Gardening in the Anthropocene: A Q&A with MScSoc student Zoë Heine

James Beattie speaks with the inaugural recipient of our ‘Graduate Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Garden History’, Zoë Heine. A Masters of Science in Society student at Victoria University of Wellington, Zoë provides us with details about her research project, the work that has influenced it, and more!

Zoe Heine photo for application
Zoë Heine.

Tell us about your current project?

My thesis seeks to tell stories located in gardens about the “Anthropocene”. I have selected community gardens to study because they are sites of multi-species interactions, cultivated ecologies and distinct communities. I know that the “Anthropocene” is a contested term but here I’m using it as a convenient word for the way human activity has caused significant disruption to Earth’s systems. My thesis considers how these disruptions require humankind to reconsider what practices still serve us and our companions on this planet.

When I began this project, I was interested in just how one aspect of the Anthropocene was present in gardens; climate change. I wanted to know how gardeners thought about the seasons of gardening and about weather, and how they tied this to climate change.  What I found was that this narrowing on one aspect of the Anthropocene was unnecessarily limiting.  To quote Donna Harraway, “It’s more than climate change; it’s also extraordinary burdens of toxic chemistry, mining, depletion of lakes and rivers under and above ground, ecosystem simplification, vast genocides of people and other critters…”. As a result, different sections of this thesis consider how a patch of garden might interact with different aspects of these issues.

Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo (a sociologist) has undertaken various studies in gardens, both private and public, and has proven valuable in framing my study in gardens. In her words – “I love gardens, and I cannot imagine having the self-discipline to research and write on a topic that I do not care about deeply… But I also think gardens reflect prevailing social relations of power, culture, race, class, and gender, and there are significant social and environmental consequences connected to the way we garden”.

I chose community gardens as my specific garden site and used the public info on community gardens to contact all the Wellington gardens. I found eight gardeners at four gardens willing to talk to me. I have interviewed them all once and I am in the process on interviewing them for a second time (for Spring thoughts). The double interview/visit to the garden ties into ideas about seasonal changes and by extension larger cycles of change.

I have used a mixed methodology approach, including oral and environmental history techniques for the interviews. In combination with the interviews I have participated in gardening and made field notes at each site.

I am now trying to write the stories – these are currently loosely grouped into:

  • Locating the gardens spatially, temporally and theoretically as patches where the Anthropocene can be explored;
  • How the gardeners locate themselves within the gardens and spatially;
  • What and how things grow in the gardens – ideas of companions, cultivation, and community.

 

Whose work has influenced your thinking?

Anna Lowenpaut Tsing and her work with matsuke mushrooms has been foundational in developing my thinking. Tsing has done a lot of work looking at the drivers and impacts behind the Anthropocene. Her work considers how the Anthropocene is often presented as a global phenomenon but in reality it can only be experienced locally. Tsing, unlike other environmental humanities scholars, continues to use the term Anthropocene but adds an extra clarification, calling it the “patchy Anthropocene”. Her work on the matsuke mushroom and its global networks also tie into ideas around what species we ally with, and how we do so.

 

What do you hope to achieve with the project? 

Complete my Masters in Science. I’ve already built some lovely relationships with the community gardens and improved my gardening skills so that is a nice plus.

Write some interesting and engaging stories based in my community garden sites and, with permission of my participants (if relevant), submit them for publication in non-academic settings.

 

What do you plan to do with the award?

I have spent a portion of it already on purchasing Te Mahi Māra Hua Parakore – a Māori Food Sovereignty Handbook by Jessica Hutchings. I will likely purchase further gardening related texts. The rest will contribute to the printing costs and admin related to completing the thesis project.

Zoe in the garden
Zoë in the garden.

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