International Law and the Longing to Garden 

This essay is part of a symposium on Gerry Simpson’s The Sentimental Life of International Law. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Gerry Simpson’s The Sentimental Life of International Law is a book for re-envisioning ways to think and feel against the grain of international law. A plea for practitioners of international law to become more responsive to their own political longings, the book defamiliarizes the depoliticizing routines of international law in order to re-enliven a sense of imaginative possibilities even within prevailing worldly political arrangements. My reflections dwell on the culminating final chapter, on “gardening, instead,” to ask what it means to search for this political longing in gardens, and to consider how tending to gardens and their stories “might provide a new imaginative ground for international law.”[1]

Among the garden stories Simpson recounts is that of Leonard Woolf planting iris. In late summer 1939, at their Monk House in Rodmell in East Sussex, Virginia Woolf calls across their orchard: “Hitler is making a speech” on the radio again. To which Leonard replies, “I shan’t come. I am planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.”[2] Woolf ends the fourth volume of his five-volume autobiography by noting, as of March 1966, “a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.”[3]

Leonard planting iris becomes an example of “ironic, hopeful disengagement” from politics. It is one style in a repertoire for creatively countering international legal concepts and practices from within garden spaces, what Simpson calls a “pastoral internationalism.”[4] It’s a literary-political repertoire: Candide’s farm suggests a “defiant, world-weary worldliness;” Rebecca West’s quip about a girl growing cyclamens near the Nuremburg courtroom suggests an “indignant, recuperative, sentimental, celebratory engagement” with everyday survival; and Krushchev’s letter to Castro after averted nuclear war becomes a “meandering” call between friends to “care for time and land.”[5] Where some might interpret retreat or complacency, Simpson finds vignettes of repair, the tending to “small spaces in small circumstances” that springs from the “thousand acts of growing and nurturing that will make a society decent again.”[6]

“Decent again” may be a perennial hope, as Simpson implies by linking Woolf’s iris patch in 1939 to the gardens at Versailles in 1919, when the Great Powers “engineered one of the most transformative reforms in international legal history when war . . . became crime, when colony became mandate and when fragmented international society became League of Nations.”[7] Simpson’s best storytelling is inspired by anticolonial reading and writing strategies, especially the contrapuntal style of Edward Said (which highlights the relationality of seemingly disparate narratives) and the historical detection of race and empire “inscribed in the legal form but read out of it.”[8] The post-WWI order formalized at Versailles is made from links disavowed and histories unremembered (as Simpson quotes from one opening address: “Humanity can place confidence in you, because you are not among those who have outraged the rights of humanity.”[9]). The “unraveling” of that order is what prompts Woolf to plant in the most terrible months of his life, when “helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war.”[10] Woolf’s irises are thus brought implicitly into relation with Simpson’s own accounts of delivering international law lectures against the 2003 war on Iraq as the UN passed multiple resolutions for war (in supporting the war effort, “international law was the last man standing”).[11] Iraq threads through this book’s call for a literary and moral imagination, from the Mandate system through extraction, bombing, ecological devastation, and the devastation of international sanctions, so that 2003 becomes yet another moment of spectacular abdication from stated principles in prevailing international law even as countertraditions such as the World Tribunal on Iraq generated bold experiments in internationalism.[12]

What does it mean, in these bleak conditions, to generate longing for another politics of humanity by “gardening, instead”? The worst of human practices—colonial settlement, exploitation, death, and expulsion—live in the language and practice of gardening. So too in international law. Yet the garden is an edge, along enclosure and wildness, an enclave protected but not fully captured, that for Simpson recalls the enclave Frederic Jameson theorizes as a space for “anti-anti-utopic” possibility. One might question the bleak meagerness of an “anti-anti-utopian” horizon for political longing. Moments in the book edge towards bolder desires for liberatory and decolonial possibilities, a more radically reconceived “pastoral” future where human-environmental ecologies flourish.

The purpose of Simpson’s contrapuntal storytelling style in gardening (and most chapters of the book) becomes even clearer in chapter five, which is a sustained account of methodological debates in the historiography of international law. Simpson draws from Hayden White to explain how historians’ early attachment to romance as a narrative pattern of unity and overcoming weeded out the contestations within international law. Thus, the early prescription that “the historian must write his histories in such a way as to promote the realization of the unity that everything is striving to become” depletes a historical imagination for which dissent and counter-hegemonic political desire are vital to international law.[13]

Drawing from James Boyd White’s field-defining The Legal Imagination (1973), Simpson finds in the “imaginative acts” of literature ways of making, thinking, and feeling that international law needs to disrupt a highly stylized profession whose “pathologies, elisions, repressions” serve prevailing arrangements in world politics, however inadvertently.[14] Reflecting on what has been “not quite right” about how international lawyers do international law, Simpson finds in literary forms and language ways to make international law again “a compelling language for our times.”[15] Imaginative moves already go into affirming existing arrangements and legal maneuvers: as in the quest “to discover precedents for the unprecedented,” to assert a crime has no precedent (“never before,” or what Simpson evocatively calls “unprecedenting”), or to name a precedent with no future (as in the predictable vow, “never again”). Simpson defamiliarizes precedence through a counter-history of earlier global Third Worldist anti-imperial and liberatory projects whose efforts at justice within international law were elided, as in Simpson’s example of the minutes of the Imperial War Cabinet meeting in 1918 in which imperial projects were momentarily interrupted by the reading of a telegram from the Association of Universal Loyal Negroes of Panama sending “congratulations on your victory” and asking that the African lands colonized by Germany “become a negro national home with self-government.”[16]

Here, literary history might offer a fuller understanding of storytelling methods than static generic definitions alone. Consider the complex question of what can grow—what is possible, what impossible—through romance, which translates political desire into narrative form. A historian’s political desire for depoliticized narrative unity yields something very different from, for example, CLR James’s 1938 edition of his history of the Haitian Revolution, which David Scott reads as romance in its narration towards an anti-imperial revolutionary politics of overcoming. The Black Jacobins is, too, an international history from below (and near the plantation). Or we might consider the interplay of romance and realism for black Atlantic writers seeking new forms for conceiving of future-oriented black political desires and subjectivities.[17] In Simpson’s discussion of historiography “after method” as an “invitation to think about, defend and elaborate a distinctive method of one’s own,” one that also has the “extra-methodic virtues of compelling and resonant history,” we might listen for Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the perpetually generative tension within history, as a term for both “that which happened” and “that which is said to have happened.”[18]


Geophytes (bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes) sometimes call on gardeners to return to the soil every few years: as I am sitting in front of a massive bed of iris in my backyard, started by its former owner, now badly in need of being pulled up, divided, and replanted, I wonder if Leonard Woolf would have returned to the patch of iris reticulata for dividing after Virginia’s death in 1941. Those irises outlived her as well. Woolf’s intimate memory of choosing to plant iris is also the memory of, at that moment, necessarily declining to be with Virginia, who presumably listened to the radio alone. In what he writes were the most terrible months of his life, he dug holes for the kinds of plants that store the bulk of their energy underground. Importantly though, he narrates this story from the future: it’s as much a story about what he did as it is a story about how one puts a life between writers into written form. The accumulation of experiences and the transformation of memory into life writing highlights not only the content of the story (what happened) but also the process and forms of narrative (how one writes that which happened).

The tensions between content, form, and the imperial projects of international law prompt me to offer another story of a writer and her relationships to geophytes. Jamaica Kincaid’s writings on the politics and poetics of knowledge production, circulation, reception, and revision are generated, in part, from her experiences with daffodils. As a schoolgirl in St. John’s, Antigua, Kincaid encountered daffodils when she was forced to recite from memory William Wordsworth’s lyric poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Its poetic speaker alights upon a line of “ten thousand” daffodils, and later delights in calling up the image with his “inward eye.” To Kincaid’s “child’s mind’s eye,” coerced by the colonial relation to imagination, she saw in the daffodils the “tyrannical order of a people.”[19] From there, Kincaid and daffodils are in a conversation, ecologically and aesthetically, with the arrangements of global empire and international law. In an early novel, nightmare daffodils chase a girl; in her garden book, ‘British’ daffodils join crowded histories of nationalist-imperial botanical commerce. In her Vermont gardens, however, she plants daffodils by the thousands.

Refusal and repair come in the remaking of their relation, Kincaid and daffodils both written and planted. Kincaid’s garden is both a refusal and a return when, for instance, she refuses the “sprightly dance” of Wordsworth’s daffodils in order to restore a mutual longing for wonton entanglement: “I want to walk out into my yard, unable to move at will because my feet are snarled in the graceful long green stems supporting bent yellow flowering heads of daffodils.” She asks herself over decades, “what has the daffodil become to me, for memory is not set, no matter how we wish it to be so, and the past will intrude on the present new and fresh.”[20] In Kincaid’s metamorphic relationship to daffodils, she arrives at the “conqueror’s class,” growing daffodils on settled (Mohican) land in Vermont.

Daffodils cannot outlive empire. They are not Woolf’s irises. Kincaid’s planting calls for yet another relation to the ongoing time of imperialism and international law: one of intimate feeling and memory lived under revision, tended to as a living growing form that comes from wildness and that survives with or in spite of the tending.


What does writing about planting tell us about the study and practice of international law “from below”? What can international law do for the gardens that wait in distress, without property or water or permission to save and use community seeds? Simpson invokes his most direct example of gardening in extremity when he briefly notes the cover image for a 2015 law journal issue. Pictured below the camera and at some distance is Malika Husseinova and her family in the Bart camp for Chechen refugees. A garden surrounds their canvas tent, arranged into beds lined by garden stones that evokes for Simpson “a mini-Versailles and a small gesture of imaginative defiance and hopefulness after atrocity.”[21] The photographer elsewhere describes Malika’s gardening bluntly: “She says she just likes to have beautiful things around her. All the others in the camp think she is crazy.”[22]

Simpson does not take up the question of gardening in refugee camps any further, but this remarkably widespread practice raises a host of questions for us to consider in light of his project. The 2006 image of the Husseinova family garden registers complex temporalities of waiting. Gardens are organic formations of time, and the family began the garden soon after their arrival at camp in 1999. More than the wordless photograph, this garden registers the formalization of camp infrastructure, the suffering in waiting produced by international legal frameworks of refugee migration and management. Might such places do more than “provide a new imaginative ground for international law”? The family’s relation to this allotted place might tell us more about the difficult possibilities for reworking and countering international law from its conceptual edges, from those who survive the damage wrought or aided by international law.

In the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan, Syrian refugee women speak to literary scholar Yasmine Shamma about their migration to the highly securitized desert camps in Jordan administered by the UNHCR and a branch of the Jordanian police. Political and ecological causes of water scarcity have led to the heavy policing of informal refugee gardening. The “woman from the North” in Al Azraq camp says:

The day I planted that tree outside, all the neighbors ridiculed me, calling me ridiculous for planting outside my caravan. They would say: “with all that planting you’re doing it seems you are planning on staying awhile!” I would tell them that it does not matter if I stay here for a long time or if I leave tomorrow. If I leave tomorrow this tree will stay as a standing memory of us to the people that will live here after us. It could serve as a means of shadow for a passer-by or a place where a bird could nest. After that I started planting more things, until it became a garden.[23]

The women repeatedly describe their gardens as heavenly. Shamma notes, “as is often the case with language, the words themselves invite these possibilities, the Arabic word for garden, Jneayneh, being derivative of the word Jannah, which translates to heaven.”[24] Gardening nourishes and evokes paradise: these quotidian and utopic desires inform its practice by the women as a counter to the punitive temporalities assigned to them within the global migration management regime. The garden is also a space of welcome, as in Arabic courtyards, and protection, suggesting “the refugee’s green spaces as especially rebellious in its non-capitalism: enclosing the exposed, excluding within a culture (the camp) of lack of privacy—taking the land (back?) in small, humble, but noteworthy ways.”[25] I recently read that a team of scientists have collaborated with Syrian refugee families to grow greenery out of the artificial medium of discarded foam mattresses, prompting new questions about the complexities of survival and resistance within inhospitable land.

Waiting becomes the lived duration of surviving the world politics embedded in everyday life, across refuge and residence. In a small village along the Zagros Mountains in Iran, anthropologist Shahram Khosravi talks with Darab about his small plot of land and his lifetime of well-digging for petroleum extraction projects. Drought, extraction, and international sanctions leave him “watching the trees die, and the wells drying up,” his children pushed “into migrant work.”[26] Darab and the trees have seemed to stop waiting for water: yet, pointing to the “dried, barren, but still standing walnut trees,” Darab says, “I do not let people cut them down. They are still beautiful.”[27]

What relationships to time and its political and narrative arrangements of refuge are being cultivated in refugee gardens and depleted ecologies, laboring against hostile environments or aided by the technical solutionism of hydroponics within punitive conditions? How might we imagine tending to land as response, challenge, or resistance to the “cruel optimism” of international law and its calls to wait for a better world? Might the literary and humanist imagination live up to its perennial promise to open up spaces to counter from within what international law has done to enable the slow violence against soil and human residence?[28]

Sometimes we long to plant because plants give life and make beauty; sometimes no less because they call on us to touch soil and reflect on its molecular indistictions between life and death:

Soil is miraculous. It is where the dead are brought back to life. Here, in the thin earthy boundary between inanimate rock and the planet’s green carpet, lifeless minerals are weathered from stones or decomposed from organic debris. Plants and microscopic animals eat these dead particles and recast them as living matter. In soil, matter crosses and recrosses the boundary between living and dead; and, as we have seen, boundaries—edges—are where the most interesting and important events occur.[29]

Care for the soil and look for what happens at the edge: this advice from horticulturalist Toby Hemenway is a call to resist the depletion of ground and the exploitation of boundary. It recalls Simpson’s project “to approach international law from the fringes and to put into conversation ideas that are not commonly thought about together.”[30] If the task for us readers is to speak and think from a position of feeling, blasphemy, and knowledge, that task needs more crossings at the edges, against the hopeless position of international lawyers as “deeply embedded, complicit, amid unliveable lives, busy protesting endlessly about our very own modus vivendi,” even as “international law goes on despite its groundlessness or its faithlessness, its cruel optimism.”[31] International law is embedded in the everyday life of us all, working unnoticed or oppressively but sometimes also because people counter it from within, with creativity and even joy. I cannot help thinking of the garden stories and the material conditions for flourishing as core to the political desires we need for a collective, flourishing future. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, “space always matters, and what we make of it in thought and practice determines, and is determined by, how we mix our creativity with the external world to change it and ourselves in the process,” because “at the end of the day, freedom is a place.”[32]

Sometimes we need the movement between words and earth, an understanding that language and imagination are thoroughly living in our quotidian lifeworlds. The Sentimental Life of International Law joins this call to bring the teachers and practitioners of international law into spaces of possibility, where a renewed relationship to words, feeling, and experience can reinvigorate unfinished freedom struggles. These relational, digressive, and contrapuntal experiments in storytelling bring major events of international law into relation with quieter moments of survival wrought by the everyday effects of international law, no less than ways to “revolt from below.” It’s a style of thought for a generative book that asks its readers to activate their imagination towards a way to practice international law heretically and passionately, with honesty and feeling, inviting us to reconceive the histories and futures of international law we want to live with.


[1] Gerry Simpson, The Sentimental Life of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 200.

[2] Simpson, 205.

[3] Leonard Woolf, Downhill all the Way: An Autobiography of the years 1919 to 1939 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967), 254. The fifth volume, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters (1969) spans the years 1939 to 1969.

[4] Simpson, 209.

[5] Simpson, 209, and West, quoted in Simpson, 205–6.

[6] Simpson, 206–7.

[7] Simpson, 204–5.

[8] Simpson, 99.

[9] Raymond Poincaré, Documents, Paris Peace Conference (n 14) 159, quoted in Simpson,100.

[10] Woolf, 254.

[11] Simpson, 84, and see also 187.

[12] See especially Ayça Çubukçu, For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

[13] Simpson quotes from Hayden White, who quotes Jules Michelet. See Simpson, 140.

[14] Simpson, 90.

[15] Simpson, 209.

[16] Simpson, 101.

[17] See here Yogita Goyal, Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Goyal, Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery (New York: New York University press, 2019). See also Vasuki Nesiah on the 1839 Amistad rebellion, “Freedom at sea,” London Review of International Law 7, no. 2 (July 2019): 149–79.

[18] Simpson, 143. See Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 1–30.

[19] Jamaica Kincaid, “Dances with Daffodils,” Architectural Digest 64, no. 4 (April 2007): 78–82.

[20] Kincaid, “Dances with Daffodils.”

[21] The photo is from Simon Norfolk’s series A Place of Refuge: The First Safe Place. The cover image was for a 2015 issue of The London Review of International law.

[22] Simon Norfolk, Artist Statement on Refugees, archived online:

[23] Yasmine Shamma, “‘Heaven is Green’: The Ecoglobalism of Refugee Desert Gardens,” Journal of Narrative Theory 50.3 (2020): 321–338, 330. Shamma quotes from her full interview, “The Woman who Planted a Tree,” in the same issue.

[24] Shamma, 327.

[25] Shamma, 329.

[26] Shahram Khosravi, “Waiting Among Dead Trees,” in Waiting: A Project in Conversation, edited by Khosravi (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2021), 114.

[27] Khosravi, 114.

[28] The term is from Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2013).

[29] Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Second Edition (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009), 71.

[30] Simpson, 56.

[31] Simpson, 84.

[32] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation (New York: Verso 2022), 93.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email