Plants that Keep the Bad vibes Away: Boundary Maintenance & Human-Plant Communication in Urban Amazonia

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Across Amazonia, people keep plants in their home gardens to ward off unwanted presences–from bad vibes and thieves to malevolent spirits and disease. In this talk, I show that such plants are not arbitrarily selected but rather have long histories of human use for mediating relations with unwanted others. I contend that these plants’ capacities for corporeal and territorial boundary maintenance – attributed in the scientific literature to bioactive compounds – are co-opted by humans for their own purposes of boundary maintenance. In doing so, I reflect on how Amazonian understandings of plant agency and human-plant communication resonate with scientific accounts but also depart from them in significant ways. Rather than privileging one interpretive framework over the other, I expand upon Victor Turner’s research to argue that such plants allow for the condensation of different meanings and forms of knowledge, while at the same time being active contributors to the diverse forms of significance humans find in them.