Alisha Wilkinson

Writing with Plants: An Ethnographic Exercise


            My ethnographic exercise focuses on human-plant interactions and tries to challenge the way we understand the relationship between human and non-human life. While conducting these observations and writing about the experience, I considered the questions, how do we experience gardens? How do we interact with plants? How can we reconsider this interaction? Using two different approaches, I tried to represent the different ways we interact with non-human life. My ethnographic observation took place in a greenhouse that is carefully maintained to allow tropical plants to grow in Ottawa throughout the year. I chose to observe plants in this space because it embodies some of the assumptions about the human plant interaction I was hoping to challenge. According to Natasha Myers, human efforts to colonize plants rely on conventional ideas of where plants should be and what plants are desirable (Myers 2016). The greenhouse provides a space where plants deemed worthy are maintained, while those that are seen as ordinary or unimportant are kept separate. The observation took place shortly following an early snowfall, which highlighted the artificial and constructed nature of this space.

            Both the approaches I have taken rely, to some extent, on sensory observations and a sensorial approach to ethnographic writing. I employed this style as a way of reconsidering how we understand the interaction between humans and plants, and exploring new ways of representing this relationship in writing. By utilizing a variety of senses, and not prioritizing the visual, my ethnographic exercise considers a new way of relating to non-human life. However, I was also confronted with the challenge of considering how to write and think about plants without imposing human world views or understandings upon them. In my first ethnographic observation, I made the decision to use a descriptive style, drawing on Geertz’s (1973) concept of “thick description.” The focus of the observation is quite narrow, and I sought to provide a detailed description of one section of the garden. Although my sensory observations informed this piece, I tried not to write myself as the ethnographer directly into the text, and I avoided the use of the first person in an effort to maintain a focus on the plants. As part of this approach, I narrowed my focus to a single tree, carefully observing it and the way it existed within the space. With this approach I hope to convey the experience of paying particular attention to plants, without attempting to speak for the tree or its experience. My second approach to the ethnographic exercise differed in a number of ways, including the style, which was more reflexive. I was intrigued by the idea of auto-ethnography or the self-reflexive fieldwork account, and I tried to mirror some elements of that in my writing. In this description, I chose to place myself more directly in the text, writing in the first person and considering my personal reflections and embodied experience throughout the observation. I also chose to bring different things into focus by moving through the space. Through the combination of walking and taking a more reflexive approach, I hope to convey the experience of being with plants.


Approach #1

            The air is thick and warm. The heat settles over the plants and condensation collects on the windows obscuring the outside world, making it seem far away. Inside, a rich organic smell engulfs the room and everyone in it, and the air feels thick and I can’t help but move slowly. The earthy scent of soil mixes with a delicate floral aroma, drifting up from little blue and yellow flowers tucked away among leafy bushes. A tiny, cold breeze is smothered by a gust of warm air from the fans somewhere above, blowing the tropical heat and smell of life through the room and rustling the delicate leaves all around. Everything is green, the leaves, the vines, the stalks, the tiny buds, even the little green fruit dangling for the overhanging branches. The plants intertwine and tangle up with one another, swaying in the warm air blowing through the room. The plants are carefully placed in pots and planters, but these concrete boundaries fail to hold them back. There is evidence of human intervention all around, but the plants cannot be fully controlled or kept neatly in place. The leaves tumble to the ground, waiting to be swept away, and the vines hang over the concrete barriers. The plants push outward, filling the space, pressing against the foggy glass towards the unseen world outside. The fan shuts off and the room goes quiet. Other noises fill the void, a distant wind, a trickling fountain, water droplets landing on leaves. All these noises were there before, but now they are much louder. Suddenly, the sun shines through the foggy glass panes and casts a shadow across the plants. Light passes between the thick leaves, serving as a distant reminder of the world outside.

            Among the leafy ferns and small circular cactuses growing out of the soil, there is a round concrete planter. Inside is a single tree with a web of spindly roots growing up and out of the ground. The roots weave together into a delicate trunk that grows straight up towards the glass sky, seeking out light between the large leaves hanging above. Delicate branches break off, growing up, out, and away into the dense surrounding greenery. Tangling with the large waxy leaves and hanging vines, the branches blend into the plants around them. Unfamiliar leaves brush against the tree, and the surrounding vines threaten to wrap around the spindly trunk making it part of the larger collection of plants filling the room. But from each branch, poking out amongst the greenery, pink flowers bloom announcing this tree’s presence as it reaches out towards the sun.


Approach #2

            Walking along the path, I can feel the cold wind against my face, and I zip my coat up a bit more. The few remaining leaves blow in the wind, but the trees, with their thick branches and strong trunks, stand firm. Bracing against the cold, I hurry towards the glass door ahead, the snow crunching beneath my feet as my boots slide across the ice. The door clicks behind me and I am immediately met by a wave of heat. The smell is everywhere, the warm rich soil and the light fresh aroma of flowers hangs in the air. The whole space smells alive. The fans whirl overhead, blasting out artificial heat and filling the space with a humming noise that rings in my ears. There is a clicking from the heater, or perhaps the lights, and now it is all I can hear. I wonder if this annoys the plants, who are stuck here listening to it. I feel out of place, the cold still radiating from my body, but the heat is overwhelming. I feel myself warming up from the outside in and peel off my coat. The fans are working around me, creating a tropical breeze that feels very different than the cold wind outside. The room feels stifling, so much life all contained in one small space. The greenhouse seems like a different world, but I can still see the snow-covered trees outside. Through the window I watch as they sway in the wind I can no longer feel. Everything inside is controlled, a carefully maintained space that allows these plants to exist here, even though they should not be able to. I wonder if they feel out of place… Outside everything is waiting for the snow to thaw, but in here everything is alive - right at its peak. I move slowly, pausing often, looking closer at the plants all around me. They are growing everywhere, with flowers in all sizes and colours nestled amongst the leaves. Vines and stalks weave together, pushing out at the sides of the greenhouse and over the edges of the planters.

            The more I look around the room, the more I notice human intervention. Pots are scattered throughout the large planters, creating barriers between neighbours. The plants seem out of order, although I am not certain why. There is so much variety that it seems impossible they could belong together, and I begin to think they must feel odd growing next to these strangers. I want to touch the plants, reach out and feel them, but the sign says “Do NOT touch.” I reach out anyways, carefully rubbing the waxy leaves between my finger and letting the smaller leaves delicately tickle my palm. They do not quite seem real. I feel like I should get closer and look at each plant individually. I find myself zooming in closer with my camera, focusing on a single leaf. Suddenly, the fan clicks off. Silence. Everything seems quiet and still, but I slowly begin to notice the other noises around me. The trickling of water from the small fountain in the middle of the room as it tumbles down the rocks. The click of my camera seems loud. I wander down a small hall and a water droplet falls from above landing on my forehead. My heels tap on the concrete as I walk, and I can feel the plants brushing my sides as a push through the narrow passage. At the end of the hall there is a locked door. Through the foggy glass, I see plants growing under bright artificial lights, not ready to be on display. A man comes in, bundled up in a long winter coat with snow dripping off his boots as it melts. He unzips his jacket, and calls over, “It’s kind of surreal being in here in winter?” To which I quickly reply, “definitely…kind of bizarre.” He leaves, only lingering in the doorway a moment, and I wonder if he left because of me. I think people may want to be alone with the plants. I find that I want to be alone.  As he leaves, a gust of cold air rushes in and I feel myself shiver.  I sit down on the bench and close my eyes, letting the room wash over me.


            This exercise gave me the opportunity to explore different styles of ethnographic writing, and has given me the chance to employ some of the approaches to ethnographic writing I have seen in this class. The readings completed throughout the semester helped me to develop a better understanding of the different approaches to ethnographic writing. Some texts, such as Moretti’s chapter on walking, directly addressed ethnographic writing and research, and I was able to use these works to guide my work on this assignment (Moretti 2017). Meanwhile, the short excerpts and book length ethnographies illustrate the different approaches to anthropological writing, including item-based ethnography and imagistic ethnography. Through experimenting with two different styles of writing, I was able to consider my own ethnographic voice. While I did not arrive at my authentic ethnographic voice in either description, by being able to consider the ways I can change my writing I was forced to think about how I wanted my writing to sound. Deliberately creating two different descriptions by changing the tone, approach, and form helped me realize how writers can employ different voices and styles in different situations to achieve different effects. Whether it was using thick description and a narrow focus to highlight the plants or writing myself into the text to create a reflexive tone, these descriptions gave me opportunities to see how certain writing choices can be used to further a specific message. This assignment gave me the opportunity to reflect on the readings this semester, and consider the ways I can use what I have learned to experiment with my writing style and approach to ethnographic writing.



Myers, Natasha. 2016.  “Photosynthetic Mattering: Rooting into the Planthroposcene.” EASST/ 4S Meeting in Barcelona, September 3 Presentation on Elements Thinking Panel, co-                organized by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Natasha Myers, and Dimitris Papadopoulos.

Moretti, Cristina. 2017. “Chapter 5: Walking.” In A Different Kind of Ethnography: I maginativePractices and Creative Methodologies, edited by Dara Culhane and Denielle Elliott. North York, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.