Q&A with Theresa L. Miller on Multispecies Ethnography

The Indigenous Canela of Brazil inhabit a vibrant multispecies community of nearly 3,000 people and over 300 types of cultivated and wild plants living together in a biome threatened with deforestation and climate change. In the face of these environmental threats, Canela women and men work to maintain riverbank and forest gardens and care for their growing crops, whom they consider to be, literally, children. This nurturing, loving relationship between people and plants—which offers a thought-provoking model for supporting multispecies survival and well-being throughout the world—is the focus of Theresa L. Miller’s new book Plant Kin: A Multispecies Ethnography in Indigenous Brazil.

We asked Theresa to explain the significance of her research, which reckons with the rapid environmental and climatic changes facing sensitive ecologies as the Anthropocene epoch unfolds.

Give us the elevator pitch for your research and the resulting book.

Plant Kin is about Indigenous peoples’ environmental knowledge and their resiliency to climate change. I pose the question: How do Indigenous peoples engage with their environment in meaningful ways, even as the environment is rapidly changing in the Anthropocene? For the Indigenous Canela of the Brazilian Cerrado, they engage with their environment through affectionate, caring relationships with nonhuman kin, especially plant kin. By examining these human-plant relationships through what I call a “sensory ethnobotany” approach, Plant Kin offers a way forward for climate change resilience strategies in the Anthropocene.

How did you get interested in the subject of your book?

I have been interested in working with Indigenous peoples since I was an undergraduate at American University making two documentary films on Aymara youth and feminist activists in Bolivia and Diné environmental activists in New Mexico. My interest in human-environment engagements and Indigenous peoples grew while I was working toward my masters degree at Oxford University and I began working in Brazil. Through a serendipitous connection with Dr. William Crocker from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, I visited the Canela village in July 2011 and was eventually adopted by my Canela family. Ever since, I have been connected to and deeply interested in understanding their life-world. Moreover, the ethnobotanical diversity that Canela gardeners manage is impressive and extremely beautiful. I was, and continue to be, drawn to the multi-sensory beauty of diverse human-plant relationships.

How do you interview a plant?

There are various strategies that scholars have offered on how to “interview” and ethnographically study plants (see Hartigan 2017; Myers 2017; among others). Plant Kin looks at this question ethnographically, through its focus on Indigenous life-worlds that have arguably the most complex and detailed ways of engaging with nonhuman kin (see TallBear 2011, 2016; Todd 2016). From an Indigenous Canela perspective, it becomes clear that people engage with plants through multi-sensory, embodied activities of naming and planting seeds and cuttings; tending, weeding, and singing ritually to growing crops; harvesting crops at the end of their life-cycles; and through specific shamanic communication with plants and their master-spirits. For my research, I participated in and observed these activities in multi-sensory and embodied ways in order to understand how Indigenous human-plant communication occurs. While the Canela do not consider themselves to be “interviewing” plants as such, there are ways that they closely engage and communicate with plants that is akin to scientific observation in the Western tradition, and that goes beyond this realm to consider plants as agentive subjects in the Canela community.

Tell us about the part of the world where your research is focused and why you chose this area.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a biome that covers nearly a quarter of Brazil’s territory and is being deforested more rapidly than the Amazon. The Cerrado has long been considered a “sacrifice zone,” as compared to the Amazon (Sawyer 2009; Oliveira and Hecht 2016), and here industrial cattle-ranching and soy and eucalyptus plantations are allowed to run rampant. This was particularly true of the Cerrado during the soy moratorium of 2006–2016 in the Amazon (Gibbs et al. 2015). The Cerrado is an extremely beautiful and diverse biome, with sweeping landscapes and brilliant red earth. I fell in love with the region and its people while living there and experiencing its seasons and ecological diversity. While the threats to the Cerrado are relatively well-understood within Brazil (and there are organizations that work exclusively on conserving this biome), worldwide much more is known about the Amazon and its threats. Plant Kin is an attempt to shed light on the plight—and also the beauty and resiliency—of the Cerrado and its socio-ecological diversity.

How do you see the Anthropocene in terms of “sensory ethnobotany”?

Sensory ethnobotany is the theoretical approach I put forward in the book to take seriously embodied, multi-sensory engagements among people and plants over time and in diverse contexts. The framework can help us understand the Anthropocene—a distinct epoch marked by human activity that has changed the “socio-economic and biophysical spheres” of the earth (Steffen et al. 2015)—in its focus on the lived realities of human-plant engagements in the past, the present, as well as by allowing for contemplations of what those realities could look like in the future. Sensory ethnobotany allows us to reconsider human-plant engagements as not purely economic or nutritional, but rather communicative, generative, caring, and sometimes grounded in kinship ties, as is the case for the Indigenous Canela. In this regard, sensory ethnobotany is a response to Natasha Myers’s (2017: 3-4) call for a “Planthroposcene” in which humans “make allies” with plants. In this way, sensory ethnobotany furthers the dialogue concerning multispecies engagements and how they can contribute to climate change resilience strategies.

In what ways can your work be read as political?

Although not explicitly stated as such, this book is deeply political in that it is grounded in understanding climate change and strategies to deal with and mitigate its effects, which unfortunately is a contested political and economic issue. As Brazil, the US, and other countries across the globe grapple with authoritarian regimes that are dismantling environmental protections and threatening Indigenous rights and livelihoods, the question becomes: how do we fight climate change in hostile political environments? I believe the answer can be found in taking seriously, working closely with, and letting Indigenous peoples lead climate resilience strategies. This is already occurring in Brazil as Indigenous peoples put themselves on the front lines to demand socio-ecological justice through protest movements, running for political office, and stopping policies that threaten Indigenous lives and the environment. Plant Kin is a call to support Indigenous resilience strategies and to make these strategies central to broader environmental decision-making and policymaking worldwide.

How does gender factor in to your research?

Gender is a key component of my research and informs the sensory ethnobotany approach and analysis of Indigenous human-plant relationships described in Plant Kin. For the Canela, as is common in Indigenous Lowland South American communities, the gender binary categories of male and female are crucial to understanding socio-economic, socio-political, socio-cultural, socio-ecological, and aesthetic aspects of the life-world. The gender binary of male/female informs Canela relationships with one another and with nonhuman kin. Yet there are important instances of both people and plants transgressing these gender binaries through third-gender or gender non-conforming identities, activities, and practices. I examine instances of genderqueer gardening in the book and elsewhere (Miller 2018), and it is an important aspect of human-plant relationships that should be explored further.

What do you hope readers, scholars, and researchers take away from your book?

The main point I hope readers take away from Plant Kin is the strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples and the environments they so carefully manage. I also hope that the multispecies embodied approach to nonhumans and especially plants is taken up at a much broader scale to inform not only scholarly discussion, but also everyday human-plant relationships and policymaking around environmental issues. I hope readers come away with a renewed respect for Indigenous worldviews and ways of being and becoming in the world, and are able to appreciate the ways that engaging with plant (and other nonhuman) kin can make the world a better, more inclusive, and more socio-ecologically just place.

Theresa L. Miller is an anthropologist working on environmental and social justice issues. She has worked at the Field Museum and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and is currently a Researcher at FrameWorks Institute in Washington, DC.