Research Feature: Holly Giacomondonato

The goal of my thesis is to present a history of the Halifax Public Gardens that subverts the nature-culture binary that is fundamental and implicit in so many academic subjects, including environmental disciplines. For example, how many times do we engage in the conversations about returning to or protecting nature as something that is outside of the human? Much of the literature that critiques the nature-culture binary has been conducted by sociologists and anthropologists of science (Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour are two of my favourites).

This is partly because in the lab, scientists often interact with actor-networks that include animals, plants, and bacteria. As well, the idea of a human who is a sovereign unit separate from all other living actors, is laughable when considering the bacteria colonies present in and on any part of the human body. Based on this understanding, the nature-culture binary appears to be a false dichotomy that the methodology of my research seeks to avoid.

My thesis argues that both human and plant assemblages are history-making actors affecting the creation of the Halifax Public Gardens. This relationship is examined by using Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to analyze power dynamics between the principal designer and plant assemblages in the Gardens, as well as exploring other significant actors’ relationships with plants. ANT subverts the nature-culture divide by both recognizing a diverse array of actors and using collectives such as networks or assemblages as preferred units of analysis. In ANT an actor is a being that enlists and represents other actors.

The principal designer of the Halifax, Richard Power, enlists and represents the plant assemblages in the Halifax Public Gardens by creating a design for the Gardens to which they are expected to conform. However, the plants in the Gardens attract Power with characteristics such as beauty or colour and affect his design by being successful or unsuccessful in the space. Plants in the Gardens are also selected based on their connection to the landscape of Europe or their ability to create European design features. This adds another layer of complexity to the power dynamics within the Halifax Public Gardens as the Europeans and their related plant assemblages claim more agency than indigenous people and plants due to the idea of improvement in landscape through design.

Plants are also shown to be actors through an exploration of their relationships with other significant actors in the Halifax Public Gardens. These actors include the City Council of Halifax, the Royal Family, and the public of Halifax. For example, the Royal Family is a significant component of the Halifax Public Gardens due to events held in their honour, their visits to the Gardens, and their impact on the design of the Gardens. The Royal Family has direct relationships, such as personally planting trees, and indirect relationships, such impacting flower bed design, with the plants in the Gardens.

Through Actor-Network Theory (ANT) the Halifax Public Gardens is shown to be a natural-cultural space. Why is this significant considering that ANT would argue that any space is a natural-cultural space? Well, as ANT is a relatively recent and unorthodox theory, it is useful to create case studies of how ANT can be applied to spaces. More importantly though, Halifax Public Gardens provides a good model for analysis as it is an understudied space, with strong patriotic association, and is a creation of the Victorian-era which was loaded with ideas of purity and separation which are criticized in this research.

Holly Giacomondonato is a fourth year Environmental & Sustainability Studies and Environmental Science student