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Maenge gardens

Françoise Panoff


Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern

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1Maenge Gardens makes its reappearance in the world at a moment of new sensitivity to the worlds, the life spaces, which human beings take to be their environment. At the time of this study, the Maenge people of New Britain did not have to spell out the need of species for one another, for the life they saw did not set them apart from what was around them. If domesticated plants were akin to people, animated by the care bestowed on them, Maenge also knew that plants of all kinds flourished in one another’s company. Introducing a latter-day inflection is prompted by the latter-day pertinence of this work. Also newly appeared are other works drawing upon the inspiration of plant life, whether is it for thinking about contemporary ethics (Battaglia 2017), about the way people tie their environment together in the juxtaposition of species (Damon 2017), or about garden cycles that invite us to reappraise the dynamics of ritual exchanges (Schneider 2017). Not to mention the documented antiquity of plant associations in this part of the world (Golson et al. 2017). Springing from diverse parts of Melanesia as these current works do, they speak to Maenge people’s concerns about their primary cultigen, in this case taro, which – the phrasing is Françoise Panoff’s – must be helped to grow. The book could not be published at a more auspicious time.

2Writing this Foreword gathers up, for me, the recollected pleasures of a brief acquaintance with Françoise Panoff in Canberra in the late 1960s. Three cyclostyled seminar papers bring back the backbone of her fascination with the differentiations and combinations of plant species through which Maenge interests chimed with her own. One of the papers (published in Oceania in 1969) is the origin of the telling sentence cited in the Introduction: gardens are not only laboratories for experiments but sources of delight for the senses. A letter written from the field talks of her house being transformed into “a herbalist’s den”: “fragrance from bark and leaves permeates everything”. For what Panoff brought into the arena of Melanesianists’ concerns with kinship, ritual, cargo cult activities and the like, as they were then, was the precision of her specific discipline, ethnobotany. When she also wrote (in the same 1968 seminar paper), “no-one eats just taro but a variety of taro, the flavour of which is better or worse than the flavour of the taro eaten the day before”, her emphasis on variety is botanically as well as ethnographically charged.

3Although Panoff published a handful of papers on some of the themes treated in her thesis, conscious at the time of how much there was still to do, this longer work provides a context that has in many respects garnered even more significance than it had then. The point is perhaps most evident in her Man paper (1970), which was on the values ascribed to different moments of bodily growth and decay, a discussion that sprang from her observations of a certain gardening rite. The journal’s readers would surely have found this first and foremost a contribution to symbolic analysis and debates about categorical thinking. Its focus is how, as a matter of logic, one can reconcile Maenge distaste for dirt and rotten things with the magic for which they are famous, using earth said to be python faeces in their gardening rites. When a plot is cleared, this earth is stuffed into a taro that is then buried in the garden, in order to give soul to the garden’s plants and make the corms heavy so even a small piece will stop hunger (it is the soul of taro – what has passed through the body of supernatural beings – that is the nourishing part). To come across the discussion, all over again, in this present work, amongst the activities and concerns that animate Maenge gardeners as gardeners, is to be offered a different perspective. One might almost observe that it gives us a point of view from taro’s enrolment of human energy. That taro have souls at all is a consequence of people’s attention, and throughout the growing stages the plants of any particular garden must be taught what to do, as well as encouraged through quick-growing cordylines and other associates living nearby. The book thus enlarges our sense of the way this plant compels gardeners to ever greater effort, dominating above all the life of the Father of the Village who works tirelessly to sustain the inner life of it and its associates.

4The Introduction puts Panoff’s enquiries into the arena of contemporary 1960s explorations of Pacific domesticates, as well as anthropologists’ then rejuvenated concern with classificatory systems: not long after leaving her herbalist’s den she was back in Paris planning a series of papers for Lévi-Strauss’s seminar. However, and as with all good ethnographies, the author’s overt frameworks for thinking are outrun by the enduring record of her encounters. This comes out through the detailed analysis of garden rituals, no less detailed than what we learn of the way plots are organized or of the varieties of the ornamental cultigen, cordyline, that keep taro company in the gardens. “Company” is not Panoff’s idiom, but it is not inapposite for summoning a kind of implied commonality. However, there are different kinds of company. For when it comes to how people act on their concerns for plant growth through mobilizing other kinds of plants, their actions also inscribe a division between what, in becoming the objects of rites, people nurture – the range crosses all kinds of edible or nonedible, vegetal or arboreal, species – and, as she says at the outset, the species they keep as “wild”. Rather than being assimilated (to people), these exogenous entities feature in the garden rites for the distinct kind of assistance they offer. In Panoff’s description of the concern with fertility that leads Maenge gardeners to seek out new and distinctive crops, the value they place on such distinctiveness – on discontinuity – appears of a piece with the way their attention to diverse plants at once maintains and crosses the salient boundaries of wild, semi-domesticates and cultivates. And if the support of cultigens by wild plants is key, as Barbira Freedman concludes, then “cultivation” becomes a less than adequate descriptive for the diversity of partnerships that “support” entails.

5Inestimable is the value of having an anthropologist who is also an ethnobotanist take care of this volume. To be able to appreciate the extent to which Panoff diverged from the conventional understandings of historical ecology in the 1960s, and to which her work posed several challenges, comes directly from Françoise Barbira Freedman’s skilful contextualization. She also hints at some of the conventions that were sedimenting as taken for granted axioms in sociocultural understandings of the time, such as symbolic differentiations being read primarily as oppositions and dichotomies; these assumptions were equally challengeable. As editor, Barbira Freedman has brought the book to fruition; more than that, her painstaking checking and correlating of the botanical information means that Maenge Gardens comes into its own as an up-to-date contribution to our changing knowledge of the conditions of life’s spaces, past and present. In such dedication, I see something of Panoff’s own dedication to these Melanesians and their plants.



Battaglia, Debbora 2017. “Aeroponic Gardens and their Magic: Plants/Persons/Ethics in Suspension”. History and Anthropology, 28 (3): 263-292.

Damon, Fred 2017. Trees, Knots and Outriggers: Environmental knowledge in the Northeat Kula Ring. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books.

Golson, Jack, Tim Denham, Philip Hughes, Pamela Swadling and John Muke 2017. Ten Thousand Years of Cultivation at Kuk Swamp in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Canberra: ANU Press.

Panoff, Françoise 1969. “Some facets of Maenge horticulture”. Oceania, 40 (1): 20-31.

Panoff, Françoise 1970. “Food and Faeces: A Melanesian Rite”. Man (n.s), 5 (2): 237-252.

Schneider, Almut 2017. La vie qui vient d’ailleurs. Mouvements, échanges et rituels dans les Hautes-Terres de la Papouasie-Nouvelle-Guinée, Berlin: Lit Verlag (Comparative Anthropological Studies in Society, Cosmology and Politics, Vol. 10).

© pacific-credo Publications, 2018

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