In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there. I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met. Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University. In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.
The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people: “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’ In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives. Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.” As to the why of the project, we wrote: “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships. Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”
When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally. Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully. That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants. It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others. We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants. Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery. His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees. Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years. When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue. In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves. For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project: humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.
In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply: “What is your favorite plant and why?” Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions: words like “love” and “feel” were used often. In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family. There was real connection with the plants. Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants. Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people. In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records. So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships. There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them. Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways. And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction. In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants. In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.
This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant. However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant. Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed. What better metaphor could there be for our efforts? No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve. If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0). Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so. If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.