Weed gathering: ethnobotanical practices in a cosmopolitan society

You gave a talk at the 2007 UTS CONFERENCE ON COSMOPOLITAN CIVIL SOCIETIES at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

The Conference preamble:

What does cosmopolitanism mean in an age where globalisation is accompanied by the War on Terror and where unprecedented levels of international migration are accompanied by attacks on multiculturalism and heightened ‘border security’ politics?
What futures can we imagine for cosmopolitan civil societies as community advocates and organisations struggle against defunding and the silencing of independent voices?

The UTS Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre organized and hosted the event to address themes of:

* Community activism and social movements
* Migration and civil societies
* Civil Societies and the Third Sector
* Indigenous Australians and civil society
* Cosmopolitan cities and communities
* Popular education and cosmopolitan societies
* Cultural differences and creative practices
* Cosmopolitan diversity and civil societies in developing societies
* Cross cultural dialogues
* Civil Societies and the Environment
* Challenges and opportunities facing contemporary cosmopolitan societies

A pletaphora of various topic where presented with social examples like migrant minorities in Canada or feminist struggles in South Korea and Australia.

Your talk on weeds created good discussion, some for, other against the idea of using botanical species as analogy of immigration.
What you found is that many papers presented during the 2 days conference, aknowledged the same feeling of yours.

Below are the notes for the presentation:

Weed gathering: ethnobotanical practices in a cosmopolitan society

According to Cotton, in Ethnobotany. Principles and Applications,
ethnobotany is considered to encompass all studies which concern the mutual relationship between plants and traditional people.
Through my creative practice I document and analyse the possibilities and restrictions faced by various ethnic groups in Australia practicing an imported and ancestral relationship with the environment.
This paper will present the WeedyConnection project, an online resource aimed at showcasing non-native plants in a new light, opening up new interactions with the Australian environment.
I have always been interested in weeds, for different reasons in different places.
I was born and grew-up in a dairy farm in northern Italy, and together with the stock we also managed several acres of pastures for internal uses, corn and wheat for internal uses and external sales and poplar trees for sale to the timber industry.
We had Pigs and Goats, dairy cows and meat bulls, a vegetable patch and a small orchard.
I have been aware of the concept of weed since a tender age, when my parents use to send me down the potatoes patch to discern useful species from the unwanted ones.
Back then i knew already that the concept of weed is a construct, out of invested interest.
Nature doesn’t distinguish between good or bad species, we, humans, do.
For a myriad of different reasons, but all of them centered to our, human, benefit.
When i moved to Australia I worked in orchards for years, then garden centres, now art centres.
I was amazed when came into contact with the agricultural Australia, to learn about the legal restrains imposed on botanical species.
Here there is an act of government, the Noxious Weed Act 1993, a national piece of legislation, which dictates which plants are allowed or not to live in this country.
It goes much further. The act provides for a special branch of the law, administered by the department of agriculture and primary industries which legislate each non native plant in this country and a number of natives too.
The legislation informs a special task force of law enforcers, who go around far and wide giving $200 fines on the spot to anybody found guilty of not suppressing particular species according to the guidelines dictated by the Noxious Weed Act 1993.
A $200 on the spot fine to the farmer who doesn’t destroy a bush of blackberry down the bottom of his paddock, $200 on the spot fine to the orchardist who doesn’t make sure the willow down the creek is prevented from flowering and fruiting.
This is happenin in a continent were most of bio-diversity is been affected irreversibly by human intervention.
David Cole the biologist says “all wilderness ecosystems would be artificial constructs, to some extent conscious reconstructions of what human thinks is natural”
This is also happening in a continent where most of the environmental knowledge is lost, forever.
With the loss of aboriginal languages and cultures through two centuries of genocidal practice, we now have a social make-up in this continent that has minimal, if not nil, direct interaction with the environment.
I am not talking about farmers with cattle or sheep, or orchardist with apples, mangoes or the newly discovered olive trees. Those are a sector of our economy aimed at using the land untill there is no use anymore, see the woodchipping industry or cotton industry.
I am talking about the old person who takes the grandchildren down the creek and show the young listener how to collect, store and prepare that particular plant which will fix the sore knee.
I’m talking about an overall sentiment of belonging and placement.
How many of us know how to alleviate an headache without resorting to panadol?

I argue that in a cosmopolitan society, civil or not, the constant shift of cultures transplanting and reassessing themselves in alien environments (social and botanicals) foster a disconnection to local ecosystems.
This sentiment is mirrored also in the preamble of a university experimental degree offered at the University of Western Sydney Hawksbury, Social Ecology.
The guiding principles, as emphasised by Murray Bookchin were unity in diversity and complexity, spontaneity, complementary and mutualistic rather than hierarchical relationships, active, participatory democracy and bioregionalism.
The funding chair of Social Ecology, Stuart B. Hill, suggests the work of various accademics and social educators like Graham Ellis-Smith.
Graham teaches programs designed to reawaken the deep connection, which he believes, exists between humanity and nature, ”we are essentially calling forward something innate in every person at a deeper level”.
Sounds all very hippy and shamanistic, doesn’t it? But hey, as Jenny Monroe said about the struggles of indigenous peoples: ‘I am not ashamed in pulling in any support I can find”

As my argument just centres on the denial of cultural interaction.

I grew up in a country where, come spring, you get out and collect dandelions and wild asparagus as a seasonal treat, here in Australia I am denied the right to teach my daughters what a dandelion or wild asparagus looks like in the wild.
I am obliged by law to suppress and prevent them from fruiting.
Let me now provide an example, Boletus, the mushrooms.
Mushroom picking is a popular seasonal activity for many European cultures.
I can speak from my Italian background experience but other cultural groups such as Macedonian, Russian, Ex-Yugoslavian and Polish do just as much have a well entrained connection with the activity.
There is a fantastic essay about the cultural relationship of the polish community with the Belanglo State Forest, 1 and a half hour south of Sydney.
The writer, Max Kwiatkowsky, uses the practice as an example of non-Anglo-Celtic interpretation of landscape, and how this is something quite unseen or un-acknowledged by the main stream media/culture/policy makers.
As he states in his conclusion,
“ Belanglo Pine Plantation example counters commonly held assumption of ethnic spaces being primarily an urban phenomenon.
Patently, ethnic minority groups, whether Poles, Macedonian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greeks or others, do get out and about just like all other Australians at least occasionally leaving the cities for recreational purposes. It’s just that the places they like to visit, and the way they view and use such places, may significantly differ from the Anglo-Celtic norm.”
Not everybody goes bush camping, barbecue-fishing rod-and-boat ramp style.
In a exponentially cosmopolitan society like Australia different kind of culturally-driven interaction with the environment should be fostered, as rightful symbiosis.
With all of this research in mind I present my artistic argument.

In the past years I set-up audio and self-guided tours of various environments, as part of sculpture shows or residencies.
The tours guide participants through a number of display panels highlighting some plants commonly known as weeds.
I employ botanical species to metaphorically dispute the understanding of multiculturalism within the context of the Australian population, the plurality of cultures and genetic background and stories. Within a socio-ecological argument I acknowledge the various differences of costumes/customs which exists in our culturally diverse environment and highlight the traditional connections with introduced species.
The framing of “illegal” and unwanted flora within a spectacle context draws attention to the concept of “permissible species” as a social construct. Weeds are defined by a nation’s laws, and what is declared a weed in one place may be a precious resource in another. There is a significant metaphorical connection between this definition of “weed” and the arbitrary restriction imposed on human migration by national governments.
Cosmopolitan civil society acknowledges the interconnectedness of all life forms, yet political restrictions affect not only the human side of the equation.

In opposition to Natural Law, which is based on what is assumed to be the permanent characteristics of human nature, as understood in ethical philosophy, theology, law and social theory, Civil Society is seen as the enactment of Positive Law,
I am not very good with binarious contrasts but I would argue the concept of civil societies should embrace also an awareness of bioregionalism, acknowledging our very neighborhood as an ecosystem.
In terms of cosmopolitanism then, attentive considering should be given to the multifaceted reality of personal and group interaction with the ecosystem.
If civil societies are understood as conglomerates of civic organizations and institutions then i argue it should also acknowledge the environment in the equation.
We live in a biosphere, before a society.

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