Environmental Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore poses the question, “What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of?” At EcoArts on the Palouse, we add how are the creative arts a form of knowledge and of caring?
WSU students Aidan Barger, Michael Ceffalo, Arabelle May, and Liz Webb, English Department alumni Darcy and Travis Greenwood, and I undertook a semester-long poetic experiment to answer this question. The Plant Poems Project was launched to write 20 poems to be included on signage for 20 native plant species taking root in the name of ecological restoration along Missouri Flat Creek. The creek restoration, part of a decades-long collaboration with the City of Pullman led by WSU School of Environment's Kayla Wakulich, works to correct settlement and infrastructure patterns that make flooding a problem. With its sinuosity restored and its native-to-the-Palouse plant community intact, the creek is better able to manage high water levels. And citizens of and visitors to Pullman are able to enjoy being among the plants and critters that inhabit this lush wild edge space near downtown Pullman.
For our part, over the semester we met regularly to discuss findings in the new field of Plant Studies, the philosophy of Ecospheric Care Work, and the indigenous concepts of kinship and reciprocity. We got to know the 20 native species as best we could through the late winter months and from our scattered locations across Washington State and the Inland Northwest as we connected through Zoom. We researched botanical aspects of these plants and their offerings to biotic community; we were able to begin to imagine each plant as part of the indigenous knowledge and cultures of this land, the homelands of the Pelúuc and Nimíipuu. The poems will call out to the passersby from signage along a walkway near the creek. It is just a start, an offering. A window onto how much nonindigenous learners have yet to learn about this place.
A few weeks into the project, Arabelle May (WSU-Vancouver, English Major) offered this observation:
If we can use language to communicate the sense of community we’ve experienced as a group working on this project, and the community we have with the more-than-human beings we’re writing about, then perhaps the people reading these poems will experience and want to be part of that community with the land. If we can use our language as a gift to give back to plants, in gratitude and reciprocation of the gifts they have given us, then perhaps our audience will appreciate and learn to take part in the “web of reciprocity” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, “The Serviceberry”).
While the drafting process was free form, the revision process was led by a set of Care Work Goals for the poems, such as countering “plant blindness,” a term environmental educators use to explain why some people don’t see plants amongst other environing elements in front of them. In terms of naming, Steve Gill (Botany/Archaeology PhD '83, WSU) shared a perspective gained from working with the Makah as they connected to the knowledge held by their elders. While Ecological Science emphasizes the “services” plants provide an ecosystem, we emphasized how we can serve plant communities in their efforts to build and sustain relationships that aid each other and the larger biotic community. I am grateful for the students and alumni who shared their time, intelligence, and imagination to make this project possible. We came to understand, following Robin Wall Kimmerer, why it is crucial to recognize that plants have knowledge for us about how to achieve ecological right relationship with the more-than-human world.