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Special N.04 – The Herbarium Tales


by Prudence Gibson

The Herbarium Tales project seeks to find out how plant-human connections have changed and asks what relevance plant collections hold in a changing world. Nonhuman-to-human divisions have eased in recent theoretical discourse, informed partly by Indigenous kinship concepts, partly by changes to gender and species identity structures, and partly by climate change. In addition, Australian histories of human-plant relations have been seared by Imperial coloniality and its related pilfering and violence. Not to mention that plants are potent sources of medicine and altered states. All these diverse cultural and aesthetic issues are implicit in the herbarium collection of dried and pressed plants.

But, for our project, we had to work out how these plant-human stories could be shared, expressed and re-presented? The Herbarium Tales project, funded by the Australian Research Council, considers how the herbarium plant collection addresses multi-species entanglements in biopolitical times. And, it makes connections between plant ontologies, politics, ethics and art—as noted in my 2018 book The Plant Contract—as an important trajectory of critical plant studies conversations about the independent and agented nature of plants.

With this in mind, I contacted Amanda Lucas-Frith, editor of Plumwood Mountain Journal to collaborate on a poetry project. Together, we aimed to interrogate how poets might interpret the plant collection. Amanda commissioned several poets to choose a plant specimen to respond to. The results were a suite of rich and raw poems that connect with nature philosophy, contentious naming issues, Indigenous critiques of colonial systems and an evocation of the cross-disciplinary vectors of plant life.

We were later contacted by AIATSIS to see if we could assist some of the poets in turning their poems into performative videos, to be shown at the 2022 Edinburgh Festival’s House of Oz. This has meant that a slice of Australian poetry has now been performed to an international audience. Amanda and I have more human-plant work to complete, along this volatile and plant-centric path. If there are 1.4 million plants in the herbarium collection, perhaps we need to keep going until we address every single one.

Published: November 2022
Prudence Gibson

is an academic at UNSW and the author of three books on plant philosophy and art, most recently The Plant Contract (Brill, 2018). She is Lead Investigator of The Herbarium Tales, a project that re-values plants in the National Herbarium of New South Wales. The Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub and the Mission Beach mangroves are a particular research interest. Her next book, The Plant Thieves (NewSouth Books, 2023) will be published in May 2023 and addresses issues of decolonising plant structures, psychedelic plants and regeneration through the arts.

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.