Re-Patterning with Kudzu

September 11th, 2019

The introduction of Kudzu into the American South has a storied history connecting rhetoric around migration and race with ecology.

Reckoning in Search of Regeneration

It is time to contend with kudzu, the multifaceted plant that is both a monolithic myth—the “vine that ate the South”—and a rooted, living plurality comprised of at least five species and subspecies of semi-woody climbing vines in the Pueraria genus. Transplanted from East Asia in an age of imperial expansion and bioprospecting, Pueraria species have become firmly rooted in the natural-cultural landscape of the Southeastern United States over the past 150 years. Meanwhile the myth of kudzu has seeped into the collective consciousness of Americans well beyond the plant’s biological range, becoming a rallying symbol for the “war on invasive species,” which has claimed the attention and energy of conservation biologists, agrochemical engineers, and weekend “weed warriors” across the United States in recent decades.

In all its forms, kudzu is an archetypal companion plant fitting for an age of mass extinction and climate chaos. Traveling to Natchez to meet kudzu on the contested American terrain it has colonized alongside many other migrants, I too will ground myself there to face our shared complicity in the ecocidal system that has brought us together. The distance between the secondhand stories, tales, and slurs that nourish kudzu, which colonizes our collective consciousness, and the leafy biological reality of the millions of plants that breathe, fix nitrogen, and stretch towards the sun is enormous. In the gap between the abstraction and the earthly reality there is ample space to interrogate the tenacious set of ills that plague the Western, settler-colonial environmental imaginary under late capitalism.

Introduction to Multisensorial Encounters with Kudzu

It is here in this gap that Re-patterning with Kudzu takes root. Through bodily engagement with this infamous being, Re-patterning with Kudzu is an entry point into the intertwining histories of indigenous and precolonial ecologies, global trade and bioprospecting, plantation monocultures, and agrochemical excesses. Video, paint-making, and ecology fieldwork will guide the creation of a multisensorial guide to tangling with this vegetal other, reckoning with nativeness and belonging, the racialized rhetoric of invasion biology, and the imperative for settler-colonial environmentalisms brought to confront the looming specter of white nationalist ecofascism. What does an anti-racist, nonviolent restoration ecology look like in the face of mass migration? How can we actively counter the “Make America Green Again” scenarios that rely on a fallacy of pristine wilderness premised on indigenous erasure?  Who benefits and who suffers under schemes to “eradicate” nonhuman lifeforms labeled as invasive? What impact does this rhetoric have on white, settler-colonial attitudes towards the rights of human migrants?

Although kudzu, a misunderstood edge-dweller in an Anthropocene drama, cannot answer these questions, it is a compelling companion with which to contemplate them. Perhaps in doing so, we can re-pattern ourselves to seek the narratives of abundance, regeneration, and flux that are so necessary if we are to replace the tired and dangerous habit of telling tales premised on scarcity, rigidity, and fear.

Grounding Exercise for Exploring Vegetal Agency and Soil Awareness