Dispersals On plants, borders, and belonging

Jessica J. Lee, 1986-

Book - 2024

"A seed slips beyond a garden wall. A tree is planted on a precarious border. A shrub is stolen from its culture and its land. What happens when these plants leave their original homes and put down roots elsewhere? In fourteen essays, Dispersals explores the entanglements of the plant and human worlds: from species considered invasive, like giant hogweed; to those vilified but intimate, like soy; and those like kelp, on which our futures depend. Each of the plants considered in this collection are somehow perceived as being 'out of place'--weeds, samples collected through imperial science, crops introduced and transformed by our hand. Combining memoir, history, and scientific research in poetic prose, Jessica J. Lee meditates... on the question of how both plants and people come to belong, why both cross borders, and how our futures are more entwined than we might imagine"--

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New York : Catapult 2024.
Main Author
Jessica J. Lee, 1986- (author, -)
First Catapult edition
Physical Description
ix, 270 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographic references (pages 241-270).
  • A Note to the Reader
  • 1. Margin
  • 2. Border Trees
  • 3. Frontier
  • 4. Sweetness
  • 5. Tidal
  • 6. Words for Tea
  • 7. Dispersals
  • 8. Bitter Greens
  • 9. Bean
  • 10. Sour Fruit
  • 11. At the Scale of Water Drops
  • 12. Seed
  • 13. Pinetum
  • 14. Synonyms for "Mauve"
  • Acknowledgements
  • Notes
Review by Booklist Review

In this collection of essays, creative writing instructor and memoirist Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest (2020) and the children's book, A Garden Called Home (2024), reflects on her experiences moving across countries before and during the pandemic as she simultaneously explores the movements of plants that cross borders: "plants out of place." She begins with stories of a childhood spent with family and friends and her encounters with out-of-the-ordinary plants and their invasive behaviors and roles in the environment. The passage of fruits, pollens, and seeds across borders has long shaped human life and the interactions between cultures. Drawing on global histories and the role of the herbarium, Lee writes lucidly about her encounters with various plant species and poses reflective questions about plants and her own sense of belonging. Memoir readers interested in plants and environmental studies especially will find a poignant meditation on the parallels between plants and human societies when it comes to life's transitions and movements.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In these genre-defying essays, Lee (Two Trees Make a Forest), a creative writing instructor at the University of Cambridge, discusses the peregrinations of plant species in relation to her family's migrations. Born to a Welsh father and Taiwanese mother while both lived in Canada in the 1970s, Lee contends that the contrasting teatime rituals of her maternal and paternal grandparents speak to the historical rifts between China and Britain over the tea plant. She chronicles how Britain supplied China with opium from its Indian colonies in exchange for tea, which was subject to import tariffs that funded Britain's colonial enterprise. Reflecting on the pine species she's encountered while living in Canada, England, and Germany, Lee describes the trees "as migrants making do" for their resilience, adaptability, and easily spread seeds. Elsewhere, she traces the domestication of soybeans in connection with her grandmother's family's soy sauce business and how humanity's interventions in the natural world make it difficult to determine whether species are invasive or native. Lee does a masterful job of blending personal reflection with natural and political history, and her prose is crystalline (in the poignant final essay addressed to her newborn child, Lee writes, "Above us the hawthorn leafs out against a pale blue sky. You watch the play of light and shadow it creates, cooing each time you round your lips and exhale"). This deserves a wide audience. Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Assoc. (Mar.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In this richly textured work, environmental historian Lee (Two Trees Make a Forest) mines a variety of sources--personal, scientific, literary, historical--to explore the entwined paths of plants and humans. The book's 14 essays originated in "Non-Native Species," a column Lee wrote for Catapult magazine. Of Canadian, British, and Taiwanese ancestry and, at the time she wrote the book, an itinerant scholar in COVID-stricken Europe, Lee brings an interesting perspective to her discussion of non-native plants, which she calls "migrants." These migrant plants include those that move through weedy wiles (heath star moss), crop plants collected by imperial directive (tea), trees relocated via diplomatic or hegemonic endeavor (flowering cherry), and more. The author views her subject through a postcolonial lens. For example, in the brilliant chapter "Frontier," readers witness that sensibility developing as Lee surveys (and reconsiders) the work of botanists/explorers such as David Fairchild, Walter Tennyson Swingle, and Kin Yamei. VERDICT These essays critically probe the native/nonnative paradigm of invasive-species ecology. Lee's voice will stay with readers long after they finish this book.--Robert Eagan

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Sweeping histories and personal narratives of our entangled lives with plants. In this follow-up to Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, British Canadian Taiwanese author Lee delivers a memoir couched in botanical and environmental history. Chronicling the tension in her familial history of migration and travel and evoking a naturalist's sense of an individual within an ecological system, the author presents a vision of belonging that relies on flux, extraction, and replanting rather than stasis. She follows the lead of "plants that, in dispersal, might teach us what it means to live in the wake of change." In a narrative that often brings to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer, Lee strives to trace the often unseen yet volatile interface between plant and human life. The subjects of chapters have recognizable features that guide readers to broader narratives of that shifting border. Cherry trees, when exported from Japan, appear as unnatural features abroad and symbols of national influence often in colonial contexts, and they typify a host of historical arborists tracing nationalist lineages in trees. The tea leaves that fixated a national thirst continents away in turn fueled systems of British colonial extraction and influence in China, India, and the Caribbean. Individual species fallen upon by humans with specific hungers and ambitions soon adapt to these new environmental demands and in turn shape the desires and worldviews of their propagators. Lee asserts that as much as this influence is anthropogenic, it would be wrong to say that these plants do not shape our human evolution, captivating our tastes, consuming our attentions, and determining our political histories. Throughout, the author laces her histories with a subtle and personal optimism. Just as those plants replanted far from home, we can adapt to transition, dispersal, and recollection. An insightful meditation on nature and identity within "a world in motion." Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.