‘Plants are not separate from our daily joys and anxieties’

The monastic lifestyle may feel both irrelevant and out of reach for many of us. But speaking to members of the National Ethnobotanic Hub ahead of the launch of their collaborative book Cloistered Spaces, TEODOR RELJIC finds that areas of quiet bliss are actually not that hard to find in noisy, overpopulated Malta, and that the habits of those who run them could teach us a thing or two about living the sustainable life

Capuchin Friary Floriana
Capuchin Friary Floriana

The word ‘monastic’ brings to mind a sense of peace, tranquillity and focused dedication that even at face value appears to contradict the always-connected, always-busy lifestyle that characterises the contemporary experience for most of us. We take it as something of a given that our minds will always be stretched to their limit – either by dint of work-related multi-tasking or by our own collective hand, as we rely on phenomena like social media to keep us passively entertained with constant updates and avenues for interaction and discussion. 

Whether these pursuits are worthwhile or not is a subject for another time, but the fact remains that they’ve become the default mode of processing life for most of the general population and that, even if it appears to be desirable, an alternative feels like too remote an option to even consider.

How could we possibly ‘go offline’ – even for a little while – when so much of our social, recreational and probably even professional life is so tightly wended to the digital connections we attend to? And is it realistic – and even morally correct – to temporarily ‘abandon’ these networks and their ‘real life’ equivalents for a little while, if only to remind ourselves what life was like before all these phenomena began to encroach on our mental space? Where do you draw the line between simply taking a break from your daily routine, and effectively disappearing from day-to-day life by ‘disconnecting’ for an extended period and risking to be relegated to a strange state of irrelevance? 

A new initiative by the President’s Foundation for Wellbeing of Society will be considering these issues – at least tangentially – through a new project organised by its National Hub for Ethnobotanical Research. ‘Cloistered Spaces’, a book set to be launched on 29 March at Verdala Palace, Rabat, will take as its subject precisely the kind of monastic spaces that appear to be counter to the churn of modern life. But it’s not just their seclusion and silence that the book will explore. Given that it’s an initiative forming part of the Foundation’s ethnobotanical arm, the publication will take the gardens that form part of such places as its primary focus. 

This is hardly a jump from our earlier topic, of course. The environment is a sensitive topic during these times for a good reason – the more our attention is riveted to newfangled things, the more we remain committed to consumption without considering its effects, and the more we are encouraged to ignore the damage we leave in its wake. This is where the project gains an added sense of urgency – it will also explore ‘practical’ dimensions to traditions which we are in danger of losing, such as the production of natural folk remedies.

In fact, researcher Pyt Farrugia, a volunteer with the Hub who also had a hand in the Cloistered Spaces book, described the monastic communities being considered as “the nation’s environmental and cultural heritage” and said that the project invites readers to consider how environmental heritage should become a more visible part of our cultural initiatives. 

“The narratives contained in the book revolve around key themes – the use of local produce, a deep connection to the histories of specific places, an awareness of seasonality, and the need for contemplation. Throughout the book we are confronted by what is being lost, in terms of our relationship with the earth, and what we stand to gain if we can find ways of reconnecting, authentically and sustainably, with the legacy of the islands’ environmental heritage,” Farrugia added.

Meanwhile Mario Gerada, the chair of the Ethnobotanical Hub, said that “while we are late” to safeguard all of the fading traditions that constitute the work of such spaces, “we are also in time – to avoid further loss of local traditional and folk knowledge on the use of plants, herbs, trees, fruits…” 

Gerada claims that “a number of communities are already engaging in a number of very interesting initiatives which many of us are not aware of”, and that everything that can be done should be done to bring these initiatives to public attention. 

For the publication, Gerada says that the Hub focused in particular on the cultural aspect of the field of ethnobotany, to highlight how plants participate and actually enhance human relationships and our interconnectedness. 

Mario Gerada (left)
Mario Gerada (left)

“In our case, ethnobotany is more of a lens to help us focus on interconnectedness and interrelatedness – it is a way how we look at our society afresh, to discover new dimensions and (dis) connections to that which is familiar to us.”

He elaborates on how religious communities actively ensure the much sought-after ‘holistic’ approach, utilising their buildings in ways which renew the principles of sustainability that these buildings were originally built on, because of necessity at the time. 

“Wells are being cleaned up, solar panels installed, gardens replanted and fields reforested, bee keeping emerged as another practice which a number of religious communities engaged in,” Gerada said, stressing that while these spaces have an obvious religious and spiritual meaning and symbolism for religious communities, they can also serve as practical spaces for relaxation or the production of food, “which pleases our senses as well”.

“A number of these narratives speak about community relationships, how members of the community help in the picking of fruit, or how the garden became a space for healing for someone who is in a correctional facility,” Gerada said, adding that “plants are not separate from the joys, hopes, the anxieties and the grief of our everyday lives, and it does contribute to human wellbeing”.

Finally, while hoping that the publication will in fact inspire people to reconsider their noisy, fast-paced lives, Gerada also believes it addresses yet another aspect of the Maltese environment – the built one – whose problems have come to the fore of late in the form of protests against ODZ development. 

“I hope it will help us reflect on our built spaces and their designs, and to remember that the garden was once a central element in our communities and villages, but we lost that to contemporary architecture and the ways towns and cities are designed or grow. It is about reminding us that gardens should not be luxurious but accessible and available, as commons.”

Spaces considered in ‘Cloistered Spaces’ 

•     Saint Peter’s Monastery, Mdina, Malta

•     Monastery of Saint Ursula, Valletta, Malta

•     Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Sliema, Malta

•     Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Valletta, Malta

•     Augustinian Monastery, Victoria, Gozo

•     Lunzjata Dominican Monastery, Birgu, Malta

•     Our Lady of the Grotto, Dominican Priory, Rabat, Malta

•     Dar Frate Jacoba, Marsaskala, Malta

•     Capuchin Friary, Floriana, Malta

•     Santa Liberata Capuchin Convent, Kalkara, Malta

•     Capuchin Friary, Victoria, Gozo

•     Saint Margaret’s Monastery, Bormla, Malta

•     Teresian Retreat House, Tas-Silg, Malta

•    Carmelite Priory, Mdina, Malta

•     Mount St Joseph Retreat House, Mosta, Malta

•     Manresa House, Victoria, Gozo

•     Villa Frere, Pietà, Malta

•    Comino

The National Ethnobotanical Hub – What’s it all about?

Mario Gerada elaborates on the goals of the National Ethnobotanical Hub within the President’s Foundation for Wellbeing in Society

“Simply put, we look at (our) traditional and folk relationships with plants, with a focus on the cultural, historical and linguistic dimensions of that through the field of ethnobotany – a multi-disciplinary field of learning which is focused primarily, though not exclusively, on three aspects: folk history, culture, and language. Plant names and the origins of those names reveal the cultural and ethnic connections – that is, people learn about the use of plants through the meeting and exchange of cultures and ethnicities, usually through trade and migration. Ethnobotany lends itself very nicely to further intercultural, intergenerational and interfaith dialogue. 

“At the Hub, we are re-examining our most simple and basic relationship we have: that of human relationships with plants, a relationship we rarely dwell upon, forgetting how dependent human life is on plant life and how plants can enhance human wellbeing.”  

Cloistered Spaces will be launched on today at Verdala Palace, Rabat from 15:00 to 17:30. To book a place, send an email on [email protected], or call on 2148 4662

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