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Approaching the Arboreal Humanities

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Organizer: Richard Grusin

Co-Organizer: Caren Irr

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Trees are in the air these days. Forest ecologists describe how trees communicate with one another, as well as laying out the complex interdependency of trees, plants, and fungi. Contemporary writers publish large, sweeping novels about humanity from an arboreal perspective. And visual artists create projects that dramatize the ecological implications of deforestation or collaborate with trees as artistic agents and media. But scientific, literary, and artistic interest in trees is not a new phenomenon. Many indigenous peoples have complex legends, traditions, and practices involving trees as nonhuman people. From the classical era on and around the world, myths and stories about people turning into trees or vice versa have inspired numerous verbal and visual narratives, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Bellini’s Apollo and Daphne, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Chesnutt’s “Po’ Sandy.”

In light of this enduring interest in trees, we propose this seminar as an early foray into the arboreal humanities. What do we mean by this term?

The arboreal humanities begins as a subset of the environmental humanities. Like environmental humanities, whose urgency is intensified by global crises of climate change, environmental injustice, and other forms of "slow violence," arboreal humanities has become more pressing because of the intensification of extractive practices like clearcutting and deforestation, especially but not exclusively as a result of the negative impacts of these practices on global warming. Each shares a commitment to use humanities texts and methodologies to raise awareness of the historical roots, present-day circumstances, and future dangers of climate change in the era of the Anthropocene. And both seek to practice an interdisciplinary, comparative methodology that would overturn the academic divide between human and natural sciences.

But trees hold a particularly interesting place in the human imagination, not only because of the wide distribution of forests across most of the planet's biospheres but also because of their paradigmatic place in the emergent field of philosophical inquiry  known as "plant theory.” Plant theorists from Robin Kimmerer to Michael Marder have underscored the marginalization or exclusion of plants from the Western philosophical tradition. Plants are often placed at the bottom of a hierarchy of living organisms because of their lack (variously) of a soul, the ability to move, feelings, or sensation. The recent turn to plants in the popular and scholarly imagination has been intensified by the work of indigenous authors, whose traditions, unlike those predominant in the western world, have long treated plants (like human and nonhuman animals) as persons.

Our seminar invites scholars who have been pursuing the arboreal humanities (under whatever name) to help us develop an initial map of this nascent interdisciplinary, comparative field.


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