Two publications by Roberta Grandi – both on Watership Down

I. “Anyway, What’s a Doe More or Less?” Androcentrism in Watership Down (1972) and Tales from Watership Down (1996) by Richard Adams

Abstract: When Adams’s Watership Down reached the US market, it came under strong criticism for “its anti-feminist bias” (Resh Thomas 1974: 311). Several years later, Le Guin reiterated the censure of its “egregious sexism” (2009: 82), taxing the novel with falsifying animal behaviour. However, through the comparison of Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964) and Adams’ text, it is possible to prove that the latter’s representation of rabbits’ society is actually strongly indebted to his source text for its blatant androcentrism. The sequel, Tales from Watership Down, published in 1996, ostensibly tries to give the does more “floodlight” (Adams in Monaghan 2011: 14) and make amends for some of the accusations received. However, as the paper highlights, while the novel undeniably conveys a strong ecological message, its point of view remains strenuously patriarchal.

II. «Animals don’t behave like men… They have dignity and animality». Richard Adams’s Watership Down and Interspecies Relationships in the Anthropocene

Abstract: When thinking of animals in children’s literature, the pictures that usually come to mind are those of anthropomorphized beasts “merely embodying human tropes» (Jaques 2015: 45), talking creatures that mirror human behaviour and oftentimes interact with men. However, in Watership Down (1972), thanks to the accurate study of rabbits’ social organization as described in Lockley’s The Private Life of The Rabbit (1964), Adams manages to offer the reader a full “immersion in lapine natural history» (Buell 2014: 411). In this anthropocenic world, the “contact zones» (Haraway 2008:4) between men and animals are configured as conflict regions where the rabbits fight their daily battle against their predators. Yet, while all other non-human animals “do what they have to do» driven by fundamental needs, human beings are the only creatures whose attitude is both gratuitous and catastrophic. The article focuses on the way in which Adams, by allowing the reader to adopt a defamiliarized point of view on human behaviour “gives agency to the earth» (Battista 2011: 159). Moreover, the study also analyses the relevance and consequence of the fact that in Watership Down animals are capable of fostering fruitful interspecies relationships and even forming alliances with other creatures. Hence, “humanity» becomes a derogative term effectively replaced by “animality» as the byword for a new, eco-centric non-exploitative attitude towards other fellow creatures.

Thor Hanson: The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History

In The Triumph of Seeds, conservation biologist Thor Hanson guides the reader through a fascinating exploration of the evolution of different types of seeds, from spores to coffee beans. Taking Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as his point of departure, he argues that “natural selection, like commerce, rewards a good product” (xxiii); a mechanism which ensures that successful evolutionary adaptations become the norm.

Hanson combines his biological expertise with a genuine enthusiasm for the subject of seed evolution, allowing the reader to discover the multifaceted organisms that seeds are, as well as how deeply they are entwined with human lives: “We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we might drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long” (xxiv). Hanson’s accessible style makes his expertise available to the reader, who may find him or herself similarly enthused by the intricate mechanisms of seed evolution and survival.

The book is subdivided into five sections, each focusing on a different quality pertaining to seeds: Seeds Nourish, Seeds Unite, Seeds Endure, Seeds Defend, and Seeds Travel. In each section a few species of plant are discussed more in depth, to exemplify the overarching quality. Under “Seeds Nourish” for instance, Hanson discusses grasses, several of which are significant food crops, and links them to early human civilisations.

In a pedagogical move, he compares seeds to “babies” that usually come packed with their own “lunch”, and manages to make the specificities of plant biology accessible to a lay audience:

In terms of lunch, most seeds use a nutritious product of pollination called endosperm, but various other tissues will do the job, including perisperm (yucca, coffee), hypocotyl (Brazil nut), or the megagametophyte preferred by conifers. Orchids don’t pack a lunch at all – their seeds simply pilfer the food they need from the fungi found in the soil. (Hanson 17)

Noting how all seeds share the common goal of “protecting, dispersing and feeding baby plants” he goes on to demonstrate how “the food in seeds gets eaten by a lot more things than baby plants” (ibid) – and not least by humans. In this rich volume, Hanson also discusses the survival strategies of seeds, seed banks, and seed longevity in relation to climate change. Thus, his book certainly provides food for thought.

30.12.2021 by Lykke Guanio-Uluru, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen

Plants in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Edited By Melanie Duckworth and Lykke Guanio-Uluru

From the forests of the tales of the Brothers Grimm to Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, from the flowers of Cicely May Barker’s fairies to the treehouse in Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s popular 13-Storey Treehouse series, trees and other plants have been enduring features of stories for children and young adults. Plants act as gateways to other worlds, as liminal spaces, as markers of permanence and change, and as metonyms of childhood and adolescence. This anthology is the first compilation devoted entirely to analysis of the representation of plants in children’s and young adult literatures, reflecting the recent surge of interest in cultural plant studies within the environmental humanities.

Mapping out and presenting an internationally inclusive view of plant representation in texts for children and young adults, the volume includes contributions examining European, American, Australian, and Asian literatures and contributes to the research fields of ecocriticism, critical plant studies, and the study of children’s and young adult literatures.

Read chapters by

Nina Goga and Lykke Guanio-Uluru

Analysing Plant Representation in Children’s Literature: The Phyto‑Analysis Map

By Lykke Guanio-Uluru

Recent biological research (Trewavas, 2003; Mancuso & Viola, 2013; Gagliano, 2018) has (re)demonstrated the variety and complexity of the adaptive behaviour of plants. In parallel with these findings, and in acknowledgement of the important role played by plants in the biosphere and climate of the planet, the representation of plants in philosophy, arts and literature has become an object of study within the environmental humanities. In response to the rapidly developing field of critical plant studies, the representation of plants in literatures for children and young adults are now accumulating. Even as the number of studies is increasing, there is as yet no cohesive framework for the analysis of plant representation in children’s literature. This article addresses this gap. Inspired by the Nature-in-Culture Matrix, an analytical figure that provides an overarching schema for ecocritical analysis of children’s texts and cultures (see Goga et al., 2018), this article presents an analytical framework for plant-oriented analysis, the Phyto-Analysis Map. This map has been developed with reference to central concepts from the field of critical plant studies, and its usefulness is elucidated through literary examples. Developed with children’s fiction in mind, the map also has potential application with children’s non-fiction, which often employs fictional textual techniques.

Read article here.

EMBODYING ENVIRONMENTAL RELATIONSHIP: A COMPARATIVE ECOCRITICAL ANALYSIS OF ‘JOURNEY’ AND ‘UNRAVEL’

By Lykke Guanio-Uluru

Departing from Jane Suzanne Carroll’s contention that “Landscapes are at once geographical and historical, natural and cultural, experienced and represented, and present a spatial interface between human culture and physical terrain” (2), this article draws on game studies (Aarseth; Sicart; Yee; Isbister) and on discussions of game design (Schell; Chen; Sahlin) to analyse the landscape and avatar design of Journey and Unravel. Developing the term semiotic register as an analytical lens, the article seeks to pin-point the means by which the two games move the player to adopt distinctly different attitudes and relationships to the games’ natural scenes. The article starts by positioning the study in relation to previous ecocritical analyses of games (Backe; Bianchi; Bohunicky; Chang; Lehner; Parham) and by discussing some aspects of indirect player management before analysing and comparing the two games in more detail.

Full text: https://ecozona.eu/article/view/3868

Wonderful theme next IRSCL

26th Biennial Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) Congress Theme: Ecologies of Childhood: Children’s Literature, Culture & the Environment Congress Venue: University of California, Santa Barbara

The Congress theme both reflects and prescribes young people’s relationship with the natural world. In our current moment of profound environmental crisis, we believe it has never been more important to consider childhood ecologies from diverse perspectives. 

We invite Congress participants to bring global ecologies to this international congress and engage the theme from the perspective of your own regions, cultures, and languages. We envision an event that celebrates the full cultural and linguistic diversity of our regions, both local and global. We hope to retain some of the benefits of the electronic form to enhance accessibility and global reach and to be environmentally conscious in the design of the Congress.

The 2023 IRSCL Congress logo was designed by award-winning San Francisco-based children’s book author and artist Maya Gonzalez to go with the theme. As she said, “whales have the largest hearts in the world and connect all continents through the sea.” We hope you feel the welcome it offers for our interconnected world to the 2023 congress.

Stay tuned for more information about the 2023 Congress on the newly launched website www.irscl2023.org.

Michael Marder: The philosopher’s plant. An intellectual herbarium (2014)

First, I must warn anyone thinking that this report will help them gain easy access to the book. I am in fact tempted to consider this more of a report on my reading of the book than a report on the book.

The first time I saw the title of Michael Marder’s book I was immediately fascinated because it made me curious about the link between two areas that have attracted me ever since I was a student. As a student in upper secondary school, I studied botany and part of the course was devoted to the collecting of 100 plants to complete a herbarium following certain predetermined criteria, such as it having a minimum of 20 species of moss (bryophytes). I loved that work, that is, I loved to walk in the woods, meadows, and moorlands, and to search for, study, compare, and speculate about species. The process of pressing and conserving was less interesting because I always felt that the plant was left alone on the paper, deprived of its context or natural environment. As a university student I studied the history of philosophy and specialized in aesthetics. Well, I was young and knew little about how to read the many companion texts that listed philosophers and explained their world views or their ways of turning the world into a system of thought. I remember that due to the monotonous style of the textbook authors, the various philosophers and systems almost merged into one and the same. Although Marder’s text manages to engage me as a reader in many ways, it still runs the risk of turning an exciting idea into an intellectual exercise following a standardized set-up.

Although, as Marder states, plants in philosophy are “consigned to a grey area between dead stones and living animals” (p. 210), the idea of the book is beautiful: Marder has walked the woods, meadows, and moorlands of philosophy and philosophers to study the role of plants in their texts and thinking. Or, as proclaimed in the prologue, “this book lifts the curtain on the significance of plants to the making (and growth) of thought” (p. xiv). To mention one telling example of how this works, I would like to mention Marder’s reading of Hegel and of how his philosophy of dialectics may be found in a passage about grapes: “In the transition from grapes to wine, nature is dialectically transformed into culture” (p. 153).

In addition to Hegel’s grapes, the vegetal life Marder has found in the philosophers’ texts is rich and promising, comprising the plane tree (Plato), wheat (Aristotle), the “great plant” (Plotinus), pears (Augustine), celery (Avicenna), the palm tree (Maimonides), blades of grass (Leibniz), the tulip (Kant), the apple tree (Heidegger), sunflowers (Derrida), and the water lily (Irigaray). Interestingly, the last one is the only female philosopher in Marder’s herbarium. This said, she is perhaps the most precious one if I understand him correctly. It seems to me that in Irigaray’s plant thinking Marder finds that “[e]verything Western philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have discarded and devalued about plants is lovingly retrieved, reassessed, and cultivated” (p. 219).

The structure of the book is classic: one chapter is dedicated to each philosopher (and plant), and presented in historical order according to the time of the philosopher’s work. The opening of each chapter is characterized by the intention to connect the reader of the book with the key plant, text, or botanical setting of the philosopher. In my opinion, these passages are decisive in connecting and engaging the reader with the rest of the chapter.

So, what did I find in Marder’s herbarium, which plants, thoughts, or linguistic descriptions attracted me the most? An overall observation I made was how long lived and deep rooted a rather limited mindset about plants is in our conceptions of everyday life and values. Like the powerful metaphor and observable facts about seeds, growth, and potential, or the fascinating trope about stealing (forbidden) fruit (see the chapter on Augustine’s pears). By reading Marder I think I have learned that plants often represent a challenge to a philosopher’s main system of thought and hence have either been forced to fit in (usually at a lower stage in some sort of hierarchy) or been relegated to an out-of-place or system-external position, appropriate for saying something crucial about the world that cannot be said based on the fundamental principle of thoughts – such as in the case of Kant’s tulip, which Marder summarizes in the following way:

«A beautiful flower may be too weak to take on the entire system of thought, which has slotted it within the structure of aesthetic judgement and harnessed it to the demands of      purposiveness without purpose. Of one thing we can be nonetheless sure: it does not              succumb to the sinister influence of idealization that performs a magical disappearing act, causing everything singular, imperfect, and concrete to dissolve in the mist of indifferent    abstraction.» (pp. 150-151)

It is both easy and tempting to pick or cut out passages from Marder’s text and press and conserve them in other contexts, or to graft them with other words to see if new meanings will unfold. In particular, I find the chapter on Derrida’s sunflower to be such a meadow of pickable paragraphs, of passages worth lifting out of context to continue to reflect upon or bear in mind. One such cutting is the following reminder, which I find applies to Derrida’s philosophical practice, to Marder’s book, and to academic works to come:

«Our virtual intellectual herbarium is itself a supplement to the real gardens, fields, and forests where plants grow. But the supplement in deconstruction always comes first, before what it supplements. It is on the basis of the prevailing idea of the plant and its significance (or insignificance) on the scale of beings that the so-called natural resources are managed and agriculture is organized on the industrial model. To change these practices we would first need to alter the supplementary notion of the plant.» (p. 198)

Finally, and perhaps only as a footnote, I would like to mention that I sometimes find it a little hard to distinguish Marder’s own thoughts and ideas about plants and philosophy from his free continuation, or rewriting, of each philosopher’s thinking. But perhaps this is how an organic plant-oriented text works; others’ texts and thoughts grow into or are sown in new texts and thoughts, and this is perhaps how it will continue to function, since “[p]hilosophy is (…) like a plant that metamorphoses as it grows” (p. 167).

10.10.2021 by Nina Goga, Professor, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen