I want to end this series of posts (1,2,3) on the Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library by discussing the plants. Ned Friedman, a Harvard University biology professor and director of the Arnold Arboretum saw one of the conferences goals as decentering the human in the plant humanities. He did this with four plant vignettes at time scales that moved further and further from the human. First, he introduced a single tree at the arboretum, a sand pear, Pyrus pryrifolia, native to East Asia. The life history of this tree is recorded at the arboretum, and its life expectancy while greater than that of humans, means that visitors 30 years ago saw a much less mature tree.
Then Friedman jumped to discussing the American beech Fagus grandifolia and how pollen cores from thousands of years ago show no evidence of the beech in New England, while cores from more southern regions do. This record of northern movement of the species is evidence of the warming that occurred after the last ice age, something well beyond human memory. Stretching the time scale still further, he described two species of tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera from North America and the Asian species Liriodendron chinense. They are closely related genetically and will form hybrids if grown near each other even though their ranges have been separated geographically for 14 million years. Finally, Friedman moved on to the hundreds of millions of years involved in the evolution of plant stem and branch structures, leaving his audience breathless from the journey in time and what it means for the presence of plants in our world.
Toward the conference’s end, Rosetta Elkin, a landscape architect at Pratt Institute in New York, discussed the difficulties involved in conservation management through a case study of blowout beardtongue, Pentsemon haydenii, an endemic of blowouts, windswept hollows, of the Nebraska sandhills. It is an endangered species that has received quite a bit of attention from conservation ecologists. However, none of their interventions have worked, though they have discovered much about the plant’s life cycle. This species is a lesson in botanical humility, reminding us of how little we know about plants and of how much there is to learn about a single species.
Elkin is also the author of Tiny Taxonomies (2017), a book with the same title as several of her landscape exhibitions that feature waist-high chrome tubes standing on end. Each is about a foot in diameter and displays tiny plants. I was drawn by the book’s title and loved it with its great closeups of many species she used. But even more, I liked Elkin’s ideas including that she considers smallness a design opportunity and has set up the displays so the clumps of tiny plants are easy to observe closely. She also noted that when plants are this small, they don’t survive as individuals, but in clusters to trap warm air and moisture. She sees first-hand experience with plants as a form of research, which I think explains why some people have green thumbs. They observe and record at least mentally what the plants feel like as they are transplanted, and the minute changes that occur from day to day.
Some of Elkins ideas I find less positive, including her assertion that the herbarium specimen “has gradually expired as a useful tool for expressing the behavioral and mutable characteristics of plants” (p. 54). Like a gardener with a green thumb, a sharp eyed and minded botanist can learn a lot from observing a specimen, especially as more focus is being put on using specimens for trait measurements (Heberling, 2022). I agree more with her view that “When faced with an herbarium specimen, it is impossible not to feel a sense of loss, as plant life is seemingly obliterated on the sheet.” (p. 54) However, I do think obliterated is too strong a word. Despite this, Tiny Taxonomies is a small treasure.
The ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan (1993, 2009) of the University of Arizona used a phrase I loved: botany needs to dance with the humanities. I haven’t yet investigated the depths of this metaphor but I see it as involving slow dancing where the couple get to know each other gradually, intimately, and memorably. It is full of aesthetic nuances directed toward the idea that academic and indigenous botanists need to be in dialogue toward a contemplative ecology of caring for creation. This is definitely an aspirational goal, but we have too long discounted the aspirational as a driver of change in favor of economic and pragmatic goals that often fall short.
John McNeill, a Georgetown University historian, again brought up the issue of timescale toward the end of the conference as Ned Friedman had at the beginning. McNeill thinks that historians and scientists have different timescales, that historians deal in particular moments while scientists look for regularities that persist over time. He also touched on a topic that pervaded the conference: the ownership of plants, and what precisely does that mean, or does it really have any meaning across the species divide? Like the dancing metaphor, this term definitely requires more consideration, as does so much discussed at the conference.
Note: In describing as much as I have, I still didn’t tell of the beautiful gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, the great meals we had, and the fascinating conversations. I am grateful to have been part of it all. I am particularly grateful to Yota Batsaki and Anatole Tchikine for inviting me to attend this event.
Elkin, R. S. (2017). Tiny Taxonomy. New York: Actar.
Heberling, J. M. (2022). Herbaria as Big Data Sources of Plant Traits. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 183(2), 87–118. https://doi.org/10.1086/717623
Nabhan, G. (1993). Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy. Pantheon.
Nabhan, G. (2009). Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine. Island Press.