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Reviewed by:
  • Moveable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory ed. by Virginia D. Nazarea and Terese V. Gagnon
  • Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo
Virginia D. Nazarea and Terese V. Gagnon (Eds.)
Moveable Gardens: Itineraries and Sanctuaries of Memory.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2021, pp. 301. (ISBN-13: 978-0-8165-4221-5 paperback)

This edited book represents the latest efforts of anthropologists to understand how a wide variety of displacements (war, migration, precarity, late capitalist modernity and so on) lead people to re-engage with plant life in ways that create meaning and sustain biodiversity. The book offers a series of examinations into how quotidian practices of gardening, seed saving, and cooking serve as ways to restore a sense of social and cultural continuity, and to connect the lost past with newly found lives and places.

The introductory chapter, written by the editors Virginia D. Nazarea and Terese V. [End Page 215] Gagnon, offers a beautifully written overview of the approach. They remind us that biodiversity “thrives best in marginal places, those small out-of-the way spaces where a sense of identity can be drawn from assemblages of plants and other cohabitants” (p. 3). What happens when this sort of life is disrupted? The book tackles this question in two sections, one with a series of chapters exploring “itineraries,” which is about plant-human engagements in movement, and one focused on Sanctuaries, more emplaced efforts of belonging.

The volume is firmly rooted in anthropology and began as a session at the 2017 American Anthropological Association meetings. Yet this journal has decided to have it reviewed since it will be of interest to geographers and Latin Americanists. Foundational references include debates on the topic of multispecies relationships and ontological challenges, such as those by Ann Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015), and Donna Haraway (2016). Some relevant concepts and phrases that will surely become increasingly relevant emotional anchors for us all in this climate crisis era are “ecological grief,” “global mourning,” and “ecological memory” (p. 11). At this moment, there is probably not a reader who has not personally experienced some semblance of these feelings and practices.

Some commentators maintain that edited books are always uneven in content and quality. I think a more accurate rendition of this old saw is that we, as readers, always gravitate to some chapters more than others. Space does not allow me to comment on all of the twelve chapters, so I will just discuss a few of my favorites. The first substantive chapter, by Terese Gagnon offers an excellent close-up ethnographic view of Karen refugees who have fled the mountain regions of southeast Myanmar for upstate New York. Engagement with the “materiality of biodiversity” (p. 19), in the form of tending gardens, preparing and eating homeland foods and foraging for food plants allows them to hold on to identity and collective memory, but it is not seamless, as the Karen refugees want to do this on their own terms. For instance, they refuse to garden in raised beds, a common structure in urban community gardens, but one which they experience as foreign, unnatural and distant from the earth. For various reasons, as Gagnon explains, the refuge is liminal and the sanctuary remains shaky.

Another fascinating discussion is provided by Guntra A. Aistara’s chapter, Tomatoes Out of Time. Here the focus shifts to how post-socialist European governments establish biopolitical regimes to regulate tomatoes, which can be seen as “alien invaders” and carriers of disease. In this scenario, “multi-species biopolitics” is under state jurisdiction and clashes with cultural memory and traditional seed and plant practices.

The section on emplaced sanctuaries includes fascinating looks at particular food, kitchen and eating practices, but a notable chapter is provided by Tracey Heatherington’s examination of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Norway. The seeds of the world, or more accurately, the secondary back up samples of these seeds, are stored here in air tight packages enveloped in non-descript boxes. Sci-fi futurism is already here, in the form of this seed warehouse located in the middle of a permafrost zone, and this chapter imaginatively includes a [End Page 216] comparative analysis of how two classic...