Hybridized Histories - A sense of Place

I have decided to share some of the writing for my MFA on this blog for those who would like to read about my journey with indigenous flowers.

This is the first chapter called Hybridized Histories- A Sense of Place

It was in 2008 at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam that a Protea cynaroides plant seeded a yearning which grew into this research project. This plant, also known as the king protea[1], was being cultivated in a glasshouse dedicated to Southern African plants. It struck me that unlike the rest of its family in the Western Cape (which was in full flower at the time), this specimen was not flowering. The horticultural reasons for the lack of flowers were not what troubled me. It was rather my empathic response to the awkwardness of being uprooted and transplanted, of not belonging to a place, which unsettled me.
The Proteaceae[2] plant family survived and evolved for millions of years in the Western Cape; one could say they truly belong to the landscape. Primitive representatives of Proteaceae were present on the ancient land mass Gondwanaland, soon after flowering plants first appeared on Earth, which was approximately 125 million years ago. Today, because of human interference with their habitats, up to 35% of South African Proteaceae is recorded as threatened.
The beginning of the destruction of indigenous habitats in service of human settlement and the dislocation of the king protea plant can be traced back to the 17th century, when the Dutch established a way-station in the Cape en route to the East Indies. European botanists started to collect indigenous plants and send samples to the Netherlands for scientific documentation and research from as early as 1597. Eventually plants were cultivated in artificial climates such as the glasshouse at the Hortus Botanicus, which is dedicated to Southern African plants to this day.
My own sense of dislocation is more complex. Another consequence of Dutch colonisation is my Afrikaner culture and language: a hybridised form of Dutch that has its origins in the 17th century cultural landscape of the Western Cape. 

Today, the Afrikaans language is spoken by approximately 7 million South Africans, only 3 million of whom are white[3]. The white Afrikaner culture is associated with the National Party, which ruled the country during the apartheid years. After the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, many Afrikaners experienced an identity crisis triggered by the loss of ruling power.[4] My personal response as a teenager was an unfolding awareness that I did not genetically belong to the soil where I was born; in fact as a hybridised human being, I had no idea where my body belonged.
My visits to the Netherlands were superficially driven by commissions to create indigenous flower paintings for Dutch clients, but on a deeper level I was curious to see if I could find a sense of belonging there. My experience was one of disorientation: I recognised the sound of the Dutch language but could not fully understand it; I understood some of the cultural nuances but found it foreign. It was as though I could hear a vaguely recognisable echo of my roots, but my body felt out of place. In fact, the reason I went to the glasshouse dedicated to Southern African plants was because I was unsettled and wanted to be with living things from my home environment.[5]

It was during this time that I discovered the writing of Arne Naess, a co-founder of the Deep Ecology movement. Naess speaks about ‘PLACE’ within the context of ecological crises:

There seems to be no place for PLACE anymore... But the loss of place is felt, the longing persists, and so we feel the need to articulate what it means to belong to a place. The movement toward the development of a sense of place is strengthened through a tightening of the interrelation between the self and the environment.

In his writing about the loss of place, Naess attempts to explain some of the feelings people have when they witness the destruction of a place for which they have an ‘intense feeling of belonging’. He concludes that because of our relation to a place, the destruction of a natural environment is a threat to our inner selves. We are thus not protecting ‘something out there’ but a vital part of ourselves. Naess encourages us to go deep into ourselves, our local places and nature, so we can trace the roots of ecological crises in our own contexts; he says this would assist in understanding global environmental contexts.
The encounter with Protea cynaroides at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam was a profound moment of recognition of mutual displacement, many years after the event of colonisation. My empathy with the Proteaceae plant family was the beginning of a relationship[6] with the threatened indigenous vegetation of the Western Cape, where I was born. The landscape and the soil we shared became the place where we met and I listened.

[1] Protea cynaroides is the national flower of South Africa.
[2] Proteaceae is the name of a family of plants that consists of various genera, of which Protea is one. The Protea genus consists of various species, such as Protea cyneroides
[3] ‘White’ refers to South Africans descended from Europeans.
[4] It is almost 20 years since the abolishment of apartheid, and numerous discourses on the reinterpretation of Afrikaner identity and the Afrikaans language exist. It has in fact been so widely debated that Afrikaners have been accused of being overtly ‘obsessed with their identity (Visser, 2007: 16). In general, however, the discourse has become more nuanced and inclusive. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a respected Afrikaner intellectual, proposes that the term ‘Afrikaner’ will in future be associated with a new set of values yet to be determined. He recommends that those who want to identify themselves as Afrikaners will have to start by reshaping and refining their value systems (Slabbert, 2000: 80-82,85).
[5] It is important to clarify when speaking about the South African landscape and ‘belonging’ that this project is not an enquiry focussed on identity and post-colonial or post-apartheid discourses. These political registers rather form part of an interdisciplinary ecological enquiry where ‘a sense of place’ and ‘belonging’ form parts of an ecosophical approach to the global environmental crisis.
[6] The definition of ‘relationship’ is: ‘The way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014).