The Flood
Cultivating Memory A friend of the author posts pictures of her garden to social media. The chili plants the gardener grows in the US remind her of her father living in a refugee camp. Image courtesy of the author.

Cultivating Memory

The Politics and Poetics of Gardening in Exile

By Terese V. Gagnon \ 2019-06-02

Plants can serve as portals to re-open connections – or to create new connections – to different places, times and socialites. This holds true on both a personal and collective level. Scholars have observed this phenomenon across multiple continents (Aistara 2014; Archembault 2016; Gold & Gujar 2002; Jordan 2015; Nazarea 2005; Seremetakis 1994; Tsing 2015). It seems to be true also for many Karen people from mountainous areas of southeast Burma (Myanmar). In the context of a nearly 70-year-long civil war with the Burmese military and associated mass displacement, many Karen living in unfamiliar nations maintain aspects of their identity, social relationships, and connections to home in part through the cultivation and seeking out of familiar plants and foods. Here biodiversity itself—in the form of gardens, foraged plants, or prepared food—appears to provide a potent site for the performance of social imaginaries central to “Karen identity”, in all its complexity and variety. This civil war between Karen armed groups, the Karen National Liberation Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and the Burmese military is currently among the longest wars in the world. Though there has been a ceasefire in place since 2012, in March 2018 and again in January 2019 there has been renewed fighting and once again a significant number of Karen people have become Internally Displaced as the Burmese military violated the terms of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (KPSN 2018).

Many Karen understand this war as being fought for the sovereignty of their land and the right to cultural difference as well as basic physical survival. People who identity as Karen comprise an incredibly diverse group, including many who live in major metropolitan areas such as Yangon, and a majority who do not partake in armed struggle (Maung Thawnghmung 2013). However, many Karen from rural, mountainous regions of southeast Burma derive a living from the shifting cultivation of rice, gardening of select plant varieties, and sophisticated agroforestry. This has been shown to help facilitate the prolific biodiversity of the region. Knowledge, techniques, and customs connected to plants play an important role in Karen culture and identity (KESAN 2005). Furthermore, the wellbeing of plant species, like that of non-human animals, is often understood as directly linked to human physical and spiritual wellbeing. Yet, due to protracted war and more recently, widespread land grabbing, hundreds of thousands of Karen people have been displaced from their homes in recent decades as internally displaced persons, international refugees, and migrant laborers.

In numerous instances Karen villages have been burned or newly appropriated for the development of extractive industries (Human Rights Watch 2016). In the process many traditional agricultural practices and forms of communal land management have been disrupted. In the context of this large-scale dispossession and violent ruptures of home and community, I ask: how do Karen forced migrants hold on to aspects of identity and collective memory through engagements with food and plants? How does more-than-human collective memory emerge differently in different types of spaces, from fraught sanctuaries to fertile, if tenuous, itineraries?

Here I explore a few ways that home and heterogeneous forms of collective remembering are materialized and performed at the intersection of people, plants and food. I focus especially on the ways sensory experience, social relationships, values, knowledge, emotion, and embodied techniques—which I collectively refer to as “affective ecologies” —serve to (re)create Kareness across these different spaces.

More-Than-Human Movements Plants and seeds can be powerful vectors of collective memory: transmitting skills, knowledge, taste, myth and nostalgia. Yet, they are not static repositories of biological and cultural memory. Inspired by the work of scholars such as Guntra Aistara, Ann Gold, Virginia Nazarea, and C. Nadia Sermetakis I am curious about the ability of plants and their materiality, experienced through the senses, to call forth in humans embodied motions, deep-seated memories and social imaginaries (Aistara 2014; Gold 1998; Nazarea 2005; Seremetakis 1994). It is in significant part through engagements with plants as elements of food and place that we come to know the world experientially and symbolically. Plants, whether we are cognizant of it or not, influence our social, economic and spiritual relationships. These relationships encompass intimate entanglements with other beings that, together with us humans, constitute life-worlds.

The cultivation, cooking and consumption of food are especially rich sites for the investigation of memory and embodiment. They represent an intersection of the personal and the social and are points where the interior/exterior divide dissolves. Human imagination comes to shape landscape through acts of cultivation. Reciprocally, elements of the landscape become incorporated into the body thorough consumption.

Gardening, cooking and eating are all sites where collective norms become embodied or condensed at the level of the individual. As such they are involved in the transmission of “collective memory”, if such memory is inherently dynamic and internally contested. Nazarea (2005) and others (Barthal et al 2010; Hallam & Ingold 2014) have pointed to the importance of considering how collective memory exists across species boundaries: attending to the ways collective memory becomes lodged in and transmitted through the materiality of different relational and sensing bodies including humans and plants. Seremetakis (1994) most notably has explored the ever-present converse of this: how forgetting occurs or is enforced across more-than-human boundaries. As scholars have argued, memory is in essence tied to emotions and the body rather than being a purely visual recording of events (Barthal et al. 2010).

Ann Gold writes compellingly that, “food is identity, memory and locality” (Gold 2015, 546). What is more, through the alchemy of food these categories get mixed up. Food is a powerful mediator: bridging the divide between landscape and body, “nature” and “culture.” Foodways and the practices they entail—cultivation, processing, preparation and consumption—have special means of opening up habit-memory that shape bodies, identity, relationships and places. And if food is a fertile site for the investigation of memory “in place,” it is perhaps more so “out of place,” particularly in the context of dispossession and exile.

Gaston Gordillo illustrates the power of food to facilitate remembering in exile. For the Western Toba people of the Argentinian Chaco serving as migrant labors between two worlds of the bush and the plantation—the former a space of rurality, freedom and also hardship, and the later a place of wage labor and industrial landscape—wild food from the bush provided a source of strength (Gordillo 2004). This is similar to the ways in which many Karen refugees from rural areas of Karen State (Myanmar) use food, seeds, and plants to connect with fraught homelands and family members left behind.

Food memory emanates out from food itself, extending to the places, practices and even objects associated with food. Elizabeth Dunn writes of Georgian refugees who “elaborated palpable memories of their orchards and gardens that were often recounted in this desolate refugee camp, along with a deep sense of loss not only of the food but also of the act of making food, even the jars used for canning the bounty of gardens and orchards” ([Dunn 2015] Jordan 2015, 36). These mourned parts of their quotidian world, laden with meaning, for the time being could only be revisited through stories and vivid recollection. Yet, by keeping their memory alive it was hoped that they might one day be returned to or recreated, even if in foreign lands. Thus, the materiality of plants, the objects and actions involved in food’s production, and the landscape at large, together form a mimetic assemblage, in the sense that philosopher Manuel DeLanda elaborates assemblages (2016), where “the nature of the whole assemblage is contingent on the emergent properties that arise through relation of its parts” (as summarized by Ball 2016.)

A notable attribute of food is its ability to form pockets of possibility for the enactment of alternative realities, not in some utopic future but within the imperfect terrain of the present. Sutton et al. (2013), in their discussion of food in contemporary protest movements, observe that a notable aspect of these movements is that they have not solely been “directed toward a future overthrow of a political/economic order” but have “devoted considerable efforts toward creating alterative spaces and alternative forms of practice in the here and now” (Sutton et al. 2013, 347). Related to this are the ways numerous migrants and refugees create what Nazarea refers to as, “out-of-place-senses-of-place” (2005, 109) through gardening and culinary practices, cultivating miniature “wish landscapes” (Nazarea 2005, 42) of home within geographies of exile.

The well documented phenomenon of immigrant and refugee gardens and foraging is no doubt in part driven by the necessity of getting by on little income. Yet, there is good evidence that it is also motivated by a hunger for familiar flavors, esthetics and emotional nourishment often starkly lacking within humanitarian spaces and places of exile. The lengths and expenses to which many Karen refugees go to obtain foods of home in camps and especially in places of resettlement underscore this. These include planting gardens in tiny spaces available in refugee camps; paying as much as twenty-three USD/lb. for certain types of thorn and other wild delicacies at tiny Karen groceries in the U.S.; and spending limited money and time on the cultivation of gardens in backyards, abandoned lots, or acquired farmland. These are all practices I have observed or which have been described to me, taking place across the multiple continents where members of the Karen global diaspora now live.

In “artifacts laden with perceptual recall” (Seremetakis 1994, 10) such as herbs and vegetables from home that Karen refugees cultivate, often in marginal spaces, we find artifacts that make “the desire to journey back, or to re-create a place, less of a romantic anachronism and more of a real possibility” (Nazarea 2005, 114-115). Aistara writes about illicit Soviet heirloom seeds pertaining to the endearing Latvian tomato rebels. The so-called tomato rebels are a seed-saving couple who encountered legal trouble and fought back, with ardent community support, when caught by Latvian government officials disseminating the seeds of beloved local tomato varieties associated with the socialist past and the close-knit communities of their own childhoods, but not incorporated into the EU common catalogue. This example beautifully illustrates the capacity of plants and seeds—imbued with distinct social imaginaries and tied to places—to call forth the desire to perform specific forms of political ecology and economy across boundaries. This is even in the face of formidable efforts to enforce nationalism, concretize borders, and monetize exchange.

I have chosen the phrase “affective ecologies” to index this phenomenon because I want to draw attention to the emotional and material relationships that exist between bodies: human and other-than-human. In contemporary discourses of economics and conservation alike expertise is produced by a narrowing of focus. As Latour (2004) and Todd (2017) both point out, in such contexts entanglements of love and dependence are often elided. Scholars including Gibson-Graham, Latour, Tsing and Todd, have articulated the imperative of reintegrating these concepts to encompass the myriad ways our daily means of carving out a living influences our relationships with those around us —people, animals, plants, insects, fungi, bacteria, etc.—as well as our embodied perceptions of the world. All of these things are part of economy (Roelvink 2015). They are also constitutive of ecologies: ones of care and destruction. Here I seek to reclaim and reopen the concept of “ecology” to include its political, economic, and affective dimensions. Following Godillo I seek to bring together, “the experiential dimensions of place-making with the political economy that makes it possible by examining the materiality of memory, its embodiment in practice, and its constitution as a social force in the production of places” (Gordillo 2004, 5). I am additionally interested in the ways displacement may open windows for the performance of affective ecologies across transnational cartographies of exile.

As Gordillo relates, experiences of daily engagement constituting economies/ecologies can be manifest on a wide spectrum, from intimacy and joy to alienation and suffering (Gordillo 2004).  This intersects with Tsing’s discussion of mushroom-pickers in the pacific northwest and their articulation of the “freedom” of picking versus the confinement of wage labor in the cities. Through pickers’ experiences of “not work” in the forests vs. “work” in the cities, these landscapes come to be experienced differentially as landscapes of freedom vs. landscapes of entrapment (Tsing 2015). Tsing relates that these embodied and emotional dimensions of labor and exchange are far from limited to the human social realm. She states:

Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; carthorses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works.  If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition (Tsing 2015, 23).

Yet, what complexities are wrapped up in associations with plants of home for those who have been violently expelled? For many Karen refugees, what they are longing for and struggling for is deeply embrocated with the plants and landscapes of their “natives places”, as Karen friends of mine refer to the villages in which they were born and grew up. However, the political violence has been so long ongoing that few can now remember a time before it existed.

For a majority of Karen refugees, recollections of home are haunted by experiences of war, if also tied to memories of joy. Thus, the envisaged haven of a free Karen homeland has consistently been less than realized in the last half century.  What might this mean for transnational enactments of more-than-human collective memory? This leads me to a discussion of transnational places where Karen human-plant relationships are (re)weaving affective ecologies. These are ecologies interlaced with histories of violence and domination as well as various forms of solidarity and agency. Here more-than-human memory emerges differently across various spaces of home and exile.

Fraught Sanctuaries and Fertile Itineraries

Over the course of nine years I have spent time getting to know many Karen people—refugees especially—in the United States (Georgia and New York), and most recently, in northwest Thailand, and Karen State, Burma.  In 2011 as an undergraduate student of anthropology at the University of Georgia, I began tutoring the children of two Karen refugee families in particular who soon became an important and wonderful influence in my life. As I grew to be close friends with these families, I became increasingly involved in gardening with the mothers. This, in turn, became a research project and thesis (Gagnon 2013) that eventually led to my current dissertation research: tracing collective memory and forgetting transnationally through plants, gardens and peoples’ life projects within the Karen diaspora.

The women I got to know happened to have a great affinity for gardening and readily shared with me stories of their lives both in Burma and in the refugee camp where they had lived for several years, as well as the landscapes of escape in-between. Though these stories encompassed many aspects of their lives, they were often narrated through the language of food and plants. There are two women especially— Moo Paw and San Nie—to whom I owe much of my initial understanding of Karen refugees’ experiences and my nascent interest in the topic of plants and collective memory in exile.  During my time conducting this research I have witnessed some provocative patterns in Karen migrants' relationships to plants and foods. Most significant perhaps is the observation that even within relatively dire circumstances—while living in refugee camps or newly resettled in a third country—many people go out of their way to cultivate familiar plants from home, and to cook familiar foods, even when this requires considerable trouble and expense.

Based on the time commitment, and in certain cases even the potential to get in trouble with various forms of authority while easier options are available, it seems that these choices are deliberate. The food plants that Karen refugee gardeners frequently grow including bitter melon, long beans, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, watermelon, roselle, chillies, and more—as well as the practices of cooking and gardening seem to hold intrinsic value and meaning, perhaps describable as love and whimsy. This stands in sharp contrast to assumptions about human behavior based on theories of the maximization of individual benefit that can explain such gardens only in the terms of extrinsic value and only to the extent that they can be seen to help economize. Such gardens do serve to meet people’s basic needs of nourishment. But moreover, because gardeners end up sharing or giving away significant portions of the produce and dishes they have worked so hard to bring to fruition, it seems that these practices are also deeply bound up in reciprocity and building relationships between people. They constitute a form of sociality that extends out from the soil itself and encompasses various forms of cross-species care.

The importance of process is underscored by that fact that in upstate New York cities Karen residents consistently refuse to use raised beds for cultivation. This is even when the necessity of their use is extolled through special programming initiatives by public health officials because of the risk of lead poisoning and contamination from other toxins in the post-industrial soil. Karen friends of mine have articulated to me that the act of planting in the ground, reaching into the earth, is itself important to them.

During a meeting of adults and elders to which I was summoned one Saturday afternoon to discuss the planning of a garden it was explained to me that people would rather suffer the inconvenience of having to drive thirty minutes to be able to plant in the ground rather than plant in raised beds in an abandoned lot just a few minutes’ walk from their houses, where raised beds would be necessary because of post-industrial lead toxicity in the soil. At this same meeting, when trying to think about how I could assist this group of people who were trying to acquire additional land for gardening, I asked if seeds were needed. I was told that “some people do not have them, but others do.” They reassured me that among them “there is enough and we can share.”

This discussion of seed saving and sharing was not totally surprising to me, as friends in Georgia had explained to me previously how they do the same, even sometimes describing as best they could the types of seeds their family members living in the camps had, such as particular types of squash or gourd, and wishing that they could access these. Here the sharing of seeds between Karen refugees in third country resettlement sites not only recreates familiar social relationships in a new place but also symbolically connects people to family members far away. Though not all desired plants are present: some specific plant varieties are missed, their absence being verbally lamented.

The ability of such gardens to provide a means for establishing social bonds, demonstrating generosity and creating beauty is especially significant in a context where refugees are infrequently recognized and praised for their special abilities and contribution to resettlement communities beyond just being “hard workers” to fill low-wage manual jobs. These gardens provide herbs and vegetables that are key ingredients for Karen cooking that would be hard to procure otherwise. Yet, peoples’ dedication to tending them—often doing this on their only day off, and spending money on gas to drive out to garden plots—as well as the regular sharing of seeds and produce, points to a significance beyond use value.

The gardens themselves have an intrinsic value. This value includes but is not limited to the joy they bring to people through their sights, sounds and flavors, and the ways they bring people together and cohere places and lived experiences across the chasms of exile and alienation. In the wake of war and dispossession, human-plant relationships persist transnationally within humble but tremendously hopeful pockets of possibility.

An expanded version of this piece will be available as a chapter in the volume Categories of Remembrance and Forgetting: Itineraries and Sanctuaries, Virginia Nazarea and Terese Gagnon, Editors, forthcoming from University of Arizona Press.

Works Cited

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DeLanda, Manuel. 2016. Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

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Jordan, Jennifer A. 2015. Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Maung Thawnghmung, Ardeth. 2013. The “Other” Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms. Lanham, MD. Lexington Books.

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Nazarea, Virginia D., Robert E. Rhoades, and Jenna Andrews-Swann. 2013. Seeds of Resistance, Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Roelvink, Gerda, Kevin St. Martin, and J.K. Gibson-Graham, Eds. 2015. Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Seremetakis, C. Nadia. 1994. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. Boulder: Westview Press.

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Todd, Zoe. 2017. “Fish, Kin and Hope:  Tending to water violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory. Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Inquiry 43(1): 102-107.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Terese Gagnon is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Syracuse University studying the co-movement of Karen refugees with their seeds, plants and agricultural practices.