Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke is a book I stumbled upon while looking for something else. It’s tempting to say it’s a very niche subject; the authors say this is the first book on the topic. After reading the introduction I’ve no reason to doubt what the authors say is true, but they make such a strong case that plant smoke has been neglected that it is surprising that more study hasn’t been done. One reason why plant smoke may prove a fertile ground for research in the future, the authors point out, is that many of the compounds in smoke are created by the act of burning and so aren’t found in the plant itself. There are potentially a vast number of compounds to analyse and these may have valuable properties that have been overlooked.
This isn’t the first collaboration between the authors. Previous has also looked at the uses of plant smoke, particularly as a trigger for germination. Marcello Pennacchio has also researched plants used by Australian aboriginals. Lara V Jefferson is clearly botanically informed. She has a weblog that talks about her environmental work with the mining industry. I’m not familiar with the intensity of mining in Western Australia. It’s not clear to what extent the authors are familiar with anthropology or history. Additionally there’s a short foreword by Peter Raven, which should be a sign that what follows is going to be worth a lot of attention.
The introduction gives examples of some the uses. The current bad reputation of smoking is tackled with anthropological examples of smoke being used for medicinal purposes. This seems particularly well attested among the aboriginal people of Australia, but this is also where one of the authors did much of his fieldwork. Hallucinogens are also shown as is incense, which is generally viewed as a more socially acceptable way of having a good time with smoke. Depending on where you draw the line this can segue in magical uses. There are other less obvious uses, but the examples are well-known, like the use of smoke for pest control and for communication via smoke signals. There were one or two places where I thought a few more references would have been useful. For example, my first degree was in Ancient History and Archaeology so I feel a bit foolish for having no idea of when Mark Anthony’s soldiers were driven mad – possibly by jimsonweed. The only ancient source I have found is Plutarch’s Life of Antony 45.5-6. Mark Antony isn’t a major interest for me so I hope there are better sources I’ve missed. Despite that, the introduction is good as far as it goes. Unfortunately as far as discussion matters that’s more or less it for the book. The rest is an alphabetical list of species and the possible uses they have been put to.
The descriptions vary, understandably due in part the how common their use is around the world and the work that has been done. One the first page of the list “Abies lasiocarpa (Hook.) Nutt. (Pinaceae). Rocky Mountain fir” gets an entry that details its use as incense for the Crow, a headache cure, a treatment for tuberculosis and a treatment for venereal diseases by the Blackfoot. A tranquilliser for those sacred of thunder by the Cheyenne and an incense for sweathouses by the Nex Perce. The following entry, “Abies spectabilis Spach (Pinaceae). Himalayan fir”, could have fitted on one line if Manandahar, the author cited as the source, had had a shorter name. This isn’t bad, but it reflects the patchy nature of knowledge at the current time, which means quite a few entries are extremely short.
In some cases the descriptions might be a bit too short. The entry for “Antennaria margaritacea (L) Sweet (Asteraceae)” reads; “Ross (2002) suggest that the dried leaves of this species can be smoked for pleasure. No other details about its use were given.” This is a bit of a problem in that it doesn’t mention who smoked the leaves. You could flip to the back of the book, but the entry above “Antennaria aprica Greene (Asteraceae)” also refers to Ross (2002) and mentions that the people in question are the Navajo. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it seemed as though the authors were expecting the book to be read alphabetically. I could see anthropologists search for information by region, or possibly to compare treatments for tuberculosis or other diseases, but I wasn’t convinced that they’d look for species in alphabetical order as a first choice.
This turns out to be an unfair criticism as after the plants come a couple of indices, including one that is useful for exactly the sort of questions that anthropologists would ask. Given that and the range of questions that could be asked, alphabetical order is eminently sensible. Indeed if I hadn’t started reading in alphabetical order I may not have noticed that Antennaria margaritacea was an odd entry.
Looking at how the book will be used, I wonder if the authors are going to get all the credit they deserve for this work. They acknowledge that the value of the entries is only as good as the report they are based upon. This depends on many factors, including whether or not the fieldworker has correctly identified the plant. Therefore while this is a good first point of call, any research has to move into the original reports and work around those. When it comes to citation is there a need to cite this work? This book is adding nothing original in the entry itself, it’s value lies in putting this information into an accessible volume. There is also a matter of whether hard-copy is the right format for this work. Here the search function of a Kindle works for tracking information through the work and perhaps an updatable wiki could have been a better system. As long as an OUP volume has more academic cachet than a wiki it would be a poor career move for anyone to take the wiki option. However it may work for future editions if it sparks more work in this field.
If there’s any justice, this book should provoke more work into plant smoke. There is plenty of material for research in here. Some questions may seem obvious, like looking for chemical similarities in medicinal smoke remedies. The range of uses also allows for some odder questions to be asked. A number of plants are burned to ward off evil spirits. Is there something biological that smells like evil spirit? Another possibility is that it’s not merely the smoke that makes a plant useful against evil but maybe also the location it grows. Are such plants found in liminal zones like the edge of settlements, or on the borders of unused land? A few minutes thought could suggest a few possible lines of research when I wasn’t even aware of the question till reading through the entries.
To large extent this is what matters in an academic book, does it further conversation? Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke definitely does. There are the tools there with the referenced entries and indices to create ideas and provide direction to take enquiries further. It helps that the book is readable too. It’s the way that this book opens new questions that makes it academically useful, but potentially disappointing to a general reader. There is still a good lengthy synthesis to be written on the use of plant smoke, and this isn’t it. The range of detailed research to write such a book probably doesn’t exist yet. My hopes are that it will inspire the large amount of work that makes such a synthesis possible in such volume that the book will rapidly appear dated to the extent a new edition is needed. I am a bit overworked at the moment so I shouldn’t be looking at new projects, but the next time I’m in a half-decent library I might have a few more articles on my to-photocopy list that I’ll want to follow-up.
Aside from the book, browsable on Google Books, Lara V Jefferson’s Environmental Applications in Mining weblog looks like it will be worth following if you have an interest in conservation and environmental impacts associated with mining.