Ghosts on the windowsill

It is spring and I was watering and repotting houseplants the other day when I stopped to look at my leafy companions. Sitting side-by-side were three plants whose original owners have since died. That got me thinking – we write wills to distribute our bits and pieces at the end of our lives, but do we think about our plants?

A quick search on the interweb and I get plenty of suggestions about what to do if a plant is dying, but not what to do if you discover you are suddenly in charge of someone else’s plants because they hadn’t/couldn’t make prior arrangements before they die. That’s now on my to-do list; I’m seeking out a plant guardian who will take care of my plants if I’m no longer able to do so. It’s the least I can do for all the fine, clean air and calm, green, de-stressing companionship they have given to me.

As for the memories of plant-owners past, Freeman et al. (2012) discuss plant memories, or plants-as-memories, in the gardens of New Zealand homeowners. As in my case, there are histories associated with the plants, how old they are, why they were planted, the memories associated with who gifted, planted, played with and shared space with them. Freeman et al. emphasise the importance of the role the plants play in the mental wellbeing and emotional support of their human co-habitants, highlighting that there is little research focus on this value to date, though awareness of these benefits is increasing.

In the spirit of sharing the ghosts on my windowsill, what follows are three brief introductions to the plants who brought this to my attention: Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie, Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye and Margaret’s jade tree.

Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie

Busy Lizzie plant in pot

The original plant lived on the turn of the stairs in Aunt Ella’s house in Tuphall Road. Aunt Ella was my husband’s aunt and she was kind enough to adopt me too. She caught me eyeing up the plant, as it was a glorious flowering mass. In good form, she snapped off a bit and gave it to me. Following good family practice, I wrapped it in a bit of damp tissue and brought it home to plant up. It has grown very well, sitting in a pot I inherited from my paternal grandparents. Like its parent plant, it flowers gloriously and needs a bit of a trim to defy its triffid qualities every now and again. There is a very nice spider that lives in the middle, who wanders out to complain when I water her too much. Aunt Ella moved into sheltered housing about five years ago and passed away in 2017. I have no idea what happened to the original plant. Part of it though, is growing happily with me.

Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye

Photo of tiger's eye begonia with busy lizzie in the background

Auntie Brede was my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so in good Irish respectful terms, she was Auntie to all the assorted small people. She was renowned for being able to feed hordes without the slightest effort and won my brother’s heart by cheerfully letting him climb her wall shelves and rummage in her cupboards for biscuits. She passed away over twenty years ago, but her memories, and her plant, are still here. The tiger’s eye begonia (the name I’ve always known it by) that lives with me came from a cutting of a cutting that Auntie Brede gave my mum when I was small. My mum no longer has the original plant, so I’m growing a cutting to give back to her.

Margaret’s jade tree

Jade plant Margaret was our neighbour when I moved in with Gavin to a flat on Gilmerton Road in 2004. She had a jade plant that expired when she was away on holiday, so I gifted her with a new one. I maintained a range of plants on the windowsills in the common stairwell and one day, Margaret came out of her apartment to ask me if the jade tree could come back into my care. I was happy to look after it, so it moved to the windowsill outside her door so she could see it as she went in and out. Shortly afterwards, she passed away and the jade plant moved with me when we went to Haddington. That jade plant now has many siblings across the Lothians, as I harvest cuttings now and again for our student “grab a plant” wellbeing sessions at the vet school.

My partner in plant “crime” is Louise and we both share cuttings from our plants and from plants around the school sitting on colleagues’ windowsills. We have joked that no one ever really buys a spider plant anymore, that they are offshoots (pun intended) from family plants of long ago. My windowsill ghosts also include a red peace lily gifted to me when I left Stevenson College over 10 years ago and a Christmas cactus I adopted when I found it abandoned in an office at the vet school. There are memories in the garden too, with plants that have traveled in damp tissue carried by friends and family members to take root and keep us company.

The very least I can do is ensure someone cares for them when I go. I’m off to make a list!

Reference

Freeman, C., Dickinson, K. J., Porter, S., & van Heezik, Y. (2012). “My garden is an expression of me”: Exploring householders’ relationships with their gardens. Journal of Environmental Psychology32(2), 135-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.01.005 [#paywall]

Vampire Researcher

Due to some behind-the-scenes digital footprint weirdness, I discovered that Google Scholar was reporting one of my papers as being written in 1759. That got me thinking: asides from outing me as a vampire to the world, who is the Sharon from 1759? And before you ask, no, my skin does not sparkle like diamonds in the sun!

scholar_1759 (2)
Screenshot of the Google Scholar auto-entry dated 1759 instead of 2016

 

This process of looking back to 1759 highlighted my bias about women at that time. I expected to hear about difficult lives and fashions. While some of this was true (panniers!), women writers existed, at least those fortunate to be born into privilege and with understanding male family members to support them.

My colleague Jessie and I come from a science background, and even that was not so strange. The first paper by a woman was published in the Royal Philosophical Society’s Transactions; all credit to Anne Whitfeld and her report on the thunderstorm that struck her home in 1759 (Whitfeld & Van Rixtel, 1759). By the 1780s, Caroline Herschel was discovering comets (Herschel, 1787) and working as an astronomer for the King (Hoskin, 2005). She was the first woman to be made a member of the Royal Society, albeit honorary, and managed to do all that while still taking care of her household duties. Chemist Marie-Anne Lavoisier was born in 1758 and feminist philosopher and author Mary Wollstonecraft in 1759.

Had we been born into the right circumstances, perhaps we would have printed our paper; not everything was so straightforward. I was born in Ireland and studied in Trinity College Dublin. In 1759, they were putting the finishing touches on the west front on College Green, but women would not be permitted to study there until 1904.

References

Herschel, C. (1787). An Account of a New Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, MD Sec. RS. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London77, 1-3. Retrieved from http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/77/1.full.pdf

Hoskin, M. (2005). Caroline Herschel as observer. Journal for the History of Astronomy36(4), 373-406. Retrieved from http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?2005JHA….36..373H&classic=YES

Whitfeld, A., & Van Rixtel, J. (1759). An Account of the Effects of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, on the 16th of July, 1759: In a Letter from Mrs. Anne Whitfeld. Communicated by Mr. John van Rixtel, F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 51, 282-286. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/105375

 

My Immortal Microbiome

This post neatly links to the previous one on digital compost; you would think I planned it! With digital compost, I expanded on a metaphor for the digital footprint of places and the more-than-human. With my immortal microbiome, I’m focusing on the biota that exist in and on my body, a wonderful network that lives in the liminal spaces between what I view as “my body” and perceive as my “external environment”.

My husband, Gavin, and I recently participated in the International Microbiome Study (http://imsms.org/home/) via the Anne Rowling Clinic. The aim is to compare the microbiomes of two people who live together, one with MS and one without. The team are investigating and comparing our gut flora, given that we live mainly in the same environment and eat roughly the same food. We gave blood and stool samples which will be stored at the main research lab in San Francisco. I joked that it is not my heart I have left in San Francisco!

I am keen to see how this study progresses. It was pretty much painless thanks to a great phlebotomist and the kit for taking the stool sample was fun to use and appealed to my inner MacGyver. There was a food survey and I’m a survey geek, so was delighted to work my way through it. I also get a kick out of the fact that part of me is getting to visit somewhere new in the world, as I’ve never been to San Fran. But I digress…

What was most interesting at the outset was the consent form and we both discussed this at length before signing up for the study. We have essentially gifted our DNA and microbiomes to the research team to be sequenced and cultured and kept in perpetuity for health-related research. Somewhere in a lab, a unique portion of us lives and is cared for, ready and on standby to help research teams better understand the organisms that are part of us.

Linking back to the post on digital compost, this is a whole deeper level of data that gets right to the coding of what makes us. It also calls into question what is “us”, the two people who share a life and a home, or the trillions of microbes that co-exist with our “selves”. More accurately, perhaps we are a community, an extension of the participatory, relational understanding that I touched on previously. Reading Timothy Morton’s Humankind this week, linking his discussion on symbiosis and the “symbiotic real” with Donna Haraway’s exploration of symbiogenesis, I can see it is more than this.

I like this quote (Morton, 2017; p.40):

“Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.

What I define as “me” is a symbiosis, a biosphere, operating in a “hum of solidarity”. There is no firm, fixed boundary, no inside/outside; instead at most a permeable  membrane, ebb and flow between what appears to be me and me-as-part-of “the loose connectivity of the symbiotic real” (p.2). Does that mean there is no “me”? Even “I” don’t know what “Sharon” truly is, but there is a plethora of Sharon-data. To paraphrase Tim, what the team in San Francisco will have is definitely a lot of Sharon-data, it isn’t raindrop-data or blue-whale-data, though there may be a fair whack of daffodil and earthworm. But it will not be “Sharon”.

At the start of this post, I talked about the “network” of my microbiome. Over the week, with Tim’s help, I understand that it is more truly a network of solidarity, a collective, a doing-being, a deep inter-relatedness. Kindness and kin-ness have returned. Miriam Lueck Avery’s TED talk is a good way to finish this week’s post; unsurprisingly, I particularly like the “medicine as gardening” idea!

Image is: “Bacteriaby Caroline Davis2010. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0. Original source via Flickr

Reference

Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind

Digging into digital compost

I have a confession to make – I’m rubbish at writing catchy titles for things. I know a great title when I see it, but the Title Muse has passed me by. This causes problems when writing articles or conference abstracts; you want something that sounds interesting, but can end up causing confusion.

My recent abstract to the Networked Learning 2018 conference is a case in point. I knew what I meant when I added “Digital Compost” into my title, but completely failed to explain to my readers. The very kind reviewers pointed out that I should either explain or remove, hinting that I should seriously think if it was necessary to include.

And that’s the key point – is it essential? I knew it was, but I hadn’t explained why. I included an outline in my revised paper and am now sharing my thoughts with a little more depth. So on we go – let’s dig in to digital compost!

My brief explanation in my paper is as follows:

Inspired by her partner, Haraway (2016) proposed the term “compost” as an alternative to posthuman, as human and more-than-human alike become compost. I see the data gathered and shared through [my proposed research] networked stories as forming “digital compost”, acknowledging that the networked relationships include human-to-human, human-to-more-than-human, human-to-things, and human-to-place.

I like this term, I like “becoming compost”, as I personally find “posthuman” a bit anti-human. Moving from being anthropocentric to ecocentric does not make me any less human. Instead, it encourages me to be aware of all my relations, to connect as best I can with the Others that I share my life with. As Haraway states, it is about “making kin”.

Compost, that rich living humus cake, is wonderful stuff. I am at my happiest when up to my elbows in soil and take great delight in making more, making-with my soil-production kin of microbes, earthworms, fungi, et al. Refer to “soil”, “fungus” and “posthuman” in the same paragraph and I’m off on a rhizomatic tangent with Deleuze and Guattari (1987). Better yet, Ingold’s (2011) moving mycelial meshwork of relational, participative engagement in the world. I talk about “living compost”; compost is decay-in-action, decomposition of the dead to nourish the becoming of the living. By choosing this term, Haraway reminds us of the process of living and dying in kinship with each Other. I am aware I’m comfortable with this process, but it is not so for everyone.

So much for compost, what about the “digital”? Our “digital footprint” could as easily be termed our “digital compost”, the data we can be reduced or decomposed to, the traces we leave online. Part of my work includes using various forms of digital data to gather more detailed information on a location to share with others. In some cases, people actively wish to “capture” something from their local place; the use of digital and analogue media means that the element in question is left in situ, yet “taken home” by the person. “Digital” may facilitate an Ingoldian entangling of the person and place data, a composting of the physical and the virtual. The goal is to create a rich substrate to nourish stories from our places around the world, to celebrate our relations.

I’ll keep you posted on how that progresses!

References

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/thousand-plateaus-9780826476944/

Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

An Adventurous PhD

It was the phrase “challenging academic journey” that stood out for me in a recent guest post by Donna Franklin for Pat Thomson’s patter blog. The phrase was followed by “difficult PhD journey”, “emotional upheaval” and “doubtful thinking”.

The post went on to provide a clear and helpful outline of the process of mindfulness in helping to deal with the concerns associated with undertaking a PhD. It was encouraging and uplifting in the end as Donna had reflected directly on her own personal experience and the benefits she had found in taking a mindful approach to her studies. Nevertheless, it got me thinking…

Last year, I had the good fortune to read Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World by Simon Beames and Mike Brown. They tease apart the difference between “adventure” and “adventurous” learning practices. The challenge, they say, “should start with the learner, build on their strengths and extend their skills and attributes” (p. 90). Unlike adventure learning, the goal is not to push the student outside their comfort zone, but to encourage them to set their own challenges and explore new terrain. Key to this is provision of a “safe and supportive environment” allowing students to “be actively involved in self-directed experimentation” (p. 92). For me, that safety and support is akin to the equipment and buddy system for hiking and climbing. Your partner helps you check your gear, motivates you and acts as your belayer. You choose the route and you do the climbing, trusting that you’re safely anchored.

Standing at a point halfway up the Krimml waterfalls in a thunderstormWhen I read Donna’s piece, it left me unsettled and wondering where her safety and support came from. I reflected on my own PhD journey – I am conscious of the risk and sense of uncertainty, I discovered a range of peaks ahead when I naively thought I just had one mountain to climb! The mindfulness process she outlines is helpful, but more important for me is the knowledge that my supervisors, colleagues and research team are on standby. They challenge me to think more creatively and independently, to take a different route for the fun of experiencing a new viewpoint and to discover what is authentic for me. As Beames and Brown suggest, any anxiety I feel comes “from the process of adventurous inquiry” (p. 90). As part of the institution’s research community, there are opportunities to share our stories and to discuss our individual adventurous learning experiences. It reminded me again how very fortunate I am to be part of a strong network.

I had the great privilege of being shortlisted for a teaching award in 2016, and I used the mountain-climbing metaphor in the short video created to celebrate the awards. The concept of “teaching as climbing” was inspired in part by a blog post by Ben Orlin reflecting on his development as a teacher, and in part by my colleagues undertaking a charity climbing challenge.

Reflecting on my comments, Beames and Brown remind me that my role as an educator is not just to “throw down a rope”, but to provide a strong foundation, an anchor, as demonstrated so well by my own supervisors (“skillful educators” for sure). Our adventurous journeys should be authentic – have meaning for us, our community and our wider network. We develop our sense of agency and mastery as we overcome the (frequent!) sense of uncertainty and tackle the challenges we set ourselves. At the end of the day, we have campfire tales to tell in good company.

To quote Jamie Davies, winner of The Kendell Award for Teaching in Medicine:

“The most important things [in staff development sessions] come from the conversations between the lecturers who are there to learn. And I think that mirrors what happens with our… learning and teaching-that it’s the whole group working together to take a journey and to learn something.”

Beames, S., & Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning: A pedagogy for a changing world. Oxon, NY: Routledge.

Bees in lime trees

As today is World Honey Bee Day, it seemed appropriate to finish a post I started in July! What can I say, I’m a slow blogger 🙂

Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian
Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian

Our travels this summer took us to Svalbard. The most notable difference for us between Svalbard and our home in Scotland were the bees.

Bees, our Longyearbyen guide told us, are not seen in Svalbard. Coulson et al. (2014) reported that any honey bees found in Svalbard are classed as “accidental migrants”, with the bumblebee completely absent from the archipelago.

The contrast was most strongly demonstrated the day after we returned home. As we walked under the lime trees beside the River Tyne in Haddington, each tree hummed with a variety of pollinators, including honey and bumblebees [55.954270, -2.772102 to 55.951603, -2.773239].

Below is the recording I made as I walked by the river. Note that I started giggling as the bagpipes started up, further proof, if proof was needed, that I was recording in Scotland!

I found out more about solitary bees in this thought-provoking video from Team Candiru, tweeted by the London Beekeepers (@LondonBeeKeeper) on August 12th 2016.

The Solitary Bees from Team Candiru on Vimeo.

As a further celebration of all things East Lothian-bee related, we treated ourselves to a jar of local Cockenzie spring honey from Jacobite Apiaries, via our local food assembly.

Three cheers for East Lothian bees, and it is lovely to be home!

 

Reference:

Coulson, S.J., Convey, P., Aakra, K., Aarvik, L., Ávila-Jiménez, M.L., Babenko, A., Biersma, E.M., Boström, S., Brittain, J.E., Carlsson, A.M. and Christoffersen, K. (2014). The terrestrial and freshwater invertebrate biodiversity of the archipelagoes of the Barents Sea; Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 68, pp.440-470.

Were they ever alive?

Amenhotep III @ British LibraryIt’s been a hectic time again, but thanks to earlier actions, at least my lists are in order!

I have also been trying to make quiet time within the busy-ness, space for thinking and recharging. One opportunity presented itself at the end of March, when I was down in London for the day for work. In addition to priceless reading time on the train “there and back again”, I noted there was a little space between the end of work and my return train departure. 

I decided to walk from Westminster to King’s Cross, passing all the famous sights along the way and getting grounded before the journey home. As I neared Bloomsbury, I realised I had a half an hour to spare. Hmmmn, what to do?

No question – half an hour sitting in Room 4 (Egyptian sculpture)!

There is something about the immensity of the statues in this gallery that calms me, reminds me of how small I am, how insignificant my lifespan is within the breadth and span of human history. It doesn’t sound like a cheery reflection, but it does put my small worries very much in perspective.

As I sat with Amenhotep III, I heard a girl ask her companion (mum, aunt, granny, sister, carer…) a key question:

“Were they ever alive?”(indicating big statues with a sweep of her very small hand).

“Yes,” came the answer, “there were once people alive who built these statues to represent their kings and important people.”

After listening to a brief overview of Egyptian history, the girl thought for a moment, and then rephrased her question, as it was clear her companion hadn’t understood the first time.

“No,” said in a tone of infinite patience, “were these [pointing at individual statues] ever alive?”

“No,” came the reply, “these are just statues.”

I looked at Amenhotep, who in turn stared down the gallery, ignoring those who had come to capture his image. Now I was raised with Ray Harryhausen movies, where statues were very likely to come to life. Perhaps this girl had also seen Night at the Museum, and could readily believe that the statues shook loose when the doors close in the evening.

I feel there is something beyond the influence of mainstream media on imaginitive folks like this girl and I. After all, these statues were created to inspire awe & worship. Like Ozymandias, they may be crumbly around the edges, their earthly rulers long gone.  They have been taken from their homeland to cold halls, but they still call their worshippers to gaze at them with cameras and phones.

I longed to ask the girl what she thought. Like me, did she think they had their own kind of life, locked in stone memory? I was too polite, or more likely, too shy to ask, and they moved away.

When my half hour was up, I walked the short distance to the train station. On my journey home, I thought more about her question and the answers. The first answer was good, it gave her all the core historical facts. The second answer left no room for discussion, no space for imagination, possibility, philosophy.

I must, I thought, make sure I leave that space in my teaching.