- Botanical Lanterns / 2022 / Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne / Lightscape is on until August 7, 2022 / Steel, plant resin, pressed and dried botanicals / Photograph by Daniel Williams, Mossy Rock Productions
ILLUMINATING THE HERBARIUM – ROYAL BOTANICAL GARDENS
I have been lucky enough to be welcomed to the inner workings of the National Herbarium of Victoria, and guided through the aged folders with calligraphic writing on sepia-stained labels. The time-weathered folders contain dried and pressed botanical specimens, tied together with fabric ribbons. Each one is like opening a gift. As I peer over these collections I imagine the treacherous field trips of early explorers travelling through exotic landscapes, in ships and across time. The centuries-old contents of these folders gets carefully eyed by curators skilled in deciphering the collecting information. They forensically search for characteristics that assert or deny the handwritten notations that accompany each specimen. Sometimes they come with handwritten letters from the collectors that help to pinpoint where and when a specimen was collected, and to understand the context in which it was collected. The letters are also fascinating time capsules that reflect the language, societal attitudes and science of their time … along with exceptionally beautiful handwriting. The pressed and dried plants get carefully re-housed on fresh archival papers, photographed, catalogued and filed within the multiple floors of Herbarium cabinets. This is a botanical library. A preserved record of the vegetation of the earth. The seemingly endless and exacting task of recording these specimens is testament to the astonishing variety and beauty of plants, fungi, algae, lichen and moss in this collection … and our world. The Herbarium underpins all other botanical science and is used primarily by researchers and botanical scientists as a definitive source of information to understand plant taxonomy, anatomy, geography and history.
“The role of science like that of art, is to blend exact imagery with more distant meaning, the parts we already understand with those given as new into larger patterns…” Edward O Wilson
When evolutionary biologist Edward O Wilson describes Biofilia he reaches through a tapestry of culture and science to explain our deep biological connection to the natural world, and reminds us of this knowing and feeling in exact and poetic terms. The Herbarium and horticulture team that I encountered in this journey quietly share this deep wonder for nature through their dedicated appreciation of the minute and intricate details of the plants that they care for. If Biofilia can describe the very essence of our humanity and that which binds us to all living things, it concludes that a conservationist ethic naturally evolves from dedication to this empathetic knowledge. As we move further into the Anthropocene the resources and knowledge of places like the Herbarium will provide the backbone to the important work of adaptation.
When I learnt that succession planting is underway, it was a shock. The realisation that plants are being selected for Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) to prepare for a hotter, drier climate made this future very real. It was a familiar feeling from long ago when I learnt about the Millennium seedbank: a storage of the world’s botanical diversity to mitigate extinction and disaster. The work of conservation is both utopian and dystopian, hopeful and apocalyptic. I am very thankful for the balancing weight of our pragmatic scientists.
Art, like science, is a doorway into history, culture and evolution. I have stepped through the doorway of the Herbarium and found a dendric pattern of interesting narratives that branch out in many directions. This wonderful adventure informs a new artwork that consists of six large Botanical Lanterns. I have been lured by the aesthetics of the Herbarium and guided by the collections manager, Alison Vaughan, to concentrate on six themes, detailed below. They reveal some of the historical and contemporary stories housed within the National Herbarium of Victoria. With the help of the specialist horticulture team, I have collected samples from Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne and Cranbourne. These have been pressed, and are literally embedded in the work.
THE BOTANICAL LANTERNS
Ferdinand von Mueller’s botanical legacy
Arriving by ship in 1847 the German pharmacist and botanist scooped up a piece of seaweed as he came to shore. This delicate, branching seaweed is housed within the Herbarium collection, and is one of many specimens collected by Mueller as he began to meticulously observe the native plants of Australia. In the era of great polymaths, he was appointed the first director of the botanical gardens in Melbourne and began what is now the National Herbarium collection. This is the largest herbarium in the country and one of the top 30 in the world. The herbarium collection includes native plants collected by Sir Joseph Banks on the first Cook expedition, and one of its most venerable specimens is a moss (Fontinalis squamosa), collected in Germany in the late 1500s. Mueller’s many exploratory trips, collections and publishing have contributed to a great botanical legacy. He named many hundreds of plants species, over 200 of which grow in the RBGV living collections.
Some of the plants that Mueller named and filed in the Herbarium have been collected from the gardens and are included in the ‘Ferdinand von Mueller’s botanical legacy’ Lantern.
Mueller’s female collectors – 19th century citizen scientists
Mueller’s contributions cannot be dislodged from his colonial past. As one story goes he was responsible for introducing Blackberry to ensure a lost and hungry traveller might find nourishment along the water courses. As a redeemable act, he provided the opportunity for women to push the boundaries of normative behaviour in the 19th century. He mentored a band of female explorers and amateur scientific collectors who provided new plant specimens from across the Australian continent. Mueller was, of course, lauded as a great man of science, while the contributions of these great women to the history of Australian botany, and to the Herbarium collection itself, remained long-obscured. Over 200 women collected for Mueller, sending specimens from vast swathes of the continent. The famous Scott sisters are included amongst Mueller’s accomplished naturalists and collectors, and were the first professional female scientific illustrators in the country. Their love of nature and tremendous illustration skills enabled them to distinguish themselves in the male-dominated world of science. Handwritten notes give an insight into the exchanges that took place between Mueller and his female collectors, while 42 species were named after them in acknowledgement of their discovery, such as Myoporum bateae (named for Mary Bate), Boronia barkeriana (named for Mrs Barker)
Conostylis bealiana (named for Amy Beal), Dampiera scottiana (named for Harriet Scott), Xanthosia atkinsoniana (named for Louisa Atkinson).
I have included examples of some of the species collected by these women in the ‘Mueller’s female collectors – 19th century citizen scientists’ Lantern.
Plants and Medicine – the origins of Herbaria
The origins of herbaria date back to the 1500s in Italy and are intricately linked with the practice of medicine and pharmacology. Collections began as a way to teach students how to identify plants known for their medicinal qualities. The pressed specimens became a reference library that was a continually evolving resource. Medicinal botanical books of the time were incredibly rare and expensive, and often included crude illustrations that, although artistic, were without the detail needed to differentiate one species from another. The pressed botanical specimens, on the other hand, could be as useful for identification a century later as they were when they were collected. Ferdinand von Mueller trained as a pharmacist and arrived in Australia with valuable hand-painted books of herbals in Latin and German that are still housed within Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria’s library today. He was aware of the importance of preserved specimens for accurate botanical records and insisted on building the Herbarium as part of his tenure. Mueller’s pressings, along with the purchase of his friend and colleague Otto Wilhelm Sonder’s personal herbarium collection, forms the basis of Victoria’s scientifically and historically important collection.
A medicinal herb garden would often accompany any medical scientific institution as a source of pharmaceuticals and education. The herb garden within Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne has continued this tradition and was the source for a fragrant collection of medicinal plants included in the ‘Plants and Medicine – the origins of Herbaria’ lantern.
Ferns for the future – Victorian conservation collection
Fern-fever was a Victorian era craze for ferns, known as ‘Pteridomania’ (pronounced teridomania). Its story is entangled with the development of the Wardian Case – a precurser to the terrarium that could reliably move live plants across the globe, in ships, for the first time. Fern collecting became an adventurer’s treasure hunt. Fern motifs began to appear on decorative items from pottery to gravestones. The obsession gripped the era’s amateur botanists, especially the ‘ladies’, and these botanical enthusiasms were included among the efforts of Mueller’s female collectors. Although the Herbarium’s fern collection helps to tell these rich and compelling narratives of history, the contemporary endeavours in fern science are equally fascinating. The Herbarium is currently developing a conservation spore bank (alongside its seed bank). Fern propagation is possible from collected spores, and the bank is a keep-safe against decline in fern populations. RBGV Botanist Daniel Ohlsen is currently undertaking field collection of Victorian ferns. These ferns will be cultivated in order to collect the spores for the conservation spore bank. In the past, classification was based on morphology – how the ferns looked and were described. Ohlsen has added DNA analysis to this mix. Thirty-five of the species being collected from the wild for the spore bank also grow in the RBGV fern collection, and some of these appear in the ‘Ferns for the future – Victorian conservation collection’ lantern.
Plant genomics – decoding diversity
For millions of years, acacias (wattles) have grown in Australia and have evolved to cope with all of its extreme environments. Many species have evolved to be resistant to fire, salinity, drought, alkalinity and disease. Acacia belongs to the same plant family as peas and pulses. Their nitrogen-fixing properties have the potential to reduce the use of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers for farming. Acacia seeds also contain as much as 25% more protein than common cereals; they have been a staple food for Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years and have the potential to play an important role in more sustainable food futures. The quick-growing plants can also be useful in land remediation. The Genomics for Australian Plants (GAP) project aims to explain the genetic relationships between all Australian flowering plants by sequencing the genome – an organism’s set of genetic instructions – of key species. The Golden Wattle is one of the first to have its genome sequenced. Several RBGV Science staff have been contributing to the GAP project to support the conservation of Australia’s unique flora by improving our understanding of species’ diversity. The GAP initiative aims to develop resources to enable better conservation, use and understanding of Australia’s unique plant diversity. Each of the plant samples used for molecular analysis corresponds to a herbarium specimen, which allows a link between the DNA data and an actual plant. It’s a great example of collaborative science to improve conservation outcomes, and the use of herbarium specimens is crucial to this work.
Acacia and Persoonia (Geebung) are currently included in this work. There are close to 800 Acacia plants growing in Melbourne and Cranbourne Gardens, and almost 30 Persoonia plants. Cuttings from some of these plants are included in the ‘Plant genomics – decoding diversity’ lantern.
The conservation collection – rare and threatened plants
The Victorian Rare and Threatened Collection is a group of six beds at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne where, as the name suggests, vulnerable plants are growing. Many of these species have been grown from seed that has been collected for the Victorian Conservation Seedbank and are represented by specimens in the Herbarium collection. There is a lot of conservation work going on behind the scenes at RBGV and the seedbank is fascinating part of it. The process of seed storage is meticulous. Once seed has been collected from a target species it is cleaned to remove any excess material, and x-rayed to indicate potential viability, before germination tests record its optimal germination conditions. All of this data is linked to the precious seeds that are put into deep-freeze storage, protected and treasured. The seedbank project has been valued more highly after recent bushfires. Those working with the seedbank describe supplying seed to regenerate the endangered Nematolepis wilsonii after its entire population was burnt out as a career highlight.
Some precious samples of plants insured by the Victorian Conservation Seedbank are included in the ‘Rare and Threatened’ Lantern.
TOP IMAGE: Image by Daniel Williams / Most Rock Productions
THE UNSUNG HERO / Edinburgh Gardens Fitzroy / City of Yarra Plinth Project
- The Unsung Hero / 2019 / City of Yarra Plinth Project / Until March 2022 / Wood, steel, paint / Photograph by J. Forsyth
A plinth is an historical site for the revered, those we are told to remember and admire. The playful juxtaposition between this cultural structure of the plinth and the placement of the humble earthworm—raised up on a pedestal and represented on a momentous scale—is humorous and yet deeply meaningful. Silently in darkness the earthworm has been going about its business, doing the important and under-rated work of turning decaying matter into nutrients for plants. It is one of the hardest working and most unrecognised members of our biotic community. Their burrows bring water and air deep into the ground providing the right conditions for root growth, creating the healthy soil that we all depend on. I believe it is time that we honoured this unsung hero, and raise the earthworm up onto the plinth. It is a reminder of our dependence on ecological cycles, the importance of composting our green waste and to think about the lifecycles of the matter that we consume.
The offical launch and Worm Party was held on the 20th of October 2019. The Gould League held a free worm composting session and information stall on the day, and lots of other worm activities. I have included Dr Tessa Laird’s speech below, along with my own. Here are links to interviews.
DR TESSA LAIRD
IN PRAISE OF THE WORM
Before launching into my words on worms, it seems especially appropriate when talking about soil, and earth, to acknowledge that we are gathering on Wurundjeri land today. I pay my respects to elders past, present, and emerging, who have always, and will continue, to care for the land. Like myself and my settler-colonist ancestors, the majority of worms found in gardens and worm farms are not native. There are over 1000 species of native worms in Australia and approximately 80 introduced species, and all of them are beneficial for soil.
While today we are here to celebrate the humble garden earth worm for the duties it performs in eating our waste and fertilising our food, let’s not forget we are also on the continent that has some of the largest native worms in the world. For example, the Giant Earthworm of Gippsland apparently can grow to 4 metres long! While the Squirter Earthworm of coastal New South Wales, which is half a metre long, will squirt jets of fluid if disturbed!
Worms are, literally, foundational creatures, in fact, as the great book says, “In the beginning, there was the worm!” Well, OK, in this instance, the “great book” in question is not the Bible, but a book by the French Philosopher Jacques Derrida called The Animal That Therefore I Am. Of course, Derrida’s having fun, making a pun out of a holy text. But he’s also got a more serious agenda. He’s trying to figure out how we human animals understand and relate to non-human animals, and he’s asking us, in the very roundabout and convoluted way of a French philosopher, to re-examine our preconceptions and prejudices about the animal kingdom.
Charles Darwin would agree with Derrida’s phrase, as he too thought that the entire history of the world, would not have been possible without worms. In fact, he also wrote a great book, the very last thing he ever wrote, entirely about worms, called “The Formation of Vegetable Mould: Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits”. (This was before the days of best sellers with snappy titles). This book was the summation of 40 years of experiments, in which Darwin played bassoon to his worms, chewed tobacco and breathed upon them, waved perfumes at them, and fed them all number of things, finding for example that they preferred wild cherry leaves and carrot tops to cabbage and celery. He was convinced that worms possess “a mind of some kind”, and that they even display individual character traits.
Long before Darwin was around, someone else realised how important worms were to soil fertility, and therefore, to life itself. In Ancient Egypt, none other than Cleopatra decreed that the earthworm should be revered and protected as a sacred animal. Anyone caught removing worms from the land could be put to death! I wonder if we should reserve the same punishment for anyone caught desecrating this statue? Although, apparently this statue did attract some graffiti – not the worm itself, but the plinth. Someone painted the phrase “Worm is God”, and I think the unlikely trio of Cleopatra, Charles Darwin and Jacques Derrida would all agree!
Derrida made his pun by substituting word for worm, and worms do worm their way into language. You probably know that Vermicelli means little worm-like noodles, but did you know that the colour vermillion comes from the Latin vermiculus meaning “a little worm” in reference to the cochineal insect from which crimson dyes were obtained. Sadly, the word “vermin” is also derived from the Latin word for worm – and that should give you some indication as to how they have been perceived. In those times, snakes were also called worms, and generally anything creeping or ground-dwelling was regarded with suspicion. My favourite theorist, Donna Haraway, wrote a recent book in which she celebrates the “tentacular” that is, anything that wriggles, and anything that is low-down and dirty, in the muddy, muddled, thick of it all. This, she says, is where the real thinking takes place. She has a bumper sticker that reads “Composting is so Hot!”
Like Haraway, I think Kathy’s work is so important, because it turns our expectations upside down, and challenges us to see the world differently. I’ve followed Kathy’s practice for a while now, and I first started taking notice of her when she made an installation of hundreds of hand-made flying foxes in the Atrium at Federation Square. Flying Foxes, like worms, do great things for the environment, yet people either ignore them, or complain about them. They are even called pests, even though they are native and endangered. Like worms, flying foxes call for an upside-down view of the world, because they hang from trees, and fly at night. With the Unsung Hero, Kathy takes what is usually under the plinth, and puts it ontop, a carnivalesque reversal which gives the spotlight to that which is usually hidden, and where we have to pay respects to that which we take for granted.
Worms are magicians, they are alchemists who turn our waste, our food scraps into black gold. Worms not only allow us to continue to feed ourselves, they create topsoil which stops erosion, and also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Worms are our allies on this heating planet, and we need to combat global warming with global worming – more worms, most compost, more gardens, more veggies, and, most crucially, more respect! This sculpture is a wonderful reminder to pay our respects to the land upon which we stand, and to all the custodians of that land.
MA, BA – Fine Art
THE UNSUNG HERO
As an artist I really respond to place. There is always a rich humus of earthly and cultural history there. And so we have this plinth, in a historical garden. A manicured and rather uptight early colonial design, one might say, that is deeply loved by myself and the community. A place where we take can our shoes off and touch the earth in this urban setting. With ancient soils holding the memories of footprints of Wurundjeri meeting places by the Merri Merri. The plinth elevates, it is a well recognised art historic place, for marble statues of those deemed worthy of honouring and remembering in public places. This plinth was dedicated to royalty, our queen …(in an interesting twist, she was stolen).
Meanwhile, the earthworm quietly and in darkness has been going about its business, doing the important and largely unrecognised work of creating healthy soil,. Nourishing and aerating the thin crust of earth that covers our namesake planet, and that all land based life needs to thrive. Soil or earth is a complex living entity.
Perhaps it is worth contemplating the graffiti artists claim, that as worms make good soil, they MAKE the earth, that they EARTH CREATORS, that ‘worm IS god’. And as the great thinker Darwin said “It may be doubted that there are many other animals that have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures”.
Permaculture has long recognised the worm and uses the it as a symbol for one of their principles: ‘produce no waste’. Permaculture’s philosophy is to ‘work with’ circular systems and to try and turn problems into solutions.
Landfill, depleted soil, and moisture are a bit of a problem here in Australia. It is worth noting that around 25% of landfill is green waste (which without oxygenation puts methane gases into our already damaged atmosphere). This green waste can instead be composted or worm composted into nourishment for our soil. A lecturer I had in Utrecht said, “Art can be a force for change, but you must critique with proposition”. Composting our green waste back into the earth is an easy solution … so this is my friendly proposition.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed with issues we face on our warming earth and frustrated with our leadership team. The founder of Permaculture David Holmgren said that worm composting can be one form of positive protest, to recalibrate our reliance on the systems of linear economies and instead return to a circular economy (or I like like to think of them as circular ecologies). Circular systems are things like: the amazing transformation a worm performs turning decomposing green waste, organic matter or if you want to get really radical, poop, into compost that helps grow plants that provide food, with the waste returning to the earth to continue the cyclic and sustainable system. This can be adopted on grand scales, with good thinkers and doers like Charles Massey explaining regenerative agriculture. It is at this point that I‘d like to repeat Dr Tessa Laird’s great mantra in saying “we need to combat global warming with global worming”.
This artwork on a plinth, in our garden, is a recognition of the hardworking worm and a reminder of how, through partnerships with this underground critter and its like, and by becoming active aware agents of our earth’s cyclic systems, we can wriggle forward on a damaged earth.
Start a relationship with a worm, and in the risk of sounding like a worm zealot… start on the path of working with the ‘earth creators’.
It was time that we put the worm on a plinth. It is time to value the worm as one of the hardest working members of our community. Improving the soil structure and nutrition as an essential part of the biological cycle of matter that earthly beings depend on. It is time to honour this unsung hero. Thankyou earthworms.
- Water is Life / 2022 / CS Gallery / On show throughout 2022 / Digital Print
WATER IS LIFE
As a child, the aftermath of the flooded Kororoit Creek always looked like decorated like Christmas trees, with shiny plastic bits, aluminium, coloured bottles, plastic bags and other rubbish snagged in the branches. I found it appealing for a moment before the reality of this image of nature truly sunk in.
This artwork includes illustrations captured in the pristine environment of 18th century Australia and uses the historical museum trope of the diorama. The visual language of these freeze-framed idyllic natural vignettes have the discordant addition of human made flotsam and jetsam. The intention of a diorama is to build a replica of a specific ecosystem and this contemporary interpretation reflects upon local habitats and the idea that a healthy waterway is the life blood that allows plants and animals to flourish … and this includes the human animal.