In this essay, I want to reflect upon the role of nature and plants within the pandemic and what they can tell us about the future of care and work. Within this pandemic, whether we are considering the organisation of mutual aid groups or the more spectacular shows of appreciation for health care workers with weekly claps, we have seen a rising concern for the work of care. I focus on how coronavirus has changed our relationships with plants through our increased gardening activities or the enforced absence of workers from public maintenance. Drawing on Silivia Federici’s (2019) discussion of re-enchantment, I explore how these changes may challenge the neoliberal status quo and offer potential sources of multi-species solidarity in the face of the dual crises of coronavirus and climate.
The Covid crisis has beheld a significant upsurge of interest in gardening and self-provisioning. Seed sales have reached record levels internationally, while the garden became a refuge for many furloughed workers. The move to open garden centres as soon as possible when lifting lockdown was partially attached to economic concerns. Amid a demand shock in the supermarkets, various programmes and opinion pieces were written about how to create spaces for food growing even in the smallest of urban spaces. But what about those plants that could be considered at a ‘distance from necessity’, to draw on Bourdieu, where the concern for their productivity in fulfilling immediate human needs, in their usage as potential food or even satisfying an aesthetic need, is not foremost on our minds?
Weeds are an interesting way to look at the relationship between work and care. The initial instinct to treat plants that do not fit within our own framings of ‘desirable’ in a garden as ‘weeds’ leads to a temptation to remove them. Work within home gardens in characterised by attempts to mark ‘territory’ and maintain a clearly defined ‘domestic’ space (Besky and Padwe, 2016) The work of caring for a privet hedge or maintaining a lawn from invasion by dandelions can also reflect a certain suburban conformity (Ginn, 2016). Allowing the dandelions or the weeds in the gaps of paving slabs to grow can often be seen as a lack of care – certainly by some neighbours who tire of you not meeting your obligations to maintain shared spaces or views. Yet, seeing how much attention a stray Welsh poppy or dandelion can get from bees can perhaps give us a slightly different view of care – our lack of labour has provided care for an array of insects. Sometimes caring requires us not to labour.
Recent campaigns such as ‘plants for pollinators’ often call for a further distance from necessity—a denial of even aesthetic interest—where plants are suggested because of how they can help bees, butterflies and other pollinators. These plants usually involve flowers that are not particularly aesthetically appealing, yet these campaigns can certainly be viewed as very popular. It is, however, only a further distance from necessity if framed in terms of individual gardens or gardener preferences rather than acknowledging interspecies interdependence. A walk through the streets of a city reveals the popularity of these campaigns with many front gardens containing combinations of rosemary, thyme, lavender and heathers. These ‘assemblages’ bring nature and culture together with the purpose of caring: addressing the damage done by agricultural and capitalist practices.
It would be easy to see these assemblages as simply another form of ‘ethical consumerism’ where individuals take it upon themselves to mitigate the effects of a ‘risk society’ or a governmentality to keep us within the confines of neoliberal authority. But perhaps instead we can see these as potential sources of resistance to the extinction and climate crises with these assemblages viewed as sources of solidarity and the gift of care. Indeed, as Tsing (2013) observes, though brought together by a commodified relationship there is always the possibility of ‘the gift’ within the commodity form.
The buddleia for example has a particularly complicated relationship with care. A former example of the spoils of colonial conquest (Rojek and Turner, 2001; see Besky, 2016 for related discussion), it was later in commodity form increasingly ‘beloved’ by gardeners for both their vivid colours and strong honey smell. Yet, it too can be associated with a lack of care. Gardeners who fail to ‘deadhead’ the flowers of their buddleia before their seeds disperse are seen as a key culprit for the plant going wild in urban landscapes. Indeed, the buddleia’s presence is often associated to environments associated with a lack of care, such as canals, derelict building sites and railways. Yet it is also associated with repopulation campaigns – its nickname as the ‘butterfly bush’ reflects its popularity with butterfly populations and it is seen as a very good source of nectar for bees too. So, although there may be ways of looking at the buddleia as lacking in care in urban environments, the act of care and solidarity does not necessarily even involve work.
The reaction to the coronavirus saw several initiatives to try and harness the enforced inactivity of lockdown. One such initiative is the ‘No Mow May’ appeal, which preceded the Covid-crisis over previous years, but became particularly prominent in public discourse during the lockdown. In this project, people do not cut their grass during the month of May to encourage greater bee numbers. Walking around the city and urban spaces during lockdown, one is also struck by the amount of ‘wildness’ in these spaces. Municipal councils, restricted by lockdowns and enforcing physical distancing practices, noticeably scaled back public works such as hedge trimming, grass cuttings and weeding. Walks or cycles along the canal in Glasgow were much more lively, with the rosebay willowherb acting as a set of runway lights of sorts on afternoon cycles in the summer weeks, coupled with the occasional dodge of an overgrown tree branch.
Ultimately these enforced absences of work/labour in urban spaces due to the coronavirus achieve what several campaigns to let plants run wild in urban spaces have struggled to accomplish over the past few years. Care is associated with activity which is profoundly moral and good and often attributed to (feminised) forms of labour. Yet, María Puig de la Bellacasa importantly argues that care is ‘non-normative’ – that for something to exist it has to have been cared for in some way. Anna Tsing’s (2015) fascinating study of the matsutake mushroom asks important questions about multispecies dependence within the ruins of capitalism. The matsutake mushroom itself emerges within the forests felled for capitalist development. Yet, Tsing also explores the possibilities of multispecies survival and what emerges from the decay of capitalism, whether that is alternative work on the margins of capitalism or new sources of hope. We can think about Covid-19 and our relationships with plants and with care similarly as a way of envisaging multispecies solidarity.
The widely ridiculed refrain on social media of ‘nature is healing’ drew our attention to the healing possibilities for nature when human presence was removed. Here, care involves simply stopping human activities – whether the human exploitation of animals which created the conditions for the coronavirus transmission, or the general capitalist expansion into ‘natural’ environments. Our struggles around coronavirus and climate crises are campaigns for greater levels of care and our acknowledged interdependence on each other and other species (see Care Collective, 2020). Considering the multiple crises we are dealing with, is it not better to see these various acts as ‘everyday re-enchantments’? In a time where neoliberal rationality has pushed market logic into all domains (Brown, 2015) perhaps these activities represent forms of resistance and re-enchantment. Where neoliberal capitalism had resulted in increased individualisation and isolation, perhaps these activities of care can be seen as life emerging from neoliberal ruins? Certainly the activities of caring for the bees through ‘No Mow May’, or the happy accidents of flowers being left to run wild due to Coronavirus restrictions, can perhaps be seen as forms of multispecies solidarity and care in a time of multiple crises.
Gavin Maclean is a sociologist at Edinburgh Napier University whose research explores the links between work, culture and care.