Are we listening to our plant kin?

As we ease into fall, this month we're entering into conversation with the trees around us.

It’s befitting that we are on the topic of trees this month. My personal inquiry into trees begins where I am from—I watched a locally-produced play at the end of September, titled “Pulau Ujong”. This is the indigenous name for the island from which I come: Singapore. It translates to “island at the end”, and is one of the oldest recorded names for the island. Not many people think of Singapore, highly urbanised and commercialised as it is, as an island, and that’s likely why two of the central questions of the play are: what was it like at the beginning, before humans started transforming the landscape? What lifeforms once filled its rainforests and rivers, and which ones are now extinct?

In many ways, the play is an ode to those lifeforms, including the Malayan tiger, gambier and pepper, and most significantly for me, the trumpet tree, otherwise known as the Tabebuia rosea. I remember noticing them on long bus rides: it was hard not to, as its flowers are a vibrant shade of pink, and there aren’t too many similar flowers on trees here. (So much so that the flower is affectionately called the Singapore sakura in local news.) I had attempted to take photos, as you do, but the bus always drove too quickly, and I never made the time to get off to take a closer look. So the tree has always been a blurry image in my memory.

Shortly after I noticed its existence, I found out that these trumpet trees flowered only with rain following distinctly dry periods—but distinctly dry periods should not be normal for a tropical country like Singapore. For us, hot and humid is the norm, accompanied by frequent, passing thunderstorms. There are especially rainy seasons, and those are a result of monsoons. There are dry periods, but they don’t come very much. All of this means that they only should be flowering between the months of March and April, and August and September. And yet, in recent years due to “unpredictable” and “unusual” weather conditions because of climate change, they’ve been found flowering outside of their usual seasons.

I came to realise, as did the play show, that though these sakuras dotted the otherwise concrete landscape more often now, much to the delight of those who sought aesthetic backdrops for pictures, or just for the causal onlooker, they are an alarming sign that we’ve entered into a different time.

The flowering of the trees bore a message: one that I already knew, but nonetheless one that matters. What would change if we listened to the trees around us—and more than that, what would change if we listened to the entire ecosystems around us? Perhaps we would hear, with greater desperation and urgency, what we need to hear, and then some.

Sophie Strand writes that we are “entering into an ecological A Thousand and One Nights of climate change.” She asks: “What if the earth’s biosphere was Scheherazade, looking at her threatened well-being, and beginning an elaborate, life-saving storytelling? I have begun to look at the increasingly unpredictable behavior of climate systems as storytelling. Storytelling that happens on scale, both temporal and spatial, that does not subscribe to anthropocentric paradigms.” She continues: “We are entering into a series of stories that are desperately trying to save their teller: the earth, Gaia, the biosphere, whatever word, for you, encompasses the sum total of spherical, gravity-bound life. [...] Will we let these stories change us and reform us?”

I’ll be the first to admit that as a city-dweller, and I’ve been one my entire life, I’ve not made the time to listen deeply, and ecologically. Up until recent years, it was absurd to me that people even believed in plant sentience. People being in conversation with plants was unimaginable and not within my narrow understanding, and an animist view of the world, perceiving plants as persons, was even more so. That has changed now, but frankly it has been hard to reengage and reenliven a world, that for me has been inanimate for so long.

Though, it is certainly worth noting that an intimate knowledge of plants, and probably an animist worldview, is not at all something that is new to where I am from.

It is more so that as a person who was born into a modernised version of this island, I never needed nor wanted to, nor could know the land: so much of it was urbanised, forests cut down and regrown, plants removed and replaced. The landscape of this island has shifted over and over and over again and it is, like many other cities, virtually unrecognisable from what it was centuries ago. Through the play, I was introduced to the work of food historian Khir Johari, who has written extensively about the lives of indigenous Malays in Singapore and across the region. As far as indigenous Malays to Singapore are concerned, due to forced relocation amidst development pressures from a progress-minded nation, indigenous Malay histories of the island have been scattered, and some completely lost.

Johari says: “Take the king of fruits, for example. The Malays have intimate knowledge of the tree as timber, the medicinal properties of its bark, root, seeds and leaves. There are dedicated names for different stages of durian fruiting, complete with anatomical terms foreach part of the fruit. The Malay nomenclature of durian varieties alone is both scientific and poetic. There was even a whole movement to preserve heirloom varieties against the march of urbanisation and commercialisation.” It frustrates me that the most I know about the durian tree is the fact that it produces fruits that I still haven’t developed a taste palette for, and that are harvested and sold for what I imagine to be good profit, every now and then.

I think of Indigenous scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer who says “in Indigenous ways of knowing, we say we know a thing when we know it not only with our physical senses, with our intellect, but also when we engage our intuitive ways of knowing—of emotional knowledge and spiritual knowledge.” In her book Gathering Moss, she writes poetically: “The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.”

In the same way, I imagine that those who had lived long before me on the particular land area of the island I occupy now would have had such intimate relations, and “spontaneous relationship[s] with [their] ecological surroundings”, as Johari puts it. Where I live on, there used to be Malay settlements—surrounded by “natural cornucopias”, they must have too been active witness to those ancient conversations. Where do I begin to tie all these seemingly loose threads together, and how do I begin knowing the trees around me, and reviving the lost relationships with the land I stand on? Here I think of how I came to know the story that the Tabebuia rosea was telling me about the climate emergency: I looked up its name.

I’m part of a generation of humans who have grown up recognising more brand logos than more-than-human species. Knowing the names of the more-than-human persons around us matters. Executive Editor at the Center for Humans & Nature, Gavin Van Horn, says: “If we don't have names for anything, then everything can look just like a big mish-mash. We don't distinguish anything around us.” This is true: recognising the trumpet tree made it stand out for me, whereas in all the years before, it was never apparent in my line of sight. “Naming,” as he says, “can be helpful [because it] direct[s] our attention”. Paradoxically, however, he adds that “sometimes to name can lead to acting as though we know the fullness of that thing, that creature, or that being.”

So he shares that “it can be a helpful thing [...] to also walk in and to let go of some of the naming that we might do and to, again, just be present in a new or different way than we might be used to. That can be a powerful way of relating, where we don't think that we have exhausted the possibilities of another being because we know it—its, theirs, or hers, or his name.” This is also true: recognising the trumpet tree and knowing when it flowered (theoretically), knowing its scientific name, and knowing where it came from originally—all of this stopped me from wanting to know the tree further. I’m not able to differentiate the tree if it isn’t flowering.

What relationship was formed between me and the tree, the moment I knew of its name? Did the relationship begin, or did it end?

Professor and author Natasha Myers says this: “I've spent so much of my academic life studying knowledge, epistemology, and knowledge formations and what we know and how we know, and all the things that science can know. And I realized that there's also this assumption that everything should be made knowable, that we should be able to unmask the truth behind everything. [...] so much of our conditioning has been in a colonial mindset that has forced us to serve recognize the inherent value of one thing over another, or [...] getting to the bottom of things and extracting something from something [...] All these things have a kind of extractive force to them as if it's our right, as if it's something that humans need is access to knowledge and not knowing.”

She continues: “an ethic of not knowing is suspending sometimes even our curiosity, and allowing ourselves to be in the presence of another being without needing to know its scientific name”. When you put what Myers and Van Horn are saying together, you begin to see how certain forms of knowing, specifically Western science’s knowledge construction and practice of naming, can be extractive. It has been noted by researchers too, that the current practices of binomial nomenclature—in other words, the scientific names of species—reinforce colonial and gendered structures in academia, and thus beyond. Can naming a species an extractivist practice, if naming is the beginning of a process of mining the species for knowledge, as resource, to control; if biological knowledge is accumulated towards the goal of management, and not stewardship; domination, and not interdependence?

What were pre-colonial forms of relationships with trees? Clinical herbalist and environmental justice educator Antonia Estella Perez says that “it’s hard for us because so many of us have grown up going to the supermarket to receive our nourishment, to think of these beings as beings and as plants that are being grown by certain geographies, landscapes and peoples and so much of the colonial legacy around labor that kind of exploitative labor continues to exist in the production of these plants, thinking coffee, sugar, bananas.” They share that it’s important to “[connect] more deeply with these plants in their pre-colonial form, [and] begin to revere and respect and health those relationships with them, as well as understand that these politics of exploitation continue to exist”.

Being on an island city that chose not to support local agriculture, imported food represents a good majority, or if not all, of my consumed foods. Vegetables and poultry are from regional neighbours, and meats can be all the way from South America. Apparently, even our trees are from there too: doing research for this, I found that the trumpet tree is native to Mexico, Venezuela and Ecuador. They were initially brought here for landscaping and aesthetics. How can it be that a tree who finds their home so many continents away, ended up here? How have they survived, and thrived, and developed new seasonal patterns of flowering in these changing times? How many decades of human stories had they seen? Which patchwork of critters and birds and fungi and plant beings were they home to, and which are they home to now?

Perhaps if I listened closer, I’d be lucky enough to hear their tale.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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