Cultural studies break: Postmodernism and Tea

Ok, go with me here. I used to be in Asian Studies. But really, I just wanted to nerd out over ethnobotany, and I took every chance I could to do just that. Below is a critique I wrote of A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee, an ethnography of women and labor practices of tea plantations in India. It is an interesting if frustrating read (half of every chapter switches from ethnography to the script of a symbolic play… if you can imagine that). In my critique you can tell that I’m really a positivist scientist in wolf’s clothing. But it is a healthy exercise to look at the intersection of humans and plants from the fluid, messy, relativistic, human side of things. For a change.

A Time for Tea by Piya Chatterjee

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Ginkgo – In the Presence of a Relict

Ginkgo biloba has been popularly used as a dietary supplement to prevent memory loss, though only slight evidence exists for its effectiveness (for an awesome interactive visualization of the data supporting various dietary supplements, see Information is Beautiful). But there is more to ginkgo than dubious supplementary status. Ginkgo is a relict.

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Scottish Thistle – National Symbol Invades

In the last few hundred years, the story of the people of Scotland has been one of emigration.   As roughly estimated by a Scottish sociologist, if no one had emigrated from Scotland in the last 25 years, the population would more like 8 million, than the 5 million currently living there (Scottish Census 2001). Scottish people had a habit of leaving their homeland, and going…. Everywhere. And wherever they went, they took their national symbol with them.


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Chicory – War and Coffee

When times are hard, and supply lines are uncertain, you do what you can to conserve and extend what you have. Especially the small comforts of life, the really important things: the morning cup of coffee.  During the American Civil War, Southern soldiers and citizens alike never knew when the next shipment of coffee would make it up from the Caribbean. So they made do with what is now a regional favorite. The root of the chicory plant, now, as then, a common roadside weed, was collected, roasted, ground, and brewed along with coffee, to keep supplies lasting as long as possible. Chicory, while itself containing no caffeine, adds a distinctive and, in my opinion, enjoyable, mellow taste to the typical brew.  This practice, of extending coffee with the addition of chicory, wasn’t new – it was done in France during the French Revolution as well. But people became so accustomed to the adulterated coffee that what was once done out of necessity, became adopted as a cultural hallmark of French descended peoples in North America (Acadians, Creoles, and Cajuns). It is now produced in the US on a large scale, and is easily available at your friendly internet coffee purveyor. What was once inflicted by the hardships of war, has become beloved. War leaves it’s stamp, even on the beverages we drink, and the plants we grow, hundreds of years later.

Two sides, same coin

Plants and people change, evolve, together.  We take advantage of them. We use them for their sweetness, their fibers, and their ability to fill our bellies. The tractability of domesticated plants has allowed mankind to cover the globe and to live in habitats to which we are not adapted. Wherever we go, if we can plant a few staple crops, we can survive, even thrive. Plants have put clothes on our backs and roofs over our heads. They may yet solve our energy crisis, even our CO2 producing habit. We have a sweet deal going on here.

And they take advantage of us.  In mankind, many plants have found the best of nursemaids. We spread them far and wide, until a single species such as corn covers million and millions of hectares. With the help of man, no ocean is too vast to cross, no habitat exists that can’t be made more suitable. For our chosen favorites, nothing is too much to ask. If we colonize new planets, we will take them there too.  Some plants take advantage of us without anything in exchange. We don’t even notice as we spread them around or accidentally make habitats more to their liking. They have a sweet deal going on here.

This co-dependence between mankind and many plant species permeates life, modern and ancient. The gradations between ‘us using them’ and ‘them using us’ is what this blog is about. Welcome to my ramblings on ethnobotany, domestication, invasive species, and evolutionary ecology.