Feminist entanglements of care

feminist entanglements of care
Wendy and Enid guerrilla gardening in Chennai. All photos: Irene Leonardelli

Thinking with care does not mean romanticizing, idealizing isolated stories. On the contrary, it means taking seriously the troubled dynamics and relations that shape our everyday life, our bodies, and our worlds, paying attention to what, who and whose knowledge is cared for or neglected. Care means constantly being aware of our positionality and situated way of knowing (as white, western, well-educated women) but allows us to consider alliances for more just and equitable socionatural worlds.

We share below how our time together in India in February inspired us to disentangle some of the “threads of care” that shape how we think and conduct research as feminist political ecologists.

 A long train journey from Pune to Chennai

feminist entanglements of care
Irene and Wendy on the Chennai Express, 22 hours train journey from Pune to Chennai

 Two of us, mentor and student of the WEGO network,  are sitting on the Chennai Express: twenty-two hours from Pune to Chennai: from sunset in Pune, through a night filled with loud snoring, to a bright sunrise, a few thousand kilometres further south in India. Our attention keeps swinging between the outside world and the aisle. Dozens of servicemen are continuously passing by to sell chai [Indian tea], coffee, rothi [Indian bread], snacks, pani bottles [water bottles], and more. They walk by in a perennial rush. Every time we want a chai we try often in vein to attract their attention. Indian passengers are heard right away. What are we doing wrong? How does what we want get so lost in translation? We are reminded of art of noticing, of listening, of learning how to share, how to ask, how to communicate – patiently, humbly, carefully. 

Outside the cabin window, we watch India roll by: the immense extensions of bare and cultivated land. We marvel at the nuances of green and yellow, the fruit trees, rock formations, palms, groups of houses and temples, construction workers under the harsh sun, children playing next to the rails, women farmers bending over rice paddies. Are they weeding? Are they harvesting? What are their stories? Why do we care about their stories? Why do we care for the places they inhabit? What as visitors can we understand? 

The train journey through India helps us to reflect on how caring about others, about what life offers or does not to others, shapes how we think as feminist political ecologists. 

The art of noticing and doing: guerrilla gardening

feminist entanglements of care
Irene with Varsha, a woman farmer and friend in the village where she is conducting research

My brief time in India in February 2020 was a moment to practice the art of noticing how care was entangled in transnational feminist connections that wove in and out of visceral sensations, sights, colours and smells as I travelled through others’ lives and places. My journey was one of privilege, paid for by EU funds, and being cared for by members of the WEGO research network. People were caring about how and where I slept, how I would move from place to place, what I ate, what I drank, what I wanted to see. As an invited (self-funded) visitor to academic or activist institutions you are not quite a tourist. You build on histories representing ideas and possibilities. You are invited to fit into peoples’ lives, as you join momentarily a community of scholars/ feminists/ activists. Your aim is to find ways to resonate with others’ experiences as you collectively seek to go beyond the differences, look for the connections and to assess what knowledge exchange is possible. Words and names are used like signals. It is an elaborate pattern of building transnational meanings, one I have engaged in for many years. The entanglement of political hopes, shared experiences and analysis of what is possible means caring, on multiple levels. The sense of pleasure in finding that we do care even if we only meet for that moment, is always eerily comforting, as albeit  the differences in culture, language and the everyday is also very present.

My reason for this trip was to learn from and have a glimpse of how Irene and Enid, two of the WEGO PhDs were experiencing their time in India. Their care for me and others around them made the trip possible. From lecture halls in leafy universities, we spent time enjoying the beauty of ancient trees, centuries-old temples, choosing food to cook together, visiting local cooperatives and sharing the wonder of sunsets and moon-lit skies. We spoke about care for more than human others, as we watched the two stray dogs that lived in the grounds of Enid’s building, and decided to do some hands on care-work: cleaning the ground of rubbish and putting in some (resilient) plants in front of Enid’s apartment.  

feminist entanglements of care
At the organic farmer market in Chennai

We began our guerrilla gardening in the cool of the morning.  Wearing closed shoes and long jeans to avoid thorns, and the snakes or whatever was in those weeds, we set to work. We removed a lot of plastic, glass and old paper and other unidentifiable man-made waste. In the afternoon we located a nearby nursery run by a woman who was growing edible and medicinal plants for well-being in her family farm outside of Chennai. We bought what we could carry back, along with a bag of cow dung. The evening task was digging and spreading the dung and planting different herbs, creepers and aloe vera around the older thirsty trees, on the now cleaned ground. We placed a ring of stones around each tiny plant. As the evening shadows spread, we watered the plants, and stepped back to see the fruits of our care in practice.

Wendy Harcourt, January 2020

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