Zines that connect to plants, the environment and nature often distribute knowledges with long histories as well as offering new ways of relating to the future, says Lea Cooper in part five of their series on zines in the medical humanities.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (2019), in which a house is the holder of fragmented memory, the archive of an abusive same-sex relationship. Like all good zine puns, this one draws from the many layers of the book that inspired it.
Zines have an entwined relationship with archives, trauma, memory, narrative, queerness, the domestic, and home. This series of posts takes you on a tour of the Zine House – using its rooms to structure and explore zines around health, illness, disability, neurodivergence and madness. In doing so, I hope to illustrate some of the potential and complexities of zines in the medical humanities. I’m not going to define zines, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out Zines 101 on my website.
In our last instalment, we were in the kitchen. We ended our time there standing at the sink, looking out over the garden. Rather than considering the bathroom and kitchen a duo, I like to think of them as part of a trio that includes the garden. On a sustainable building course I went on, I learnt about the cyclical flow of water through the Brighton Earthship: rain falls and is collected and filtered; this is used for the kitchen and bathroom taps; the grey water then flows through planted treatment cells; this recycled water is used to flush the toilet; the waste water from the toilet heads to a settling tank, which overflows into a reed bed; at the end of the reed bed, the filtered water returns to nature.
In the garden are zines that connect to plants, the environment, the outside, and nature. Here, we find zines that (re)produce and distribute knowledges about plants, herbal remedies, growing and gardening. These zines are often engaged in connecting to knowledges with long histories – including Indigenous and folk knowledges – which have been suppressed by a capitalist and patriarchal white settler colonialism. There are zines which engage with the experience of being with/in nature (a phrasing used by Sheree Mack in her contribution to Black Nature in Residence Zine (2021)), and zines concerned with climate justice in the many ways it manifests (including health and disability justice). The zines in the garden, as well as building relationships to the past, offer different relationships to our futures.
Sharing knowledges about health, herbs, growing and gardening
One of the ways that the garden and the kitchen are linked is in connections between growing or foraging, cooking and eating. There are zines that record and share knowledge on herbal remedies, such as Edible, Medicinal & Utilitarian Plants (Walking Wolf & Highmountain 2009) and Reclaiming our Ancient Wisdom (Jeunet 2016). These zines often make explicit the ways knowledge sharing is part of broader decolonial, feminist or anti-capitalist work – although it is worth acknowledging that this isn’t an inherent quality of zines; they are not immune to engaging in appropriation, orientalism, and erasure. Still, many of the health practices, interventions and treatments the zines in the Garden prescribe are concerned with topics absent or excluded from conventional medicine, such as reproductive health, the health impacts of racial trauma, trans-specific healthcare, and Health At Any Size. These zines offer insight into how different health knowledges circulate, are (re)produced, work to fill gaps in existing provisions, and document, imagine and enact different ways of practising healthcare.
Growing and Gardens (2020) by Kirsty Fife reproduces pages from an ongoing diary/notebook and explores ‘their relationship with gardening as a mentally ill, fat, working class queer’ (no page numbers). Fife reflects on the practice of gardening: “a practice that has kept me more sane than I’ve ever been before” (2020, no page numbers), through their time at their allotment, in their front garden and in their father’s garden. It covers close to a full year – from early 2020 to early 2021 – and touches on the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on relationships to the outdoors.
Similarly Rachel Rolseth’s The Persephone Project : death, rebirth & ripple ecology : soil medicine seeds ferments (2016) blends perzine with practical information to recount Rachel’s experiences working on a farm after struggling with seasonal depression. Both consider temporalities including cycles, rhizomes and seasons – The Persephone Project (2016)’s cover image of a pomegranate references Persephone’s seasonal movement to and from the underworld in Greek mythology. In Growing and Gardens, Fife writes: “When I started this I had aims to write this as a more linear story of the year but I guess most narratives about growing aren’t that linear anyway (yes, that’s cheesy)” (2020, no page numbers). Cheesy or not, Fife’s observation connects to the potential of zines for exploring and recording growth, in all its non-linearity.
Tracing different relationships to ‘nature’
Black Nature in Residence Zine (Mack (ed) 2021), Cyclista Zine (Torres (ed)) and Cruising Nature (Wiffen (ed) 2022) are each compilation or collaborative zines that assemble, document and (re)produce different relationships to nature, plants and the outdoors.
Black Nature in Residence (Mack (ed) 2021) was created and released as part of the Black Nature in Residence Project, 2020/21. Within the zine, contributions from the writers – Wajid Hussain, Niveen Kassem, Sheree Mack and Jola Olafimihan – make use of the multi-media and experimental form of the zine to produce enmeshed writing and image. The zine uses coloured dots to signify the authorship of pages – allowing individual contributors’ pages to blur together to create a collaborative object, even out of separate work. Contributions explore relationships to nature, to embodiment, to healing. The landscapes of the North East prompt reflections on time, from the past through to the present day and Jola Olafimihan’s discovery of racist graffiti on a bus stop bench after a walk, through to imagined or speculative futures.
The collaborative zine Cruising Nature (Wiffen (ed) 2022) emerged from workshops run around the idea of cruising nature, which facilitator and editor Declan Wiffen explains “seeks to shift what has been traditionally a gay male practice and attempts to value alternative experiences of all genders and sexualities with/in ‘nature’ and the non-human world; to take the focus away from the human and see where desire might take us when we allow our attention, imagination and writing to loiter and wander without specific destination or focus”(Wiffen 2021). The zine form is used to document or collect traces of this writing practice.
On its website Cyclista Zine (Torres (ed)) describes itself as “a biannual zine focused on sharing knowledge, art and stories of BIPOC & WTF folks in cycling”. Its seven issues serve as a reminder that nature isn’t a neutral descriptive term and poses a direct challenge to ways cycling and the outdoors industry constitute nature as something accessed by the white middle classes for leisure or sport. Many of the contributions offer nuanced and intersectional perspectives on relationships to the outdoors, including on the Indigenous-led LandBack movement, trans inclusion, accessibility, and decolonisation. As part of their explicitly feminist and intersectional approach, Cyclista Zine centres cycling as transport and discusses transport justice, environmental justice and social justice as intimately linked. Cyclista Zine is also explicit about its links to radical histories of self-publishing and engages in wider practices of zine cultures such as collecting and sharing zines through their online bike zine library.
Approaching the climate emergency through third space knowledges
Many of the zines in the Garden, like Cyclista, connect to the climate emergency and climate justice. The ’third-space’ or ‘borderland’ knowledges that some zines produce (Licona 2012), which trouble distinctions between academic theory or professional knowledge and lay knowledge or lived experience, means they engage with the relationship between the personal and political in activism and the climate emergency.
Take Care (Randall 2020) is a zine at the junction of activism, Covid-19 and self-care, discussing shifts online in response to Covid-19 and tracing practices of online organising while reflecting on the challenges of activism under the pressure of the pandemic. Although handwritten and assembled using stickers designed by the autonomous design group for the cancelled April 3 2020 climate strike, the zine is digital, with square pages suited to sharing on Instagram – mirroring the shifts that Randall is explicitly exploring within the zine.
All together: a primer for connecting to place and cultivating ecological citizenship (Percy 2017) and its follow up Otherwise: on reconnecting to life, facing the climate crisis, and shaping the future (Percy 2019) are both question- and exercise-driven workbooks covering how to be an ecological citizen, how to defend the area you live in, climate grief and anger, hope and creative resistance. These two zines, like Cruising Nature (Wiffen (ed) 2022), offer a place to practice, trace and document personal explorations of a different approach to the world we are in.
Some zines on the climate emergency are engaged in using the creative possibilities of zine making to imagine different futures (utopian or otherwise). Others offer an insight into how we might reconfigure our relationship to these futures. At a workshop I ran as part of the Edinburgh Zine Festival 2022 – ‘Its Not The End of The World: Zines & Activism’ – we considered how zines might also allow us to imagine ourselves as ancestors, and offer a way to pass on knowledge – asking what legacy we want to leave for future climate activists. This approach was based both on an acknowledgement of the ways that existing zines, such as the ones discussed earlier about plant knowledges, create or strengthen lineages. It also involved a fundamental re-orientation: the fight for climate justice extends beyond our lifetimes. The workshop’s title had multiple meanings and was inspired in part by the anthology Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction (Whitehead (ed) 2020) – an acknowledgement that Indigenous communities have already survived multiple apocalypses and the different approaches to speculative fiction, to imagining alternate futures (or pasts, or presents, or temporalities), that result.
The zines in the garden offer and connect new and old ways of constituting, understanding and relating to ‘nature’, whether that’s through sharing knowledges of plant-based medicine, challenging how ‘the Outdoors’ is constituted by the outdoors industry, or prompting us to think about our roles and responsibilities as ecological citizens. Wound through the Garden are the ways that these zines create and strengthen lineages, foreground the processual, reconfigure growth and change as non-linear, constitute activism as not straightforward progress towards a fixed goal but instead ongoing practices, and parallel the seasons, cycles and rhizomes of the natural world to explore and offer alternative temporalities.
Where can I find these zines?
Edible, Medicinal & Utilitarian Plants (Walking Wolf & Highmountain 2009) and Reclaiming our Ancient Wisdom (Jeunet 2016), alongside other herbalism zines, can be found on Archive.org, or via Sprout Distro.Growing and Gardens (Fife 2020) can be found amongst Kirsty Fife’s other zines on their website. Black Nature in Residence Zine (Mack (ed) 2020) and more information about the residency can be found on their website. Issues of Cyclista Zine (Torres (ed)) can be found on their website. Take Care (Randall 2020) can be found on Young Friends of the Earth Scotland’s facebook. Cruising Nature (Wiffen (ed) 2022) can be found via editor Declan Wiffen’s Instagram.
Growing and Gardens (Fife 2020), The Persephone project (Rolseth 2016), and Black Nature in Residence Zine (Mack (ed) 2020) can all be found in Wellcome Collection.
Read the full In The Zine House series
Fife, Kirsty. 2020. Growing and Gardening. Zine.
Jeunet, Catherine Marie. 2016. Reclaiming our Ancient Wisdom. Zine.
Licona, Adela C. 2012. Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric. New York*: SUNY Press. *New York City is situated on the homeland of the Lenape (Lenapehoking).
Whitehead, Joshua. 2020. Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. Vancouver**: Arsenal Pulp Press. **Vancouver is situated on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation).
Mack, Sheree. 2021. Black Nature Zine. Zine.
Percy, Emma Lucille. 2017. All together : a primer for connecting to place and cultivating ecological citizenship. Zine.
Percy, Emma Lucille. 2019. Otherwise : on reconnecting to life, facing the climate crisis, and shaping the future. Zine.
Randall, Catrina. 2020. Take Care. Zine.
Rolseth, Rachel. 2016. The Persephone Project: death, rebirth & ripple ecology : soil medicine seeds ferments. Zine.
Torres, Christina (ed). Cylista Zine Issues 1-7. Zine.
Walking Wolf, Rowan & Highmountain, Harun. 2009. Edible, Medicinal & Utilitarian Plants. Zine.
Wiffen, Declan (ed). 2022. Cruising Nature. Zine.
Wiffen, Declan. 2021. “Interview with Declan Wiffen”. Interview by Tawnya Renelle. Beyond Form Creative Writing. https://www.beyondformcreativewriting.com/post/interview-with-declan-wiffen.
About the author
Lilith (Lea, as in sea) Cooper is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at Wellcome Collection. They balance their PhD research with zine and comics making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and an arts practice. Find them at www.zinejam.com or on twitter at @lilithjcooper.