Stuff Stories: A Still Life

Scroll this

This post is the second in our collaborative series with Histoire Source | Source Story about the “stuff” of environmental history. Check out the rest of the posts in the series here, and be sure to watch the Histoire Source | Source Story videos on the environmental histories of “outside.”


The still life is a rite of passage for the art student, but a discussion of what still life actually is predicates the satisfying drag of charcoal across paper. “All components must be non-living,” I can still hear the words of an exasperated high school art teacher of mine say, “yes, skulls and bones count. Bicycle wheels, too.” She defined it for us simply as a group of “inanimate objects” no longer connected to the force of their life, or those which never possessed life to begin with. The rowdy group of football players in the back of our classroom had seen an opportunity. “WHAT ABOUT ROADKILL!?”

Feminine voices interrupted. “Ew! Miss, what about flowers?” The sigh of a teacher who had lost the room escaped her. A bouquet of flowers cut from the living plant is a frequent component of still life, but does not keep well under hot studio lights in a room full of teenagers. Miss had thought of this. She reached into a high cabinet, produced a bunch of synthetic roses, and made a convincing case for pursuing botanical illustration at home.

In both art practice and environmental history, botanical specimens such as the cut flowers at the center of this lesson introduce important questions which only grew as I pursued my undergraduate degree in studio art years later. Dead, alive, or something in between, specimens are witness to history, and so can be powerful primary sources. As an environmental historian whose botanical art practice helps me to think about history, I often wonder: are my “specimen sources” an extension of non-human being, or are they inanimate “stuff?” For how long are they connected to a state of “being”, and when do they lose this and turn into “stuff”? Turning to Donna Haraway, historians can approach the “contact zone” of the questions reflected in the dialogue between my classmates and our teacher.1 They approach the same question in much the same way that Haraway does: “whom and what do I touch” when I touch my botanical specimen? Do I touch a living being or a thing?2

Dead or alive, when we touch plants, we touch environmental history. We can’t dig up and replant a diseased tree in the middle of a paper we’re writing about the history of the invasive parasite which is killing it – but we can photograph or render that tree to illustrate and explore our point. When we look at plants as primary sources – as something which has experienced history firsthand – we must analyze them as artifacts. Whether a digital photograph of litter entangled in a bramble or the collection of pinecones drying in my closet, this is where our analyses of plants can start to treat botanical specimens like “stuff.” 

And it doesn’t stop there. We use even more “stuff” to understand specimen sources as historians, artists, students, or teachers. I hold my specimens in plastic bags and tightly-sealed jars, and a camera is always nearby. The things which comprise the “stuff” of my studio – illustration boards and four-foot-tall coils of paper, boxes of pens, pencils and charcoal, dark room chemicals – sit next to the “stuff” of historical research — books, tabs in a browser, chargers, and external hard drives. All of this “stuff”, in a way, is its own still life; our ability to look to a rose in a vase with a critical eye, leaves laced by a parasite, into a source, is dependent on the web of “stuff” around it. 

Taking all of this “stuff” with us into the field can help us to think critically about Canadian and Northern North American environmental history. Plants are powerful teachers: grounded in place to the “one permanent context” in which they grew, as Cindy Myers reminds us, they offer a unique, fixed position to attest to the histories they have witnessed.3 But specimens are not only helpful in giving this kind of deeply-rooted context – and rarely are they as immobile as their roots would suggest. Excavations to create a new mouth for the Don River at Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh by Waterfront Toronto uncovered century-old seeds during the dig process in 2021 which were relocated to a nearby park. The cattails and hard stem bulrush were quick to wake in their new home, rooted to a new environment after a century of dormancy. And in 2019, the discovery of an extinct quinoa at another construction site in Brantford, Ontario provided context to the role of plant cultivation and trade by communities of Indigenous and First Peoples.

Importantly, the way we think about specimen sources can inform the way art and history can respectfully engage with the plants we treat as primary source. Specimens remind us that plants that appear to “rise from the dead” grow into their own mythologies. In 2015, a transnational effort spread the seed of a once-extinct strain of cucurbita maxima (Anishinaabe name “Gete Okosomin” – big old squash) in a story which began with the unearthing of its eight hundred and fifty year old seeds found at an archaeological dig site in Wisconsin. The seeds, and so, plants, were cultivated and thoughtfully shared by a land recovery project, eventually travelling to Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg where they took root under the care of students who grew, tended, and cultivated the squash to maturity before planning a celebratory harvest meal. When news reports spread falsehoods about the squash’s journey which skipped and sensationalized the steps along its journey, CMU Professor Kenton Lobe was quick to remind that the plants “[are] not an abstract archaeological thing [but] a way to connect back to the first people and acknowledge their agricultural heritage.” Though specimen “stuff” offers strong roots for historians and botanical artists, their place in history offers vital frameworks to mindfully thinking about the ways we look to plants as beings which historians and artists employ as primary source. The “stuff” we use to understand them become powerful teaching and learning tools.

Specimens of all kinds help us to understand Canadian environmental history, and no matter where we are in the world, or what form they take, creative approaches to the “stuff” of these sources can help historians to explore important questions. Looking to “specimen stuff” helps learners and teachers to frame and expand upon healthy discussions of transnational, imperial, and “more-than-human biopolitics,” and so, specimens make effective tools towards unsettling and decolonisation in the classroom.4 Exotic and profitable plants quickly twine their way into what Londa Schiebinger describes as “biocontact zones” of the settler state. So, how might the backyard or sidewalk specimens around you reflect the way historical models of colonial “paths” are being maintained or expanded upon today?5 What things do you, or your students or classmates, use to walk that path? Have you ever tried to identify, or even grow, a seed you found? What is it to collect a specimen responsibly as a settler-student, scholar, or teacher?6 Or to think of plant specimens for their relationships to stuff? New perspectives on Canadian environments grow and transform by thinking about these questions the way one might in a studio. Often, the “stuff” of these approaches are helpful co-authors of histories I write. How might they change the way you write yours?

I have found one question the most useful to my practice which I most encourage others to try. What might we see in a specimen as it journeys from non-human being to object in service to our considerations that you may only see if you take the time to examine it very, very closely? 

Cover image: C. Abbott. The author wishes to acknowledge the tremendous privilege which accompanies a sighted experience of visual art, of history, and of being. Please contact C. Abbott for further image description by email. Cover image description: a rendering of bare branches in black ink using ballpoint pen on a rectangular illustration board, set in portrait orientation, is weighted on the right-of-center side by four environmental history texts including Nature Shock by Jon T. Coleman, Secret Cures of Slaves (2017) and Plants and Empire (2004) by Londa Schiebinger, and the second edition of Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby (2015). The illustration board is lain out on a bare, grey floor. A silvertone ballpoint pen sits alongside an angular, black mechanical pencil with silvertone metal clip, eraser cap, and textured metal grip. Branches, foraged already dried as specimen, sit to the left of the illustration implements. The piece is unfinished, with pencil laying out the composition and only some branches fully rendered.

Notes

1 Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008).

2 Ibid. Haraway positions this questioning in particularly relevant relation to the botanical specimens this essay considers. Her introduction of this question, and the subsequent considerations of “figures” relate to her consideration “Jim’s Dog,” a long-dead stump in an area of preserved forest, moss-covered and assuming the shape of a domestic canid. If we are to consider the example of Jim’s Dog as a large botanical specimen, and pose the thought experiment of removing the dog from its environment, the moss which constructs its form would, depending on the studio environment it was introduced to, retain its non-human being for quite some time despite being truncated from the original environment from whence it came.

3 Myers, Cindy. “Sacred Communion: Recovering Self in the Environment, History, and Community in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day,” Indiana University Southeast Graduate Research Journal Vol.I Issue 1, 77-92 (2011). Myers’s “Sacred Communion” explores other pathways which will be of use to environmental historians looking to plants, minerals, fungi, and other non-human beings and “stuff” for pedagogical assistance and restoration.

4 Stephanie Rutherford’s “Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin: Wolves and the Making of Canada” explores the “more-than-human biopolitics” of canid-human relations. With regard to the consideration of botanical specimens, future work might find bridges between plant matter as “stuff” and non-human animal matter as “stuff” — hides, bones, traps, and teeth.

5 Londa Schiebinger’s work helpfully considers the role of imperialism within these contexts, most notably, Plants and Empire 2004 is a good foundational start. Schiebinger engages historic colonial “pathways” in ways which aptly mirror modern ones. This, too, may be a bridge for those using specimen source as teaching tool and for future work on this topic. (Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

6 Plants lend themselves to community activity which can be helpful to students and educators looking to explore environmental history with their students and bridge distances between student interests. Gianquitto 2022 offers one such example, and may provide a model for educators. Gianquitto, T., LaFauci, L. A case study in citizen environmental humanities: creating a participatory plant story website. J Environ Stud Sci 12327–340 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-021-00744-8v. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13412-021-00744-8#citeas.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.