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Plants We Live by: Ecocriticism and American Ethnobotanical Literature

Aubrey Streit Krug, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


If we as a settler American culture want to understand the social and ecological problem of our agriculture, learn where we are, and contribute to Indigenous efforts in decolonization and healing, we would do well to study the long-standing relationships with plants that Indigenous cultures have in the bioregions in which we have come to live. One way to begin is to read publicly-accessible texts about Indigenous plant knowledge. Anthropologists and scientists have catalogued Indigenous plant knowledge as ethnobotany, and I use their multi-lingual catalogs on the northern Great Plains as starting places for a more expansive conceptualization and analysis of texts that I identify as part of a tradition of American ethnobotanical literature. I provide ecocritical studies of key metaphors related to plants in these texts, including Indigenous fiction and non-fiction as well as stories of collaboration and interaction between Indigenous peoples, plants, and Euro-American writers. Authors whose work I examine include Melvin R. Gilmore, Wes Jackson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Paul Nabhan, John G. Neihardt, Michael Pollan, Carter Revard, Eden Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Gilbert L. Wilson. When we read ethnobotanical literature through a practice of listening rather than appropriation, we can begin to hear the complex resonance of the language used to connect plants and peoples: personhood metaphors such as friends and relatives; problem-solving metaphors such as roots and teachers; energetic metaphors such as producers and green machines; and planetary metaphors such as the garden and tree of life. By identifying and understanding the language people use in American ethnobotanical literature for knowing and relating to plants in the context of social, historical, agricultural, and ecological changes in plant-people relationships (that is, in the context of the environmental humanities), we can make more informed and creative choices about the ways we relate to the plants we live by.

Subject Area

American literature|Regional Studies|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Krug, Aubrey Streit, "Plants We Live by: Ecocriticism and American Ethnobotanical Literature" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10271907.