Editor’s Note: This is the eighth post in the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
Ottawa in winter is somewhat apocalyptic. The city, despite its bureaucratic charm, lacks the infrastructure to foster strong social connections between November and April, leaving the city in hibernation. In January and February of 2022, resistance to connection was twofold: mandates against sociality were in full effect, and the Freedom Convoy1 had cemented its presence in the downtown core, seemingly protesting the offices of people with the privilege of working from home.
This period was, of course, the month-long window during which I had to complete my research on the foraging community in Ottawa. I had only a few weeks in February between receiving my ethics approval and the due date of my abstract, and I felt increasingly hopeless about connecting with interlocutors in any capacity beyond the digital. I was reluctant to even leave the house for groceries, so the idea of foraging alone felt like hurling myself into a populist tailgate for the sake of finding a few dried-up rosehips. During this time, I read obsessively about case count updates and analyses of the protest’s inception, paralyzed by anxiety and glued to my phone: I was essentially a voyeur to the historical moment unfolding in front of me.
Michel De Certeau talks about the voyeur in the city, or rather one who sees themselves as the author or spectator of the city experience.2 The rigid attention to learning through literature and mimicking scientific observers led to my falling into the paralyzing duality of self/other, researcher/subject, and human/plant. As De Certeau explains, “the lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more” strokes the urge to identify, to name, and to track, thus isolating embodied affect into a bias or limitation.3
Life went on, and my project deadline was fast approaching. I was hypnotized by the neverending scroll of the Foragers of Ottawa Facebook Group. In pure observation, the construction of the page makes for a compressed experience of time. With every post, I gleaned another expectation, another rule, and another layer of complexity to the ways in which one engages with foraging and the virtual foraging community as a whole. I was afraid to go outside and afraid of sharing what I learned, in fear of others and in fear of my ability to make sense of my observations. My supervisor encouraged me to look for the cracks in the miles of concrete and within the endless algorithm, to go for a walk and let myself move and be moved by the world around me. I needed just one plant to post on the Ottawa Foraging Network Facebook page to deliver something satisfying to my committee.
These realms of multispecies conversation are indeed the active practice of creating space through locative narrative, where the familiar space (like the front yard of my apartment) is defamiliarized.4 This narrative of place, mediated through the conversations on the Foragers of Ottawa Facebook group, foregrounds the embodied relation-making between the spatial and temporal histories of someone’s “familiar.”
I did (eventually) leave my house, keeping close to my neighbourhood while wearing a mask and earplugs. After three outings walking around Sandy Hill, Centretown, and Lowertown, I came close to my apartment, where just in front and slightly to the left, there was a thorny bush with oblong, dangling red berries. I hesitated to try one (does bright colour invite or caution?). Instead, I took a few pictures to capture the various elements of the plant. I posted them on the group later in the week, after nervously writing and re-writing my accompanying message to mimic what I had gleaned from extensive observation of the group’s dynamics between one another and with ecology itself.
Rather, it was through participation and dialoguing that I felt attuned to the lush plantworlds found in February’s Ottawa. My post (Figures 1, 2, and 3) was my attempt to be moved by the expectations set by the group; to go beyond what the plant could do for me and instead to centre the exchange of the interaction between myself and the plant. Describing the setting, how it interacts with my senses, and centring curiosity rather than domination was key. The digital forum allowed for a multiplicity of simultaneous engagements from other members of the community, including plant “ID’ing” (identification), debate, calls to use my photo to refine AI-identification apps, and sharing recipes (containing instructions and historical context of the dish). Employing the framework of embodied knowing is key here; being in and moving through the space, “doubly” so with the virtual trace of the Facebook community allows for participation in the liveliness of our multispecies community across temporal moments and spatial distance.5
bell hooks writes of the transformative power of different modes of speech as the foundation of a democratic education.6 To lean away from our tendency toward looking down upon7 and abstraction8 of our multispecies worlds is an act of resistance towards the ways of knowing that privilege exclusion and dissociation.9 Rather, conversation with and among our multispecies worlds fosters hooks’ call for “closeness”10 in learning communities. The Foragers of Ottawa is modulated on a platform designed for sociality and conversation. Each post is undoubtedly a dialogue between the plant, the ‘post-er’, the community, and the multiplicity of knowledge sharing archived in the group.
This form of dialoguing not only renewed my confidence and restored my curiosity, but it presents a manifestation of the active formation of interactive, multispecies dialogues during a period where space and connection were seemingly shrinking. For plants and humans alike, the multispecies dialogue of the Foragers of Ottawa seeks to lean into the complexity, multiplicity, and embodiment of its history, present, and future.
1 The Freedom Convoy is an ongoing protest movement that advocates against COVID-19 policy and vaccine mandates. The protest movement is still active across Canada, but the most intense and active period of the group occurred in downtown Ottawa from late January to late February 2022, resulting n the invocation of the Emergency Act. For further reference, see this article for general information on the early period of the protest in January 2022, and this page for more current analyses on the aftermath.
2 Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Randall (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984), 92-93.
3 de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” 92.
4 Jason Farman, “Site specificity, pervasive computing, and the reading interface,” In The Mobile Story: Narrative practices with locative technologies, ed. Jason Farman (London: Routledge, 2014), 5.
5 Jill Didur and Lai-Tze Fan, “Between Landscape and the Screen: Locative Media, Transitive Reading, and Environmental Storytelling,” Media Theory 2, no.1 (2018), 103.
6 bell hooks, “Democratic Education,” in Teaching Community (Boca Raton: Routledge, 2013), 43.
7 de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” 92.
8 Didur and Fan, “Between Landscape and the Screen,” 103.
9 hooks, “Democratic Education,” 49.
10 hooks, “Democratic Education,” 49.
de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” In The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by S. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 92-110. 1984.
Didur, Jill and Fan, Lai-Tze. “Between Landscape and the Screen: Locative Media, Transitive Reading, and Environmental Storytelling.” Media Theory 2, no. 1 (2018): 79-107. Retrieved from https://journalcontent.mediatheoryjournal.org/index.php/mt/article/view/37
Farman, Jason. “Site specificity, pervasive computing, and the reading interface.” In The Mobile Story: Narrative practices with locative technologies, edited by Jason Farman, 3-16. London: Routledge, 2014.
hooks, bell. “Democratic Education.” In Teaching Community : a Pedagogy of Hope, 41-51. Boca Raton: Routledge, 2013.