- Land of Plants in Motion: Japanese Botany and the World by Thomas R. H. Havens
Plants have increasingly become an object of study and theorization within the environmental humanities. A burgeoning subfield known as critical plant studies has grown out of the work of critics like Michael Marder, Natasha Myers, Jeffrey Nealon, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, all of whom write at the intersection of botanical science and the humanities. These writers ask us to see plants as more than passive objects in “nature” and to instead take plants seriously as living beings with capabilities that have influenced (and continue to influence) the course of human history. Thomas R. H. Havens’s Land of Plants in Motion: Japanese Botany and the World heeds this call. It presents plants, as its title suggests, as living beings perpetually “in motion.” Havens tracks the movements of plants across continents and illuminates how the histories of trees, flowers, and grasses unfold in tandem with and also intersect with the history of those humans who cultivate, study, and profit from them.
In turning its attention to nonhuman actors of history, Land of Plants in Motion joins a growing corpus of monographs devoted to Japan’s environmental history that reaches back to Conrad Totman’s The Green Archipelago and includes more recent works like Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore and David Fedman’s Seeds of Control.1 The environmental turn in the study of Japanese history forces us to reconsider the role of the natural world within the realms of politics, society, and culture—domains once believed to be the sole territory of the human. In Land of Plants in Motion, Havens does this by, in his words, “bring[ing] together two companion stories, both of which are relevant for the history of Japan, the history of scientific investigation, and global history” (pp. 3–4). The first of these stories focuses on the plants themselves. It narrates how, in deep time, certain flora came to live on the archipelago we now call Japan. The second story focuses on humans, both in Japan and abroad, and how they have come to understand and categorize these plants and to turn them into commodities.
Land of Plants in Motion does not present these histories as parallel stories but rather as entangled ones. In its methodological approach, the book suggests that to [End Page 163] fully understand the development of botanical science in Japan, one must necessarily think in geological time. Chapter 1, “East Asia’s Plants in Geological Time,” does just this. It starts, quite literally, at the beginning, with the Rhynia, “one of the earliest land plants with a descendant in Japan today, the whisk fern (Psilotum nudum), an evergreen widely distributed in the Edo period” (p. 19). As this quotation demonstrates, Havens moves between the deepest of time and recent recorded history as he discusses how plants now commonly seen in Japan got there in the first place. In his discussion of ginkgos, Havens pivots between the Great Oxygenation Event of 2.4 billion years ago and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 in the span of two paragraphs. It is a fascinating approach to the telling of history that borrows from archaeology in order to dramatically widen our view of Japan today.
Methodologically, chapter 1 is the most innovative part of Land of Plants in Motion. Its approach, with its eye to deep time and its conviction to tell what is ostensibly a “national history” from the perspective of plant life and continental movement, feels new and full of possibilities to rethink the contours of Japanese history. Indeed, the book’s critical intervention lies in Havens’s methodology. While the book gestures toward important critical questions about the telling of history, the development of science in Japan, and the relationship between the natural world and Japanese culture, it does not ask these questions outright. Instead, it performs them through its temporal scope and juxtaposition of human and vegetal actors.