- Garden Work:Prosaic Alightments in Modern Ecology and "Kew Gardens"
Throughout its one-hundred-year history, "Kew Gardens" has been a familiar site for modernist studies' exploration of Virginia Woolf's framing of the relationship between materiality and consciousness, subjectivity and objectivity, and the intrinsic porousness of these categories, as shaped by the experimental practices and apparatuses of her day. Critics and scholars, returning to the short story and landing among its petals and blossoms, again and again, have long lingered in the story's ontological and epistemological folds and wrinkles. Parsing the narrative's diffuse if distinctive aesthetic has engendered entire fields of Woolf studies concerning the writer's indebtedness to experiments in science, visual art, and media technology. Exploring potential cross-pollinations with quantum physics, ethology, experiments in architecture, painting, and, of course, camera work, these accounts have emphasized the story's attention to the small and trivial as critical to its perceptual defamiliarization, as Woolf's omniscient narrator brings these tiny, but significant details—what Mathilde La Cassagnère terms "heavy nothings"—to the surface of the text.1
These arguments are especially compelling if we consider the predominant viewpoint of modernism as the speedy aerial view, as Kelly Sultzbach does, referring specifically to the practices of observation and surveillance conducted by ecological scientists in this moment. At first blush, then, contemporary practices of ecological research might appear to have little bearing on the perceptual experiment that is "Kew Gardens," practices that, in [End Page 333] embracing distance and speed, are not interested in documenting "the viewpoint of insects and snails"—and other trivial beings—"all interlaced within the world's thick flesh," to use Sultzbach's phrasing.2 But when we peer among "brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture"—that is, the home of "Kew Gardens"'s tiniest residents—we are also, I want to suggest, looking at a documentation of contemporary ecological thinking, research, and experimentation practices that have been marginalized from ecological history and the critical history of "Kew Gardens" as a literary text.3 For scholars have missed the significant, if seemingly tiny, observation that the narrative's perceptual work would not have felt so unfamiliar to many of Kew's visitors, especially women, trained to observe a plot's particular detail and subtle variation over time in ecological school gardens across Britain. The story's cognitive contours—it's "different outline of form … difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors"—are indicative of an often-trivialized brand of ecological epistemology circulating throughout experimental botany that has been obscured by a gender problem at the center of British ecological science in the twentieth century.4 Tracking prosaic alightments among women's ecological pedagogy and Woolf's prose form, I demonstrate how Woolf's theory of fiction renders a particularly feminized ecological epistemology and experimental praxis.5
I make this case by exploring the gendering of ecological study as it came to prominence as a discipline in early twentieth-century Britain. Pinpointing an effort to rebrand ecological thinking in the interwar years as a continuation of the imperial impulse that Peder Anker has positioned at the center of British ecology—and specifically, in the application of the British Empire's war machine to ecological study—I argue that women's long-standing participation in the science became overshadowed as the field gathered steam among university departments and government agencies.6 For the media of transportation and representation exclusive to men's ecology—namely, aerial surveillance and photography—matters, in that it alters the cognitive patterns of ecological knowledge work in ways that differ from and obscure those methods taught to feminized bodies in prose, in gardens. Reiterating the experimental forms of feminine ecological education and writing, "Kew Gardens" documents what I call a lingering take on ecological science, a scientific aesthetic that pushes against the narratives of speed, control, and order so indicative of Enlightenment modernity, and to which it is tethered. In recuperating this history, I aim to reposition this feminized knowledge...