Academia in the Time of Cholera: Raising Generation Symbiocene (by Rhonda Chung)

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“[L]anguages, like all living things, have to live within environments, to which they must adapt. A language that only survives in the classroom, like a plant that only survives in a flowerpot, or an animal that only survives in the zoo, is a different thing—and in some respects a lesser thing—than one that survives in the wild…as a functioning part of a cultural ecosystem, where chatter, laughter, conversations, stories, songs, and dreams are as continuous as breathing” (Bringhurst, 2002, p. 10).

We find ourselves in the Cenozoic era. And while geologists claim that humans haven’t been on Earth long enough to warrant their own time period, anthropologists state that not only are we in the age of Anthropocene, we are witnessing its decline. Both camps, however, would agree that our human-driven activities of resource extraction, largely caused by our industrial agriculture practices, which view nature as an “external resource to be exploited” (Pennycook, 2022, p. 4), have drastically affected our ecosystems.

Facing the reality that our ecocidal practices endanger us has triggered diverse psychoterratic reactions. One is a paralyzing eco-anxiety that breeds apathy, at best, and denial, at worst. Another has been a wave of “positive earth emotions”, ushering in a social movement protective of the environment.

Distinguished guests, allow me to introduce: Generation Symbiocene (Albrecht, 2019).

Life after the Anthropocene marks the period after the sixth mass extinction, entering us into the Ecozoic era, and the age of Symbiocene, where we “nurture all aspects of being human in a world of other beings”. Within applied linguistics, nurturing inter-species connections involves understanding ourselves as “assemblages”, defined as “entangled groupings of different elements [allowing] for an appreciation of the ways in which different trajectories of people, semiotic possibilities and objects meet at particular moments and places.” (Pennycook, 2024, p. 15). Such Symbiotic relationships often engender biophilia and topophilia, observable in current folk or citizen science movements. For example, Landguaging (Chung & de la Cruz, 2024) provides a land-sensitizing and language-focused means of learning about the flora and fauna within a territory using either Indigenous-authored or environmentally-themed texts, and discussing cultural differences.

For the social sciences, entering posthumanism requires re-orienting our human-centered research towards a “common reference for our species, our polity and our relationship to the other inhabitants of this planet” (Bradiotti, 2013a, p. 1-2). This breakdown between man vs. nature, and inner vs. outer worlds allows us to understand language not as individualized properties, but “as distributed across people, places, and artefacts”, like those in the “linguistic landscape [and] geosemiotics” (Pennycook, 2018, p. 446, 455). Concretely, this means that knowledge can and must be derived from non-human species.

For example, orangutans evolved 12 to 15 million years ago, giving them greater knowledge of the ecosystem than humans, who are merely 300,000 years old. Sumatran orangutans have been observed chewing on the local Fibraurea tinctoria plant, which contains dozens of bioactive chemical compounds that act as a painkiller and fever reducer. After applying the resulting poultice to a wound, scientists noted that it closed in 8 days, and was completely healed within a month.

Gathering plant knowledge from non-human sources is, of course, something that Indigenous peoples have been tracking and have known for centuries (Simpson, 2014). Applied linguistics has specifically encouraged us to engage with Indigenous epistemologies, so as to shift the way “we think about language, place, knowledge and community” (Pennycook, 2022, p. 10).

Land Learning while in Diaspora

But what do I know about life on Turtle Island (North America)?

My own ancestors descend from four of the seven continents, but those not indigenous to Abya Yala (South America) were forced to migrate there because we are sun people, that is, we know how to survive the heat.

I am the first generation born into the winters of Turtle Island, specifically Tsí Tkaròn:to (Toronto), and I’ve been living in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal) for nearly 20 years. Both regions are stewarded by the Rotinonhsión:ni Six-Nations Confederacy and Anishinaabeg peoples. However, I’ve been educated to speak Western to the land, measuring, collecting, and curating down to the atom all stimuli, cultivating positivist relationships with my environment.

Creating Symbiotic relationships has meant confronting my land ignorance, and radically accepting that:

I know very little about the land that I walk on every day,

Like the aromas that waft through its hot spring air,

Or the rains that cool the earth.

What I’ve learned is that none of these things—the dandelions, the lilacs, or worms—are from here; they are the sights, smells, and wriggles of Europe brought by “homesick settlers” intent on creating a New England, une Nouvelle-France, una Nueva España, een Nieuw Amsterdam: “[T]he image of Man as a rational animal endowed with language” is an idea rooted in “deeply male-centred and Eurocentric” ontologies (Bradiotti, 2013b, p. 1-2).

Land insensitivity is, of course, part of the imperial plan. Colonialism is derived from the Latin colere (to cultivate), describing how settler colonies are “planted” on stolen territories, a process that involves violent displacement of Indigenous peoples, land theft, and intergenerational inequality for monetary gain (Veracini, 2022, p. 7). In North America, settler colonialism involves eliminating native ecosystems and maintaining monoculture (Wolfe, 2006), which translates to a language education system that reterritorializes European norms (e.g., English, French, and Spanish) on unceded territories (Motha, 2014).

How can I make good with this land when all I ever see, hear, and smell are European mirages?

The answer is to look to the land itself.

Whether I identify as Canadian, Montrealer, Torontoise, or Guyanese in diaspora, none of these people are from here; these are all settler identities. As of 2021, Indigenous people constitute 5% of Canada’s population, making me part of the 95% who are not really from here. To have citizenship to a settler nation is to inherit this past, regardless if my people were the architects of its design or not. By having a child, I’ve become responsible for future settler habitation on this territory. Although we are not from these lands, we don’t have to be, to want to take care of them.

Greenhousing our Futures

To envision a future on this land, my child and I needed to understand our past; specifically, the lands my ancestors came from and the plants that fed them, making us possible. Nutritional epigenetics explain that food consumption shapes our genetic make-up, affecting the growth of future generations. We are not simply eating apples and oranges, we are made by them. So, I teach my son that when he eats mangoes straight from the tree, his ancestors are coming alive inside him because they recognize this food and they are rooting for him.

You don’t have to live in a tropical place to grow tropical foods. Greenhouse cultivation for tropical plants has been reported since Roman times, and involves “growing crops inside structures covered with a transparent material that protects from extreme weather and unfavorable climatic conditions”. Due to increasing temperature extremes from the climate crisis, more communities are turning to protected cultivation to ensure that cultural transmission through food continues over generations.

For example, Inuvik communities in the Northwest Territories have been using greenhouses to combat food scarcity due to climate change and the outrageous food prices in Northern grocery stores. While they have not solved the food crisis, plant-based education and community-building are the most important aspects of the greenhouse movement, supporting Symbiosis.

In Montreal, a growing number of greenhouse initiatives have also emerged in the Asian and African diasporic communities, where members grow ancestral foods and sustain culinary traditions.

Since February, my son and I have undertaken weekend courses with Hamidou Agriculture at the Verdun greenhouse. Originally an accountant back in Niger, Hamidou Abdoulaye Maiga moved to Montreal in 2009, learning how to garden in greenhouses, but for plants indigenous to tropical climates.

In our first class, we learned how to cut and dry the drought-resistant Cassava (yuca, manioc; Manihot esculenta; indigenous to South America). We also learned to leave a third of the planter pot free when planting the gut-healthy Eddoe (taro; Colocasia antiquorum; indigenous to East Asia). Both root vegetables were transported between tropical countries in the South during the Columbian Exchange, and are heavily featured in Asian, Caribbean, South American, and West African cuisine as a starchy side that can be fried or used to thicken stews.

The following month, we chose the plants we’d be documenting over the remainder of the course. We chose the hot pepper, because what could be more iconic of the South than our heat?

All hot peppers originate in Central or South America. We are focusing on the Wiri Wiri pepper [Capsicum frutescens – Solanaceae], which is endemic to the Guiana Highlands, where my ancestors are either from or were brought to. Sometimes referred to as “maurwiwi” by locals like my father, this pepper’s name is likely derived from the Lokono “mauriuri” (Fanshawe, 1949), spoken by the local Arawaks, whose members travelled North and are related to the Taínos in the Caribbean—the first nation that encountered Columbus.

Part of the same botanical family as the neighbouring Cayenne pepper, which boasts a heat of 30,000-50,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU; in comparison, the jalapeño rates 2,500-8,000 SHU), the Wiri Wiri’s heat far surpasses it with a rating of 100,000-350,000 SHU. Although small, she is mighty, and her fruity perfume delivers a unique flavour infusion to any food she’s paired with.

We planted a dozen seeds, incubated them, and they are now waiting to be harvested this summer, and made into my father’s signature “murder sauce” that has infused so many of our traditional meals, like pepper pot, Guyana’s national dish, eaten at Christmas.

Motherhood in the Time of Academia

Time in the garden has rewarded me in ways that the classroom never has: “My experience of education, from kindergarten to graduate school, was one of coping with someone else’s agenda, curriculum, and pedagogy” (Simpson, 2014, p. 6), which in Canada and Québec has always beenEuropean-focused. University has always been a boy’s club for cloistered monks where the writing of grants is nothing more than an exercise in begging for alms. I was 8 months pregnant when I completed my first graduate-level degree, meaning that I have only known academia as a mother, in an institution not engineered to support motherhood. Despite academia’s urgings, there is no positivist way out of the very subjective experience that has physiologically and emotionally changed me: Matriarchy is transformational.

I am grateful for Indigenous and diasporic initiatives that de-center European frames of mind, bringing me closer to the land and my peoples. Becoming land-sensitive has been one constant assemblage, where the plants teach me about resilience when rebounding from thirst or disease, the importance of dormancy before a period of flourishing, and the pride of unfurling a new leaf—being 500 million years old, plants are formidable teachers.

Gathering plant knowledge from various traditions and ecosystems has allowed me and my son to explore the many peoples and plants that we embody, daydreaming about what it means to be connected to a land that naturally produces this kinda heat. These Landguaging lessons are not simply intellectual exercises, they are intentional acts of land-sensitization that are  intended to outlive me, and provide a path for him and his future generations to write and enact a love letter to the land.

Hear, hear Symbiocene!


Albrecht, G. A. (2019). Earth emotions: New words for a new world. Cornell University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2013a). The posthuman. Polity.

Braidotti, R. (2013b). Posthuman humanities. European Educational Research Journal, 12(1), 1-19.

Bringhurst, R. (2002). The tree of meaning and the work of ecological linguistics. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 7(2), 9-22.

Chung, R. & dela Cruz, J. (2024). Pedagogies of inclusion must start from within: Landguaging teacher reflection and plurilingualism in the “L2” classroom. In A. Charity Hudley, C. Mallinson, & M. Bucholtz (Eds.), Inclusion in Linguistics (pp. 291-311). Oxford University Press. Downloadable Plurilingual Landguaging  teaching template.

Fanshawe, D. B. (1949). Glossary of Arawak names in natural history. International Journal of American Linguistics, 15(1), 57-74.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. Teachers College Press.

Pennycook, A. (2018). Posthumanist applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 39(4), 445–461.

Pennycook, A. (2022). Critical applied linguistics in the 2020s. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 19(1), 1-21.

Pennycook, A. (2024). Language assemblages. Cambridge University Press.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1-25.

Veracini, L. (2022). Colonialism: A global history. Routledge.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387-409.

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