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Maenge gardens

Françoise Panoff

Introduction from the editor

Françoise Barbira Freedman

Texte intégral

  • 1 Damon 2017; Denham 2011; Kirch 1989; Leach 2010; Merlin 2000; Powell 1976; Sterly 1997; Yen 1985 a (...)

1Nearly half a century has elapsed since Françoise Panoff conducted her detailed field study of gardens among the coastal Maenge and the Longueinga Mengen in southwest New Britain. During this time, a great deal of research has been conducted on the economic botany, the ethnobotany and the paleo-botany of the Pacific region, more particularly in Melanesia.1 Panoff’s doctoral thesis, submitted to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra in 1970, offers far more than a historical window on the complex relationships between the Maenge and their taro gardens at a transitional time when ceremonial gardens were undermined by an expanding plantation economy. As she put it clearly in an article published in 1969, “the present study is not concerned with Maenge horticulture as it can be described from a technological or ecological point of view, nor with the problem of comparing Maenge systems of classification to those used by Western scientists, such as has been done by Conklin and recently by Bulmer. Its aim is to disclose the specific relationship these people have to their cultivated plants” (1969: 20).

  • 2 Specimens were deposited in the Lae Herbarium in Papua New Guinea.

2The Maenge spend an inordinate amount of time engaging in actions and thoughts that are outside the scope of a utilitarian focus on growing food. Indeed, they themselves make a distinction between their “beautiful” taro gardens and the “fields” in which they cultivate other root crops. The preparation of the soil, the acquisition, selection and adaptation of taro cultivars, the complex operations supporting growth and leading to the harvest, consumption and/or storage of corms are social acts. They all rely on intricate links between biological knowledge, intra and inter-village relationships, and on rituals ensuring nurturing exchanges between personified taro plants and human gardeners. The central assertion in Panoff’s research, that ritual acts and gardening practices are mutually constituting for the Maenge, departs from both the economic botany and the anthropology literature of the region at the time of her study. To my knowledge, the complex inter-connections between gardens, social relations and rites had not been singled out for research since Malinowski’s monumental work on garden magic in the Trobriands (1935), which lacked botanical documentation. Guided by the Maenge, in this study Panoff narrowed her focus on two plants and their numerous varieties cultivated in gardens: mao, (mostly denoting Colocasia esculenta Schott.) as taro, the traditional staple, and ela, cordyline (Cordyline terminalis L.) grown for the adornment of the Maenge feminine costume. Her botanical ethnography, backed by 500 voucher specimens, allows the contextualisation of these cultivates among other plants, which the Maenge name or do not name, use or discard. In Matong village and its surrounding area, she informed her anthropological inquiry with this solid basis of identified species.2

3In an idiosyncratic approach combining technical surveys and participant observation, the book takes the reader through detailed descriptions, interspersed with numerous insights. This is perhaps the source of the text’s fresh and present quality endearing us to Françoise Panoff’s Matong informants beyond the detailed surveys of soils, cultivated areas and plant uses. In the tradition of ethnobotanical advocacy, the book stands out to validate the cultural meaningfulness of local practices. At a time when yam and other tubers were increasingly grown as commercial crops throughout New Britain, the author shows not only how traditional taro gardens were producing a superabundance of food well beyond the need of the local population, but also how they fulfilled the collective aesthetics underlying personal well-being and the social fabric.

  • 3 The main themes addressed in Panoff’s articles are as follow: cultigens, varieties and cultivars ( (...)

4To introduce “Maenge Gardens” as a book that is at once easy to read yet complex due to its intertwined ecological and anthropological approach, it may be helpful to draw the reader’s attention to some of the insights, that the author offers while engaging with father-figures of ethnobotany such as Conklin (1955), Frake (1961) and Berlin (1992), as well as with Lévi-Strauss (1963, 1966). These insights, also visible in various articles published in relation to Panoff’s thesis,3 provide both a retrospective and comparative basis for situating the book in relation to current debates in ethnobotany in the Pacific and elsewhere, in the early 1970s and now. Such is the task of this introduction. Fluidity – on the ground, in categories and in Maenge’s myths related to gardening – appears to be a dominant theme underlying Panoff’s insights in her detailed ethnography, which can be read as a prolegomenon to a more extensive analysis that was sadly truncated by her untimely death. Fluidity can first be traced in the landscape, particularly in the boundaries between gardens, fallows and forest. Then the Maenge’s classification, naming and transmission of taro and cordyline cultivars allow many permutations that call for a critique of leading ethnoscientific interpretations. Finally, the alignment of biology, mythology and the cycles of renewal in both gardens and human lives takes place through connections grounded in symbolic oppositions that seem to remain open-ended.

Gardens, fallows and forest

  • 4 See Damon’s recent presentation of the similar three types of fallow periods practices found from (...)

5The study captures a time of transition when the Maenge of Matong and their Longueinga neighbours, formerly jointly labelled as Mengen, still create taro gardens, both domestic ones and ceremonial ones, in traditional configurations. Bounded compartments in the gardens correspond to carefully defined claims based on kinship and on practices of shifting cultivation. Taro and other plants are carefully placed around central and secondary pyres built in these compartments. These pyres define prime and intermediate spaces for planting, making visible a hierarchical ranking of cultivars and soil quality. Building on Conklin’s seminal work on shifting horticulture in Mindanao (1967), to my knowledge Panoff is the first ethnobotanist to present the three categories of fallow used by Melanesian people systematically. Not only does she provide a detailed description of the trees, shrubs and herbal species that grow in fallow patches, but she also documents the ratio of gardens opened in areas corresponding to each of the fallow categories and the various practices resorted to for making the soil apt for crop planting, particularly for planting taro varieties around main or secondary pyres.4

  • 5 See Damon 2017 for even shorter cycles.
  • 6 See Salisbury 1962 with reference to the Siane of Eastern Highlands, PNG.

6The contrast between the Maenge’s declared cultural norm of opening gardens in old fallows with the actual increase of gardens in recent fallows5 (as revealed through Panoff’s surveys) points to a possible tension where practices no longer match the ways in which the Maenge inhabit a landscape that they themselves are rapidly changing. Panoff dismisses the introduction of steel tools as a critical factor in the transformation of the landscape. In arguing that steel axes saved time but did not fundamentally affect Maenge horticulture in a replacement of the adzes in the previous generation,6 Panoff consciously touched on an issue that only became salient in historical ecology two decades later (Balée 1998; Balée and Erickson 2006).

  • 7 Conklin’s foundational work (1967) stands out as the corner-stone of investigations of swidden hor (...)

7The description of Matong in 1970 provides a rare snapshot of a moment in the historical ecology of the Pacific that researchers are currently involved in piecing together longitudinally, going back to the early migrations of Austronesian people. In tracing language use, geology and population movements in New Britain to throw light on her observations, Panoff departs from leading trends current at the time when she writes (the ethnographic present of this book). Landscaping activities that non-Western societies effected are increasingly part of today’s achieved wisdom. While the documentation of these activities started gaining currency in the 1990s, first in Amazonia and later in the Pacific region, earlier in situ studies such as this are rare.7

8Whether it was part of the Maenge’s awareness or not, the tension between norms and practices related to their taro gardens remains unspoken in the book. Instead, their preoccupations with the wet or dry qualities of soils, and the associations made between wetness and fertility are presented through an extensive vocabulary. Panoff’s documentation of the importance that the Maenge attribute to repeated gardening for creating rich (black) soils pre-dates discussions of human impacts on forests at a time when the view that new forest clearings might be most fertile was dominant among ecological geographers. Her detailed description of the perceptual schemata by which the Maenge evaluate soils and of the carefully timed material and symbolic practices that they use to improve soil fertility in gardens anticipates by two decades the focus on anthropogenic soils in areas of early plant domestication, stimulated by research on Amazonian Terra Preta soils (Balée 2000; Glazer 2007). Haantjens’s survey of soils in southwest New Britain (in Appendix IIA) is qualified by Panoff’s own survey (IIB) enriched by her informants’sensory criteria.

  • 8 See Iskandar and Ellen 2000 on the role of Albizia falcataria trees in swidden horticulture in Wes (...)

9The documentation of fluid rather than clear-cut perceived relations between forests, fallows and villages also predates contemporary ethnobotanical concerns. Lists of tree species typical to each kind of fallow, their number and sizes, and, consequent to these factors, the Maenge’s perceptions of the quality of the taro grown in specific fallows including its texture and taste, provide valuable comparative material in time and space. The local folk model that some trees put sweet things into the soil,8 considerations of the logical limit to the interval between horticultural practice and continuous tree coverage, the spaces made with fire among growing trees for horticultural activities and the awareness of bird habitats for seed dissemination are all looked at from a Maenge perspective that cannot be dissociated from their myths.

  • 9 For the management of tree species in the Amazon rainforest see Rival 1998 on peach palms (Bactris (...)

10This long-standing cycle of successional forests generated by the Maenge’s gardening practices before the expansion of plantations also predates research interest in arboriculture in New Guinea (Gosden 1995) and more widely in the Pacific region since the second millennium BC or earlier (Kirch 1989). Panoff’s lists of forest species indicate a process of “semi-domestication” that she does not elaborate but that we can link up to research interests in the management of noncultivated plants in their native environments.9 Above all, the relation between arboriculture and horticulture warrants further exploration. In Maenge gardens, we are shown how not just the carefully arranged cultivars but also the trees whose trunks are used to demarcate the garden, the shrubs and vines used to make fences, the tree species left to stand, together are part of an actual and conceived set of relationships in a resource set that generates and maintains the garden as a social life form. The Maenge’s evident knowledge about the ecology and properties of trees, whether timber species or species with edible fruit, provides the important and relatively novel insight that gardens need to be looked at in the context of a humanised secondary forest environment, within an historical ecological perspective.

11Given the expansion of new field-crops such as yam and “Chinese taro”, along with the spread of coconut plantations in cleared land at the time of her study in Matong, Panoff turns to the Longueinga for a full description of ceremonial taro gardening. Throughout the book, mention of plant exchanges between the coastal Maenge and their Longueinga and Kol neighbours calls the reader’s attention to the fact that ethnobotany cannot be researched in isolation. The productive infrastructure availed by the distribution of gardens, forest areas and plantations organizes a set of social relations that extend beyond Matong. The taro gardens of the coastal Maenge are, at time of writing, part of a world on the wane, surprisingly supported by a local millenarian cult that looms large in the organisation of coastal Maenge’s gardening activities. At times, Panoff’s observations seem to overlap with accounts of the past in the rendering of an elusive ethnographic present in Matong. Yet this is mitigated by the book doubling up as a comparative study of the Maenge and the more isolated Longueinga. Their shared mythology and cosmology, contrasting with significant differences in plant nomenclature and plant use, reveal the value of the kind of micro-level of analysis pointed out by Sillitoe (2014).

12Panoff was drawn to the study of Maenge horticulture as the activity that the Maenge prioritised above all in their lives. As Damon (2017) points out, among Melanesian and Polynesian peoples, gardens embody systematic and encompassing information and values that in other regions, such as southeast Asia and Amazonia, may be consolidated in houses. The configuration of Maenge gardens conflates a determined geometrical and hierarchical structure with flexible, ad hoc arrangements in the management and boundaries of forest areas and fallows that underscore the garden as a social fact.

Fluid relations between categories: domesticates, cultivars and wild plants

13The Maenge attribute special importance to the joint cultivation of taro and cordyline cultivars in their taro gardens. The former is grown for food production, both domestic consumption and a substantial surplus to be exchanged within and outside the village. The latter, as a set of nonedible shrubs selected for their aesthetic qualities, are grown for the ornamentation of the garden and for the elaboration of the feminine costume. Both taro and cordyline cultivars are categorised into two groups, one and two, depending on perceived higher and lower qualities that are consensual among the Maenge in Matong. In Group One, the most special cultivars, such as taro of the variety mue and cordyline of the variety namvu, are those attributed to mythological characters who gifted them directly to humans in ancestral times.

  • 10 The vegetative means of reproduction, that is, by cuttings of plants or tubers, and not by seed re (...)

14Vegetative propagation is the only form of reproduction in areas of native culture of both taro and sweet potato.10 The vegetative propagation method used throughout the area limits the variability of the species, so that the only means by which new varieties of taro or sweet potato could arise is by vegetative mutation or “sports”, hence the contention that a long time was necessary to produce the number of varieties documented. In addressing the central issue of plant domestication through Maenge practices related to taro and cordyline cultivars, Panoff touches upon the overlap of categories used to describe cultigens in contrast with non-cultivates. She describes clearly the use of lexical forms to contrast edible cultivates with wild species that are “either related to them or similar to them” but inedible (1969: 23). For instance, a wild Colocasia is called mamao in contrast with mao (Colocasia esculenta). She also mentions a wild form of Dioscorea esculenta (voiso) and several unidentified (wild?) Dioscorea spp. (masale, melu, momolisi), resorted to during famines. As A. Strathern found in Hagen (quoted in M. Strathern 1969: 190), “the majority of cultivated things do have wild counterparts, and this includes most crops”. Referring to this general scheme, M. Strathern comments further: “it belongs to Hagen symbolism as much as to Hagen botany” (1969: 191).

15The distinctions between the terms cultigen, cultivate, domesticate (or semi-domesticate) and cultivar are significant with regards to the selection and transmission of taro and cordyline cultivars among the Maenge. It may be helpful here to clarify these terms for the reader. While domesticate plants are modified by human intervention but may not involve cultivation, cultivates are not only domesticated but require human propagation, planting and growing in prepared soil. Cultigens are plant species that have been selected for cultivation. There may be many varieties derived from these plant species. Most varieties are reckoned to have been developed through human selection during cultivation, as “cultivars”. It is not uncommon however that some of these varieties “escape” from gardens and self-propagate in environments outside human intervention. They can then be retrieved later to create new cultivars in gardens.

  • 11 Panoff also refers to a hundred cultivars being used by Maenge women in their costume in the villa (...)

16The value that Melanesian people place on taro cultivars has been well documented since Malinowski. Like New Guinea Highlands people (Bulmer 1985), the Maenge divide the category mao, taro, into many secondary types. Strathern mentions 90 recorded names in Hagen in 1969, that can be compared with the 40 taro varieties Panoff listed as cultivated by women in Matong. The 52 varieties of Cordyline terminalis (ela)11 and the 20 varieties of Coleus sp. (vulong) that women cultivate in Matong are remarkable in relation to the low number of varieties of the main medicinal cultivates, ginger and cinnamon plants. Panoff’s ethnography shows multiple possibilities for transmission of cultivars through generations along both female and male lines in the Maenge’s matrilineal society. Individuals have opportunities to acquire personal collections of cultivars through exchange, through the domestication of “wild” species (that may be former garden “escapes”) and through selection of spontaneous mutants. The issue of transmission versus acquisition is not addressed directly in the book but has relevance to other plants classified as wild or semi-domesticates and their transformation through human activity. That the role of women in the selection of taro cultivars was either less developed in the Trobriands or was unperceived by Malinowski as a male ethnographer is highlighted through this ethnography.

17The patient process of reducing the bitter taste of new taro domesticates with potential cultivar value through multiple re-plantings is beautifully documented. This anticipates recent studies of the selection of varieties of manioc developed from seeds (spontaneously or through human intervention) on the margins of Amazonian gardens (Rival and McKey 2008). The time when a plant is under scrutiny, no longer a wild species but not yet a selected cultivar, is captured in the balance between single and collective activity and men and women’s gardening roles. A relation between activities in the garden and collecting activities in secondary growth and old forest areas can then be extrapolated from Panoff’s descriptions, although this was not the focus of her study.

  • 12 Strathern (1969) makes a similar point in relation to varieties of Pueraria lobata. As a taxon, ok (...)

18Using the Maenge’s perceptions as a baseline, Panoff challenges the accepted understanding that the species is the main category in a model of folk biological categorisation that, for Berlin, is characterized by a tendency for inclusive ranking. Moreover, as mentioned above, acquired cultivars proceed from distinct lines that are behaviourally distinct. Not all cultivars carry names and their place in a system of ranked relations is not very important beyond their assignation to Groups 1 and 2 of taro or cordyline. The criteria that enter in the constitution of a key are shown to be botanically complex, based on the sizes and characteristics of leaves, petioles and stem but also very practical, since these characters are observable continuously in contrast with flowers which are ephemeral. Panoff does not question the Maenge’s ability to see similarity, which might lead to inclusion in a covert category. Yet the very existence of such a covert category is questionable. Panoff could have discussed this further as her focus on “cultigens” may lead the reader to imagine a higher-order category of “cultivated crop” that the Maenge do not recognise. Moreover, ela, the Maenge’s primary taxon for cordyline, refers equally to planted varieties (cultivars) and to wild varieties that are collected from the bush. The taxonomy related to vulong and mugang that both seem to denote Coleus spp., is not addressed, somewhat surprisingly since Maenge women select the leaves of as many as 20 varieties, including the wild Coleus atropurpureus, to adorn the front of their skirts. The point favoured by Maenge gardeners is not that x is like y, but that they are different. Here, paradigmatic difference takes priority over inclusive ranking.12 The concern with specifying fields of difference in the presence of underlying similarity is typical of the human passion for developing cultivars, as evidenced by rose cultivation in European history. For Melanesians, however, discontinuity, as they seek out new varieties with different origins, is associated with the fertility of gardens. As shown throughout the book, plant exchange is part of the Maenge’s networks of exchange. Discontinuity is linked with alterity, an emphasis on the combination of “different” elements as “productive” and fertile. As in exogamy, seeking out new varieties because they have different origins and are acquired from “outside”, has a value in itself.

19The Maenge’s use of binomials for cultivars confirms Berlin’s findings regarding the use of colours but the Maenge refer to forest plants, more than to animals or places, in their cultivars’names, using a logic of association. Taro plants are perceived as human-like with body parts that can be used in names illustrating perceived relations with nondomesticated plants. There are permutations of names as cultivars can be given personal names but humans can also receive plant names, so that plants and people alike have personal names. In this respect, the reader is invited to see Maenge plant names as reflecting distinctive properties rather than as positions in sets of contiguous relations. This does not mean that the Maenge do not recognise empirical affinities among sets of plants, but that they privilege the naming of singular plants. This is reflected not only in the case of cultivars but also in the naming of non-domesticates or semi-domesticates, particularly trees.

20Naming is an attribute of personification and belonging, but beyond this, plant ownership determines a specific set of rights and obligations. Throughout the book, Panoff emphasises the personal cathexis between owner and cultivar that is deliberately nurtured and defines the human-plant relationship. This applies as much to garden produce as to trees producing nuts or fruit. The tabooing of Areca palms (betel nut tree) by their “owners” to discourage marauders is well known in Melanesia but to a lesser extent all named trees, including the coconut trees of Matong (in contrast with the coconut plantations for copra production), can be tabooed. The connection between trees and owners extends to one between trees and clans. One of the photographs in the book shows the coconut trees of the Galekorokoro clan, prominent in Matong at the time of study. It is the personal owners of the garden cultivars or the trees, however, who pass them down to others. Gardens are the locus where the forest is transformed into a productive space, fenced off and yet permeable to the qualities of non-domesticated beings, spirits, animals and plants. There, the precarious and never complete process of plant domestication takes place, simultaneously with the representation of relations between owners, growers and the plants that are both socially determined and personal.

  • 13 See also Munn 1992.

21The inter-generational transmission of taro and cordyline cultivars as social and biological forms among gardeners provides a concrete image of temporal replacement within galiau local descent groups. It is not just a matter of producing food in sufficient quantity to allow for the renewal of social ties between galiau after harvests but a regeneration of the fabric of these ties through the nurturing of personified taro plants endowed with soul and agency. Yet the active quest for different cultivars – particularly women’s quest for new cordylines – is also linked with a personal acquisition of social prestige. The “Mother of the Village” in Malakuru, Kelatape, was able to collect more varieties than her peers due to her greater facility to travel and engage in plant exchange. The social time embedded in Maenge gardens13 is thus dual, not only as the cyclical renewal of galiau and clan ties after harvests, but also as a transformative regeneration of the fabric of these ties through the nurturing of personally owned plants. In the case of taro, plants are not just named and owned; they are also endowed with soul and agency.

A mesh of empirical facts, social relations and myths

22In the last two chapters (4 and 5), Panoff addresses more specifically the symbolic practices in which Maenge gardening is embedded as the locus of the plant-human symbiosis that seem to interest her most. Her discussion of the display of cordyline leaves in the Maenge feminine costume and her detailed account of the making of a ceremonial garden among the Longueinga, including the modes of cooking the harvested taro and the relation between food and faeces in horticulture, are possibly the most original in the book, of interest to both ethnobotanists and anthropologists.

23Both taro and cordyline are domesticates used for daily and ceremonial purposes, requiring considerable investment in time, labour and care. The signifiers associated with the characters of cordyline cultivars, formerly assigned to display women’s place in the life cycle but more a matter of personal aesthetics at the time of study, receive a detailed treatment in a chapter dedicated to the Maenge feminine costume. The Maenge women’s selection of the leaves of Cordyline and Coleus varieties that they attach to their elaborate girdles for daily use or ceremonial occasions depends on the range of cultivars available to them. The precise description of the plants used to make the girdle shows the combination of non-cultivates and cultivates, some of which had to be imported from the hinterland area of the Longueinga. It may or may not be significant that women in mourning sought a noncultivated variety of Cordyline terminalis (kerakera) with green leaves. Three specific costumes of Maenge women are described, displaying sophisticated chromatic compositions of cordyline leaves with yellow and red hues, or green with yellow hues at the back and Coleus leaves at the front. They show the fluidity of social codes and individual creativity applied in the selection of contrasting signifiers, discussed earlier in the book in the making of a key: shape (flat or curved), length (long or short), size (small or large), colour of the blade (red, red with a yellow patch, yellow, yellow with a dark red accent), colour of the marginal vein (red, black) and surface aspect of the leaf are considered both separately and in combination. Challenging Berlin and Kay’s emphasis on colour terms (1969), Panoff pointed to the need to include the multi-sensory markers that her informants keenly described to her, their perception of “rhythms” in colour combinations and the cultural coding of colours appropriate for mourning. Here again boundaries between wild and cultivated plants are fluid in practice. Maenge women combine them not only at special times such as during menstruation (using aromatic plants from the bush) but also as an aspect of their personal creativity (for instance, the use of leaves of a Maoutia sp. and Alphitonia incana to add a white accent). Throughout her study, however, Panoff appears to oscillate between prioritising an endogenous analysis of Maenge categories and discussing their symbolic logic in terms of universals.

24Panoff was clearly inspired by Lévi-Strauss and commented on the applicability of his famous categorical oppositions, particularly those related to the “raw” and the “cooked” in the “triangle culinaire”, with regards to the cooking of taro cultivars in earth ovens or on open fires depending on their qualities. The cooking of taro as a final ritual act in the horticultural cycle completes the absorption of taro gardens into the social fabric, showing how a garden is not an external appendix to a household or a village but a hub of the social relations that define its evolution in space and time. Following Lévi-Strauss (1963, 1966), Panoff was interested in communication structures – of words, things and people – as anthropology’s central inquiry. Her presentation of the concatenation of myths, spells, forest plants and cultigens used for explaining the noncontradiction of food and faeces in Maenge horticulture is particularly subtle. The symbolism attached to the excrements of the Python as a form of Malila, the chthonian spirit associated with the volcano of New Britain, resonates both with Mythologiques and with Freudian themes in a thought-provoking way. Yet in her accounts of active transformation through fire, and parts-whole transformations, Panoff’s ethnography corroborates Malinowski’s detailed accounts of Coral Gardens’magic in the Trobriands and Fortune’s insights on the working of spells in Dobu in a fresh, at times nearly candid, narrative that closely follows informants’words and actions. The figures of the Father and Mother of the Village, initiating and leading the main activities and their timing in the gardening cycle of the ceremonial taro gardens act to orchestrate nodes in the mesh of life forms, as their ritual actions collapse the mythical realm onto the landscape inhabited and modified through time by the Mengen – both the coastal Maenge and the inland Longueinga. We are dealing with an animated landscape. Here Imvulu, Father volcano, looms large in New Britain’s people’s perceptions of weather patterns, cyclic phenomena and the fertility of their gardens but in Panoff’s account there is never any hint of environmental determinism.

25Panoff does not seem to be interested in theorising ventures beyond insights drawn from careful juxtaposition of her field observations and her informants’statements. With a modelling inspired from Conklin (1959) and Frake (1961) rather than from Berlin et al. (1968), she sketches the contours of a “middle ground theory” in which the ethnography informs questions rather than confirming research leads; it reveals and prompts further debates rather than aiming at a grander level of theory. While describing and then analysing the Longueinga rites applied to ceremonial taro gardens, however, Panoff sketches out her original perspective, clearly summed up in the conclusion of her 1969 article: “Gardens are not only laboratories where experiments are made, a source of delight for the senses, they are also an important link in a ceremonial cycle which included the erection of a men’s house and the appearance of the masks of the ancestors in the village.” The beliefs about taro at various stages of growth serve as models for kinds of behaviour that express truth on a different level that the actual knowledge people have about plant growth. As Damon puts it (2017: 184), “the specialised ritual knowledge and gardening practice serves as a calculus of relations across social boundaries”. Following her Maenge informants, Panoff is only marginally interested in establishing possible correlations between the knowledge of properties of taro (which can be measured as established biochemical values related to sugar, starch and protein content of distinctive cultivars) and the social-relational value that these cultivars have for those who grow them. This would replicate the perennial issue of empirical knowledge versus gardening magic that so preoccupied Malinowski (1935) and Rivers (1924) before him. Rather than delving into a dichotomy that has dogged the ethnosciences since their inception, her integrative focus allows a contextualised approach in which local perceptions are given credence in their complexity. The analogies and metaphors that underscore activities in the taro gardens and provide their rationale are not separate from a focus on the practicalities of horticulture. Nor is the sophisticated set of descriptors for the gustative qualities of taro corms separate from the criteria used to classify taro cultivars in Groups 1 and 2. Ritual actions refer to real phenomena as well as using analogies and metaphors: the burning and quality of ashes, the working of the soil from bitter to sweet and dry to wet, which trees are good for crops. Rather than even implying that the ritualised acts performed in Maenge and Longueinga gardens are technologies for enriching the soil and bumping harvests, she lets the ethnography speak for itself and provides readers with elements to engage in further interpretations. Why, might the reader ask, should the Maenge say to Françoise Panoff that if she really wanted to understand Maenge horticulture, she would have to taste a wild variety of Colocasia esculenta normally considered inedible?

  • 14 Coconut meat is the rich white lining that is contained within the shell of a coconut.
  • 15 For the personification of Calophyllum, see Damon 2017: 235.

26The Longueinga’s use of analogies and their ability to draw on metaphors, and to turn metaphors into metonyms, are shown in the spells activating each activity of the Father of the Village and/or the local community at the different stages of soil preparation, planting, weeding, cutting of the stems to promote tuber growth and harvesting. Spells and actions, similar with those reported by Malinowski in Coral Gardens (1935), refer to associations between sexuality and fertility as stones, ritual sticks and taro plants copulate in the garden. Significant gardening activities are supported by the collective consumption of flesh, ideally pig meat but also coconut meat14 as a substitute. Details about perceived relations between blood, heaviness and sexual fluids support a concrete understanding of the humanisation of culturally selected plants, not only taro but also some of the trees left standing in gardens.15 Metaphors applied to taro growth also include animal species from the sea and the hinterland. These fascinating interconnections are barely addressed due to the focus on plants but they invite further comment, perhaps in a comparative perspective within the region, about a specific symbolic system in which wild plants and some animals are summoned to support taro growth with spells. The cycle of death and rebirth in Maenge gardens is also actively sustained by non-domesticates or semi-domesticated species of hardwoods and vines. In this cycle, cultivars are supported by symbolically – and sometimes empirically – effective other plants (from secondary or old forest and from fallows) in ritual actions aimed to enhance and sustain fertility. Tony Crook’s discussion (2007) of the personification of taro cultivars in Bolivip (Papua New Guinea) and of the spells used to grow them exemplifies the way in which this book resonates retrospectively with recent insights. Even the bundling of taro stalks carried back to the village on gardeners’backs warrant a spell in a sequence of gardening spells in which the myth of origin of the Min from parts of a python and the proliferation of new taro shoots converge in multiple glosses by informants (Crook, 2007: 109). Damon’s recent treatment of Callophyllum, a genus of tropical evergreen dicotyledonous trees, as “a complex social fact” expands this comparison further to noncultivated plants. Calophyllum, he writes, could be likened to a domesticated crop, its speciation “partly human induced” (2017: 186), as the Muyuw people in the Trobriands personify it. Personification may therefore not be restricted to cultivates. Both taro among the Maenge and Callophyllum among the Muyuw correspond to the ecological concept of “keystone species”: forms that enable other “species” to take their places into an ecosystem (Cristancho and Vining 2004). Even though Panoff does not elaborate Maenge and Longueinga’s understandings of their gardens’fertility within a complex ecosystem, her ethnography shows how the logical symbolic operations performed in gardening magic call for the use of semi-domesticates or “wild” species to enable the growth of cultigens. In contrast with Amazonian gardens, defined by their opposition with the surrounding wild forest and with the sterile sites of the spirits’gardens deep in the forest, here we have transformations, assistance and support of the cultigens by the “wild” plants.

  • 16 M. Strathern called my attention to the interesting fact that either taro or yam [as on Trobriands (...)

27Panoff’s main informant also provides a remarkable account of the human attributes of the soulful taro and its complex agency. Taro’s exigence of moral and aesthetic norms of fertility, growth and abundance stands out in relation to other staple crops – we are told very little about yam, banana or sugar cane (Sauer 1952), other early domesticates in the Pacific.16 For the Maenge, while a nondomesticated Colocasia was in the forest, this plant was devoid of soul. The best proof of this, for Panoff’s informants, is that it is inedible. It is only in the garden that the plant gradually acquires some soul, which its neighbours, the edible varieties, communicate to it until finally its dose of soul has reached a satisfactory degree and it is ready for consumption.

28Further analogies between the seasonal gardening cycle in taro gardens and the stages of initiation in the Maenge life-cycle may have been on Panoff’s mind when she wrote the last chapter of her thesis. Here again the reader may have a sense of an original incipient train of thought that only now, in the age of “botanical ontologies”, ethnobotanical researchers are converging towards. At one level, the taro and cordyline cultivars that the Maenge grow with the help of painstaking but unquestioned ritual procedures are physical objects. At another level, they represent conditions of knowing and thinking. While some of the qualities amid the taro and cordyline cultivars were created by long term human interaction and selection (for nutritional value, resistance to drought, storage potential in the case of taro; for colour, shape and shining quality of leaves in the case of cordyline), others were discovered and matched for a set of attributes that formed relational sets. In different ways, taro and cordyline appear as paradigmatic not just because of the large number of varieties cultivated but because of their “ecotonal” structure, their generative capacity for renewing fertility and social relations in space and time. Due to its role as a staple of choice (like manioc in Amazonia), taro stands at the front end of the domestication continuum as a multifaceted social process, with taro cultivars as supreme human artefacts. Panoff’s study provides contextualised pointers, rather than answers, to principles underlying the organised knowledge that the Maenge have of their flora.

29Like the human agents who make those spaces and whose lives are also fashioned by means of their gardening activity, cultivated plants, once they exist, can become new instruments of relating and of talking about relations. The sequences of transformations in Maenge gardens follow logical tropes that readers familiar with the anthropology of Melanesia will recognise: doubling, pairing, inverting and doubly inverting so that the minds and souls of gardeners and the minds and souls of taro plants replicate what the body does in ritual acts (or vice versa). The principle of connection at play is perhaps more important than the understanding of symbols as vehicles of thought.

30Panoff was clearly interested in medicinal uses of plants (1970a). The placing of ginger and cinnamon around main pyres in Maenge gardens invites further questioning of these cultivates in relation to the best taro and cordyline cultivars. Little is said about the few varieties used by the Maenge. While Panoff offers a list of plants and their uses with indications of their position along the domestication continuum, the use of cultivates in both ritual and day to day health care appears to prevail over the use of less domesticated medicinal plants among the Maenge. The apparent lack of interest of the Maenge in selecting and developing varieties of these species as cultivars that might have (better) distinctive properties serves to highlight the singularity of cordyline and taro as cultigens singled out as supremely “good to think with” in the social modelling context of Maenge gardens. It is significant that some of the non-cultivates on Panoff’s list of medicinal plants (Appendix IV) – and many more on her plant list – have been found to be pharmacologically active in the last few decades. Yet even though these plants may well have been known to the Maenge, as Panoff points out in her 1970 article, they are likely not to have handled active plant parts in ways corresponding to their discovered activity. Due to the quality of Panoff’s ethnobotanical enquiry, lists and comments show multiple layers of significance to be explored. As in Amazonia, the hot/cold opposite categories are fluid and depend on context. Panoff gives the example of Laportea sp., a “cold” plant used in garden magic with other “cold” plants due to its abundant sap but also classified as “hot” because of its irritable properties.

Knowledge is organised through a network of empirical facts and conceptual relations

31It is only in the detailed sequences of ritual acts, including spells, that Panoff’s Longueinga informant reveals the often extremely abstracted relationship between the geometrical forms of the ceremonial garden and what they are understood to model. The ritual composes sequenced places and skills that extend to other dimensions of social relationship of both humans in the village and plants at the interface between garden and fallow/forest. While the operations in Maenge gardens reveal a remarkable “science of the concrete”, they are also normative and aetiological since the soul of taro can run away if not adequately nurtured by careful gardening. While they affirm the separation of clans, they are also potentially transgressive, showing in practice the bending of norms to lay claims to areas that individuals are not entitled to garden, based on either descent or on affinal ties cutting across galiau local residence groups. The figure of the orphan, revered as an ancestral hero who taught gardening to humans after receiving it from the positive brother in a pair of spirit creators, is also reviled as a dysfunctional anomaly within Maenge society. The socially bereft orphan figure reinforces the moral power of the “Father of the Village” in controlling the storage and distribution of taro corms after harvests and his agency, together with that of the “Mother of the Village” in local and possibly distant exchanges of cultivars.

The making of beautiful gardens and this very human book

  • 17 A similar idea is expressed by M. Strathern about Hagen (1969: 197).

32Throughout this book, Panoff’s informants reiterate their aesthetic imperative of creating beautiful gardens. While she engages with the ethnoscientific theories of her contemporaries concerned with universals, her ethnography and her interests direct her towards an unravelling of human-plant connections as social ones in a humanised landscape. In a more social anthropological way than Conklin (1967), it could be said that this book continues to question the treatment of swidden horticulture as homogeneous and unproblematic. Unencumbered by a specific analytical framework or agenda, Panoff’s description of the various phases in planting and growing taro and cordyline cultivars in Maenge gardens takes us not just through the relevant plant parts but, more importantly, to the relations that make the ritual actions related to them coherent, and to the principles that bring the gendered bodies of gardeners together in transformative relatedness at different stages in the horticultural process. As designated spaces for the movements of words, things and people across the socially physical spaces of village, gardens and forest (and for the coastal Maenge, sea), the aesthetics and whole process of taro gardening, particularly in ceremonial gardens, intensely model how life should be organised. Myths, notably those related to the two Nutu opposed humanising and ignorant twin figures and their roles at the origin of horticulture, resolve synchronic oppositions by means of a diachronic separation of the elements resulting in an apparent transformation.17 The emotional and aesthetic experiences of women in relation to plants used as they perform puberty rites may not (or no longer) have been observable at the time of study. An integration of gardening and life-cycle rituals, while outside the scope of Panoff’s study, would have probably raised further issues of interpretation such as those discussed by Gilbert Lewis in Day of Shining Red (1980).

33While the embeddedness of the production of staples in sociocultural processes in the Pacific was not new in 1970, this ethnography brings out the analytical significance of the Maenge taro garden as mental form and function. Whatever the empirical qualities prized in the selection of taro cultivars, the aesthetic value of the garden, which is also expressed in the selection of cordyline cultivars for the Maenge feminine costume, guides other principles of productivity and, indeed, the ethics of gardening. As Bulmer pointed out about Karam taxonomy (1967: 6, cited in M. Strathern 1969), although they may form the basis of discrimination at the lower levels (terminal taxa), “objective biological facts no longer dominate the scene” at the upper level (of primary taxa).

34In a beautiful garden, the growth of plants as persons and the growth of their human nurturers is interlocked but the process always appears as fluid and the aetiology of success or failure remains open-ended. The life form of the taro exposes not only the operations realised by members of a village community in their garden but also the reasoning realised throughout the networks of relationships that connect all actors. The created garden becomes an intentional site of transformations, of sequences for life overcoming death through plant-related ritual acts just as rites of passage, which are only alluded to in this book, overcome the death of obsolete modalities of the self during the Maenge life cycle of men and women.

35Garden magic is one topic that has continuously intrigued anthropologists since the dawn of the discipline. Dismissed as a residual category in many early plant collections and ethnobotany monographs, for Malinowski, this “special department” was set in opposition to “practical husbandry”: “magic is based on myth, practical work on empirical theory” (1935, vol. 1: 77). Yet he also acknowledged that “half the natives’working life is spent in the garden and around it centres perhaps more than half of his interests and ambitions” (1935, vol. 1: 8). With her knowledge of the plant species used in ritual acts and the links she makes between her informants’narratives and her personal observations, Panoff throws light on what the Maenge say they do, as persons complexly positioned within the networks of consanguines and affines in their galiau.

36She therefore offers material for comparative analysis, since similar processes may be found or inferred in practically every ethnographic account of the Pacific region. Effortlessly, her ethnography makes informants’humanity stand out: Maitenia, Kelatape, their photographs, the cadence of the spells. In the margins of surveys, plant collections and documented practices, Panoff takes readers into the intricacies of the “savage mind” from a friendly, never judgemental, participant-observer standpoint. Replete with insights that are made fleetingly as if they were notes to herself for future developments, this book provokes readers to delve deeper into inquiries about plant-human relations, as these have gained complexity over time across academic disciplines that straddle the physical sciences and the humanities. Yet this invitation seems to come from the people of Matong themselves rather than from the author. The light-footed, nonchalant quality of the women photographed walking along village paths with their delicate and highly significant “feminine costume” adorned with cordyline leaves, even as they carry loads and children, sets an unhurried pace. The photographic portraits that open and close this book serve to remind the reader that, however complex the semiotics of an ethnobotanic “key” may be, first and ultimately the contrasting sets through which taro and cordyline cultivars are differentiated among the Maenge all attach to living persons. For them, this semiotics shape both the contours of life and the space where constraints, pre-existing and new, are negotiated.



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1 Damon 2017; Denham 2011; Kirch 1989; Leach 2010; Merlin 2000; Powell 1976; Sterly 1997; Yen 1985 among others.

2 Specimens were deposited in the Lae Herbarium in Papua New Guinea.

3 The main themes addressed in Panoff’s articles are as follow: cultigens, varieties and cultivars (1969); the taxonomy of cultivates (1972); the symbolic logic of rituals in horticulture (1970b); categories of disease and medicinal plants (1970a); feminine art (Eliet 1983).

4 See Damon’s recent presentation of the similar three types of fallow periods practices found from Muyuw to the Trobriands (2017: 37). The Maenge grow the two main taro cultigens common in Melanesia Colocasia esculenta Schott., and Xanthosoma sagittifolium (L.) Schott., but only the former, as mao, taro, corresponds to taro as primary taxon.

5 See Damon 2017 for even shorter cycles.

6 See Salisbury 1962 with reference to the Siane of Eastern Highlands, PNG.

7 Conklin’s foundational work (1967) stands out as the corner-stone of investigations of swidden horticulture.

8 See Iskandar and Ellen 2000 on the role of Albizia falcataria trees in swidden horticulture in West Java. For Papua New Guinea examples, see Bourke 1997 and Sillitoe 1996.

9 For the management of tree species in the Amazon rainforest see Rival 1998 on peach palms (Bactris gasipaes), Sosnowska et al. on palms (2015) and Levis et al. on the diversity of tree management (2017). In the Pacific, see Damon 2017.

10 The vegetative means of reproduction, that is, by cuttings of plants or tubers, and not by seed reproduction has obtained throughout the Pacific for several millennia (Spier 1951; Chaïr 2016).

11 Panoff also refers to a hundred cultivars being used by Maenge women in their costume in the village of Malakuru alone.

12 Strathern (1969) makes a similar point in relation to varieties of Pueraria lobata. As a taxon, oka includes only the sweet potato, Pueraria, and related vines; of these the sweet potato is the most prominent member, and oka used without qualification invariably signifies only sweet potato. This in fact supports Watson’s other contention of a linguistic association between sweet potato and Pueraria; “it is also typical of Hagen ‘ethnoscience’ that there should be no such generic term. There is neither any explicit nor implicit hierarchy of classes such as plants, edible plants, or cultivated crops, which might produce ‘tuber’ as a generic term” (1969: 190).

13 See also Munn 1992.

14 Coconut meat is the rich white lining that is contained within the shell of a coconut.

15 For the personification of Calophyllum, see Damon 2017: 235.

16 M. Strathern called my attention to the interesting fact that either taro or yam [as on Trobriands] are given great ritual and horticultural attention, but not both, though both may be grown (pers. comm., April 2017).

17 A similar idea is expressed by M. Strathern about Hagen (1969: 197).

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