" and Indigenous medicines and biomedicine, few examine the environments of North American herbalisms with close attention to whiteness and imperial power. My interlocutors practice in the context of the settler-colonial nation-state, Federal regulatory bodies, and modes of knowledge production which privilege biomedicine (Boke 2019; Boke 2018; Schiebinger 2007; Geniusz 2009; Geniusz 2015; Derkatch 2016; Scheid 2002; Craig 2006; Hayden 2003; Fett 2002), even as they seek modes of escape from those structures of power.
I follow herbalists as they teach and relate with plants; observe as they learn from long histories of diverse plant relations; discuss with them the processes and consequences of their work. In an ethnographic arc interleaved with invitations for readerly engagement, I argue that herbalist practices for becoming-otherwise-with plants offer concrete steps to shift affects of belonging on and with earth.
Tendril, Echo, Palimpsest: A Brief Cultural History of the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Garden at the Mutter Museum [excerpt]
I am on Lenape Haki-nk, Lenni Lenape land during this work, along the Lenape Sipu, (settler name: Delaware River). Even though neither the settler U.S. Federal Government nor the settler State of Pennsylvania recognize the Lenape and other Indigenous nations that live within the lands seized under William Penn's name, the Lenape are still here.
The Mutter Museum sits on 22nd Street in Philadelphia, a city block or two away from the river. I can't quite see the water from here, though, as the city built up the ground leading up to the river. Approaching it from this, the east side, there's a steep drop to the riverside via stairs or ramp to the greenway park and its trails.
I walk out the side door of the museum, into the flagstone paved area graced by wide stone staircases on either side. I look up and to my left—the brick wall inside which the Historical Medical Library's archives are held. Past it, a parking lot, and 21st street's cafes.
I look straight ahead, over the stone wall that keeps a small child who might trundle along the wall from falling four feet or so into the azalea bushes in the garden. Across the garden, the broad masonry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Philadelphia is staid in the steep sunlight. I turn right and pass a sign telling me I am entering the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Garden—a sign erected in (date) after the most recent renaming.
Now I'm down where the plants are, below the impossibly tall holly tree—the Tree of Cos, which figures prominently in all records, a gift from [Greece]. Here, wedding parties in the white garden host intimate evenings of dance and laughter, bringing in much-needed financial stability for the museum ("Sir John Templeton Veranda and Medicinal Herb Garden – Events at College of Physicians of Philadelphia" n.d.).
Now I step across the hot pavers towards the herb circle, where indigo and thyme and aconite grow inside neat beds, where the scrappy and irregularly shaped nature of the many medicines means that the garden vibrates with texture.
The eye is disrupted by unexpected protrusions of plant parts not bred to within an inch of cultivar life. The old medicines and the new medicines hold court, strong enough to warrant occasional labels warning the visitor not to consume any plant parts.
There's a shade garden, a water garden, a hot and dry area. Some medicines here I know, others I remain curious about. I sit with my back to the wrought iron fence along 22nd street, with its firmly locked gate, and look across the lot, and imagine back through time, all the ways this space has been many places.
Land always holds more than one story. Though it is tempting to understand place as singular—that is, "a place"—generations of scholars' work, and millennia of elders' stories teach us otherwise. If we learn to listen, to pay attention, the onion-layering of time and space reveals itself in any place. In this article, I dwell in this garden through its extension in other media, as well as right there on the hot paving stones. I look at curatorial records, internal and institutional correspondence, building plans, meeting minutes, photographs, and anything else that seems to yield productive paths into thinking about what this garden is, has been, and was imagined for. Finding such paths helps me trace the work of tendrils, echoes, and palimpsests on the Land of this place.