COBRA: The Invisible Harvest: A Microhistory of Heretical Herbs – Bethany van Rijswijk
COBRA: The Invisible Harvest: A Microhistory of Heretical Herbs – Bethany van Rijswijk


Bethany van Rijswijk

Black Swan Bookshop

11 Stephen St, New Norfolk TAS 7140

Book Launch: 5:00pm, 19th December 2020

Limited copies of the The Invisible Harvest: A Microhistory of Heretical Herbs will be available at Black Swan bookshop after the launch event. 


A five-part essay and accompanying series of hand-cut collages by Bethany van Rijswijk, The Invisible Harvest is an artist’s publication that seeks to challenge the materialism of ‘big history’ by presenting a micro-history of heretical herbs. An analysis of hidden histories and obscure lore, in which poisonous and psychoactive plants open up passages into contrary states of being, van Rijswijk’s publication is concerned, variously, with visionary sacraments, the flight of witches, sinister berries, fairy forts, rhizomes, underworld gardens, cursed bread, mushroom cults, and dancing plagues. An experiment in historical method as a means for re-enchantment, The Invisible Harvest nevertheless asks what these histories might disrupt, and how these old heresies, half-obliterated, might renew our thinking.

The practice of micro-history as Bethany van Rijswijk so beautifully demonstrates in The Invisible Harvest is critical of the dominance of such approaches to history, opting instead for a finer lens that shifts the historical focus from the grand narratives of politics or science, to more intimate knowledges or lore, embedded within everyday cultural activities and practices. This is not to say that micro-history ignores the operations of power – on the contrary, it takes the critique of power within history writing as its starting point, deliberately focusing on details that have been overlooked by the ‘macro’ narratives and speculating on how and why such details have been marginalised, buried, ignored or in theory-speak ‘othered’ by more traditional methods. What this means in The Invisible Harvest, is that we do not get the stories of kings or queens or scientists or doctors, or even historians, but rather we get a richly detailed account of several herbal protagonists and how their particular toxic and psychoactive effects on the human body and mind have been characterised in particular ways.

The critical and poetic work underpinning Bethany’s text is considerable. Her text explores how folk knowledges that linked the psychoactive and poisonous qualities of herbs to practices of magic, fantasy and enchantment, were seen as heresy during the medieval and early modern period, and subsequently how a whole system of folklore and secular knowledge came to be treated with suspicion and disregard. Whilst this may sound like a rather heavy-duty research aim, there is a lightness of touch in Bethany’s book, a whimsy and even rebelliousness that in refusing to dwell on any singular line of inquiry allows us to envisage a world teaming with different ideas, otherworldly figures and meanings, a bit like looking at the composition of knowledge through a microscope. As she introduces us to her cast of protagonists – the Deadly Nightshade, Foxglove, Mandrake, Ergot Fungus, and Fly Agaric Mushroom – we get the sense of a detective going about her work, hunting and gathering a diverse range of sources, looking for webs of social, cultural, textual and visual details, and recording the unexpected collisions that enrich existing knowledges and generate new stories and forms.

Eliza Burke, excerpt from the publication launch speech

Bethany van Rijswijk is a writer and collage artist based in nipaluna/Hobart. Offering up new worlds created from the remnants of our own, van Rijswijk seeks to challenge some of the ‘oppressive phantasms’ of our time through a critical engagement with fantasy and folklore.


This project was supported through Contemporary Art Tasmania’s Cobra program and Black Swan Book Shop.

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