The great Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility newsletter hit my inbox last year with a book giveaway of The Plant Hunter: A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicines, by Cassandra Leah Quave. It’s not too often that my interest in disability culture crosses with my lay-person’s obsession with plant chemistry, so my curiosity was immediately piqued when I read the blurb that begins: “In The Plant Hunter, Dr. Quave weaves together science, botany, and memoir to tell us the extraordinary story of her own journey.” And Ends: “And as a person born with multiple congenital defects of her skeletal system, she’s done it all with just one leg. Filled with grit, tragedy, triumph, awe, and scientific discovery, her story illuminates how the path forward for medical discovery may be found in nature’s oldest remedies.”
I read The Plant Hunter closely in a few sittings and enjoyed every bit of it. I find Quave’s approach exciting and comforting even as I admit my limited unscientific understanding. Recognizing the importance of plant chemistry and how it might be preserved, appreciated, and studied with respect to both traditional medicine and the scientific method, speaks to the need for collapsing (illusory and racist) binary structures, such as “civilized” and “primitive,” and realize that the totality of what humans learned while we relied on plants for food, medicine, and so much more, offers us a way forward that respects human progress while curtailing the thoughtless and selfish destruction of our planet.
A profound appreciation of plant diversity and diversity of methodology are central themes. Looking back at my highlights, I find that I was most intrigued by Quave’s weaving ethnobotany with chemical analysis to observe plants in all their fullness—from stems and leaves and flowers to their potent molecules.
A few Plant Hunter highlights
I love how Quave learned to use all her senses in botanical collection and identification:
My professors taught me to use the totality of my senses in this exploration, whether I was examining a small herb, robust shrub, or large tree. Taking a bit of the leaf material between my fingers, I crushed and rubbed it back and forth beneath my nose, taking a deep breath to coat my nasal passage with its aroma—whether light and fragrant or deep and pungent. In my field notebook, I recorded the colors, shapes, and textures of the specimens, as well as noted the habit (the size and shape of the whole plant) and the habitat (where it grew and what other plants were nearby). I then sketched out the key features of each species I examined. I wasn’t exactly Leonardo da Vinci with my depictions, but my hand grew steadier and I learned to trust my eyes, which were becoming more discerning.
Quave learned to understand her disability as an integral part of her journey as a human:
I went to my garage. There, I have a box of old legs. Some are still in good shape. Others have not fared so well, the foam cover or the plastic foot nibbled on by rodents during the years they were left out in the barn behind my parents’ home. I lined up all twenty, from shortest to tallest. This battalion of legs would probably look morbid to most people, but for me it told a story. Each leg was its own chapter, its own era. Little soldiers standing at attention, each one represented a time of battle in my life when taking just one step forward required that I first overcome significant hurdles.
This book celebrates plant diversity:
Collections of plant specimens are fundamental to our understanding of global plant diversity[i]. Today, nearly 2,000 new plants are being named each year—each year!—and yet 2 in 5 plants are estimated to be threatened with extinction. Botanists are in a race to identify and track these species before they’re lost forever. Almost 450 years of collecting and cataloging plants has resulted in the need to curate more than 392 million specimens in 3,324 active herbaria spread across the globe.
* Happy #DisabilityPrideMonth! For the next few Footnotes, I’m excited to share a few of my favorite recent books by disabled authors.
* This is the third in my new series of “Footnotes on Books”—my answer to the book review—because there’s just too much to say about books I love! Check out my previous Footnote on Invisible Child HERE.
PS – #EbooksAreAccessibleBooks!
[i] Considering plant diversity juxtaposed with disability makes me think of biodiversity as a lens for respecting human difference—physical, sensorial, intellectual, etc. In her marvelous book, Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability (2019), renaissance scholar Elizabeth Bearden (who is blind) explores how the concept of biodiversity helps to undermine ideas of normalcy and to unravel binaries of natural vs. unnatural in general, but particularly here in her consideration of depictions of conjoined twins:
The experience of wonder that monsters incite in this instance is especially powerful at unmetaphoring. Unlike Mitchell and Snyder’s concept of the materiality of metaphor, in which the disabled body stands in as a figurative shortcut for negative cultural phenomena, such as the sick or monstrous body standing in for the sick or monstrous state, comparing monstrous bodies to grafted trees is not a figurative or cognitive shortcut. It draws attention both to the twins’ naturalness and to their marvelous contribution to biodiversity. The process of grafting trees can take place naturally when two plants inosculate, or grow together when their roots or trunks or branches touch, but humans also have for millennia been grafting different varietals of twigs, called a scion, onto a chosen trunk or rootstock. Grafting results in hybrid creatures that are beautiful and useful in their fecund diversity.