Plants continue to underline and subvert relations of power today. “The exploitation of natural resources that classification enabled in the 16th and 17th centuries,” says Coussonnet, “is similar to the current exploitation of natural resources as commodities.” Still, even at their most vulnerable, “plants never really had borders,” she says. “New species are always discovered; plants cross borders all the time.” Pia Rönicke’s The Pages of Day and Night (2015) is inspired by the transfer of 135,000 species of food crops from Aleppo, Syria, to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in 2012—a response to Syria’s potential climatic catastrophe and the impending civil war, two phenomena that are arguably linked.
Our relationship to plants is a deeply personal one. Coussonnet believes that nature is a link to our humanity. “I think we often forget about our own responsibilities toward it,” she says. “It bears signs of how we build societies because it is maybe the most primary connection we have with life, bringing us back to an essential thing—the cycles of birth and destruction.” Labeling plants never stripped them of their power, she adds. “On the contrary, they became custodians of magic, of this traditional knowledge. They held that secret. They still do today.”