Vivienne Glance reviews The Book of Thistles by Noëlle Janaczewska
The Book of Thistles
by Noëlle Janaczewska
Review by VIVIENNE GLANCE
ISBN: 978 174 258 8049
“Plants that stand for us
that stand for themselves
as we stand for ourselves.” P. 164
These lines appear around half-way through Noëlle Janaczewska’s The Book of Thistles. They are an apt summary of this ‘part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page’, as she describes it in the Introduction (p.9).
To fully appreciate this unique book, a close reading of the introduction places you into the mindset of the author. It is a work of ‘unaccompanied language, of ‘collage’, of ‘jump-cut across genres’. It is a contemplation of the author’s perspective on history and humanity’s interaction with the environment; and it explores this through the lens of Botany, in particular, the family of plants know as Asteraceae, the thistles.
The Book of Thistles is structured into five sections with rather mundane titles: Names, Law, War, Food and Outliers. But Janaczewska’s approach is to defamiliarize us with each of these and to stretch them beyond a mere application to the humble thistle, and take us into a deeper and less-defined understanding of place and history – both human and natural.
This book is not an easy read by any means; it is unsettling and has minimal narrative drive to pull the reader along. However, it is a fascinating and unusual treatment of what could be described as a philosophical exploration of the nature of ‘thistle’.
Names are important to not only botanists describing individual species, but to people and communities. To be named by your community defines your relationship with it and bestows you with connections and relevance to place. And place is an important aspect of the first section, Name, where Janaczewska talks of her English heritage and her move to Australia, where she has made her name as a playwright. Alongside and weaving into this are the names of various migrant thistles who have made this country their home. Because at its heart this book is about coming to terms with migration, and a reconciliation with both the effect of that, and with how one cannot fully detach from one’s native origin.
The author’s fascination with thistles began when she came across the yellow melancholy thistle whilst browsing a field guide to wildflowers in Britain and the United Kingdom ‘recharged my interest in the plant realm and our human interactions with it’ (p. 27). This takes her on to a contemplation not only of botany, but of colour, on melancholy as an emotion, and on memory.
The book continues in this way, jumping across genres, hoarding interesting gems like a bowerbird, laying out her research on a wide table for the reader to glance over and pause on whatever catches her eye. It is underpinned with some scientific notes, but is by no means a work of science, being more a flirtation with the botanist’s view of plants. In fact, the front matter recommends the book is classified under ‘Culture’, ‘Home’, ‘Emigration and Immigration’.
Other sections, such as Law, reflect Janaczewska’s flirtation with legal studies; and the following one, War, highlights how we not only fight each other, but are in a continuous battle with Nature, in order to control and to dominate. Both are unapologetic and stark reminders of our colonial heritage. This is concisely summarised by a single sentence ‘Weeds challenge our sense of entitlement’ (p. 152). It is also ironic to note that most of the attempts to eradicate thistles by weeding or by herbicides were carried out on the very same plants introduced either intentional unintentionally by Europeans.
There are few references to native Australian plants, but she does she highlight the Afghan thistle (Solonum holopetalum) which despite its name, is originally from Western Australia, and although prickly, is not a true thistle of the Asteraceae family. Originally thought to have arrived with the Afghan cameleers whose particular skills with camels were essential in colonising and exploring the desert country, Janaczewska uses the story of this plant to reveal the bigotry, racism and exploitation of these particular migrants during the colonial push into Australia’s desert interior in the 1800s.
The Food section is the most tenuous with its links to the main theme of the book. Janaczewska explores so- called ‘wild foods’ – uncultivated foods that are found growing in the bush or as ‘weeds’ in gardens. Janaczewska describes four native Australian thistles that she says are ‘out-and-out thistles’ (p. 203): the sow thistle (Sonchus hydrophilus), the Austral cornflower (Rhaponticum australe), the dune or beach thistle (Actites megalocarpus), and what she calls the ‘ghost thistle’ (Hemistepta lyrata). She is also unable to confirm if their indigneous names refer to a particular species or to thistles more generally (p. 204). However, Janaczewska has found some accounts of how local Aboriginal people ate these native thistles, although they are seen from the persepctive of the coloniser unaware of the value of the plant. For example, she references how a South Australian settler, Edward Stephens, “recalled how an Aboriginal party asked permission to harvest a large plot of sow thistles on the land he occupied. Take the lot, he told them. And ‘ten minutes later the ground was bare of thistles, and the tribe passed on gratefully devouring the juicy weed.’” (p. 233)
The thistle most commonly eaten in Australia, the globe artichoke, is an introduced species and is widely cultivated. The second most commonly eaten thistle, the cardoon, did not attract the Australian palette despite its popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Nonetheless, our fascination with food and eating (a primal need if ever there was one!) makes this section a fascinating read. This is enhanced by the way Janaczewska engages us with her poetic and playful use of language, blended in with newspaper reports and personal reflections. It creates a kaleidoscope of musings on our relationship with some of the more unusual plants we eat as food.
The final section, Outliers, seems to be a repository for all those other interesting and eccentric plants that could not be included elsewhere. It is here that Janaczewska is her most free with language and presentation, verging from anthropomorphism, poetry, lists, notes, scant impressions and inner monologues. This is the style of the journal, the ephemera of ideas that come together to show us more about the writer than the subject.
As a playwright, Janaczewska works in an artform that deals with immediacy: the words spoken on stage must convey meaning as they are heard. They can inform us about the characters on stage, or about the plot, or at times the philosophical obsessions of the playwright. Her approach to this book has a performative resonance throughout, particularly in her use of imagery and juxtaposing perspectives, and at times I felt the language demanded to be spoke aloud. Indeed, some parts are written in the format of a play text or film script.
It is not an easy read, but it is a refreshing and innovative exploration of thistles in all their variety. Janaczewska does not hold the reader’s hand and lead her along a carefully constructed path as if this were a documentary account. But like the wildflowers that have so fascinated her for most of her life, she allows the seeds of her contemplations to float on the breeze and lodge themselves into the fertile soil of our imaginations so we can cultivate our own impressions of this prickly topic.
VIVIENNE GLANCE is the Drama Studio London and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance; and diversity and multiculturalism in the Arts. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.