Running with the Plants: Women Leading New Conversations about Nature

Meet five women who are shifting conversations about plants and people in their respective fields of agriculture, evolutionary ecology, writing, landscape architecture and cultural anthropology.  


THE FARMER: Tanya Massy

‘When I was growing up, being a farmer wasn’t really an option. You just didn’t see women doing it. It took me a long time to think of stepping into it.’ Tanya Massy (pictured above, photo by Daniel Shipp) says it was the land that pulled her back. ‘I was living up in Tennant Creek working across remote Indigenous communities as a music and dance teacher. Being in such a powerful landscape and seeing community connection to land really got me thinking about the country I grew up on, how the path I was potentially following would take me a long way from it.’

In 2019 Tanya moved back from Melbourne to her family farm in the Monaro region of southern NSW, to work with her father – regenerative farmer and author of Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth Charles Massy. In between moving mobs of sheep and planting belts of oak trees across the landscape (for bushfire mitigation), Tanya works with environmental organisations undertaking research into the complex relationships between agriculture, climate change and cultural change. A recent report authored by Tanya and commissioned by Sustainable Table documents an investment strategy to support a transition to more regenerative agricultural systems in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment areas – where agriculture accounts for 80% of land use across Reef catchments. Work is now underway to fund the implementation of the strategy.

The work undertaken by Tanya Massy (and, of course, her dad Charles) of understanding and unpicking the relationship between agriculture and climate change is hugely important. According to Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, ‘there are at least twenty different practices that constitute regenerative agriculture in its fullest scope, and when all of these practices are added together, it represents by far the single greatest solution to the climate crisis.’

Tanya and Charles Massy are featured in Issue One of Wonderground.

Tanya and Charles Massy. Photo: Daniel Shipp

THE ACADEMIC: Natasha Myers

Natasha Myers is a cultural anthropologist based at York University, Toronto. I first came across her work in an article titled How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. Planthroposcene?! I was intrigued. We’re familiar with the concept of the Anthropocene – an epoch defined by the human. Anthropocene, apocalypse, man’s spectacular rise and fall, man at center of all imaginings of present and future. As always. Natasha Myers’ Planthroposcene upends this vision – reminding us of our absolute inter-being-ness with plants. It is a brilliant piece of thinking and writing, provoking new ways of imagining a future in conspiracy with plants, not in spite of plants. She writes:

‘Repeat this again and again: We are of the plants. Now, if this is true, then the figure that should ground our actions is not the self-aggrandising Anthropos so much as a strangely hybrid figure we could call the Planthropos. And now try wrapping your mouth around this word until it rolls off your tongue with ease: Planthroposcene. (Yes, it’s awkward and you will sound silly. But just give it a try.) The Planthroposcene names an aspirational episteme, not a timebound era, one that invites us to stage new scenes and new ways to see and seed plant/people relations in the here and now, not some distant future.’

An interview with Natasha Myers features in Issue One of Wonderground

Magic Forest from Becoming Sensor in Sentient Worlds by Natasha Myers and Ayelen Liberona

THE WRITER AND RESEARCHER: Zena Cumpston

Zena is a Barkandji woman from western New South Wales and a research fellow at theClean Air Urban Landscapes (CAUL) Hub at the University of Melbourne. Her research and writing focus on Indigenous perspectives of biodiversity in urban areas.

‘I have a deep love of gardening and plants, and it is through this passion that I found my interest in researching plant-use practices and plant knowledge of Aboriginal peoples across Australia, most especially the south-east’, she writes in a recent article. ‘I am unsettled by the lack of visibility of Aboriginal people and culture in urban areas and so I have focused on projects which allow illumination of our culture within this context.’

A recent project authored by Zena is a free digital Aboriginal plant use booklet which highlights Aboriginal perspectives and ways of knowing in an urban context. The publication, she suggests, is a way for individuals, schools and community groups to connect with Aboriginal perspectives of plants.

Zena Cumpston is a contributor to Issue One of Wonderground.

THE LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Jane Irwin

Jane is a Sydney based landscape architect, and principal of Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture. Whether designing tiny courtyard gardens or vast public spaces, Jane’s approach is one of curiosity, sensitivity and understanding. ‘The practice philosophy is to always maintain an intimate and critical role in the work we undertake, avoiding the inevitable delegation of responsibility that may occur within very large practices,’ she writes. ‘To this end, we have consistently resisted the pressure to commercialise our practice and dramatically increase our size.’

The garden at Government House, early 2020. Photo: Jane Irwin

A recent project, the reimagining of the historic gardens at Government House, Sydney – from exotic mixed borders to entirely native perennial and shrub planting – exemplifies Jane’s approach. ‘I want to be bold, I want to be adventurous’, she says. The planting is highly experimental – and whilst it’s caused Jane many a sleepless night, its these projects that are important to her as they push the boundaries of imagining what a garden can and should be. ‘We’ve been trying to develop this thing where you go wilder with planting – creating something that people can really relate to – not just a corporate image of a garden.’

Jane Irwin’s work is driven by a deeply felt connection to place and a strong sense of values. ‘I’ve always been really interested in the Australian environment. The bush. I think it becomes part of you. Since working on my own I’ve been able to look at that a little bit more, and to provoke, which is what I have a tendency to do.’ She says. ‘I want to work to my own values and vision of life.’

Vaucluse garden by Jane Irwin Landscape Architects. Photo: Supplied

The scientist: Monica Gagliano

Monica Gagliano is an evolutionary ecologist whose research explores the realms of plant cognition, bioacoustics and, more generally, perceptions of nature. Challenging commonly held ideas of plant subjectivity, sentience and ethical standing, her work inhabits the often-murky terrain between science and the humanities. Doing justice to Gagliano’s prolific output is not possible within the limits of this article. Let’s just say, Gagliano is at the forefront of research into plant cognition –  her work showing that plants make and hear sounds, and modify their behaviour in response; plants remember and respond, and more. Her work is grounded not in science as reinforcement of dominant paradigms but science as open-ended, open-minded adventure.

She writes in an article published on The Conversation:

‘A shift in our perception of plants is not only important for advancing our scientific knowledge into the world of plants in its full complexity. Knowledge of plant autonomy also has critical ecological consequences as it opens up a new debate on the perception and action of people towards plants.

Indeed, such a debate is important and urgent as it concerns our current ecologically inappropriate behaviour towards plant life, where plants are treated as mere resource objects and materials. This attitude has paved the way to the relentless alteration and destruction of natural habitats, which are predominantly plants. At a time of environmental crisis, promoting a new perception of plants as “living beings in their own right” means creating the conditions for the well-being of those who truly make life on Earth possible: plants.’