Using the Arboretum’s Living Lab in Hands-on Fieldwork
Just beyond the old iron gates of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, a creative experiment in pedagogy has been bringing the concept of plant sciences to growing, changing life.
For three years now, master’s degree candidates in “Field Methods and Living Collections,” led by Rosetta S. Elkin of the Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the Arboretum’s William “Ned” Friedman, have used social theory and a methodology that examines plant evolution, morphology, built neighborhoods, and landscape design to address “plant blindness”—the human tendency to take plants for granted, reducing them to a green fuzz in the background.
“There is quite a history of human exceptionalism, and that we are the absolute species. On Maslow’s ladder [the hierarchy of needs] … plants were so low they barely made the rung. The whole class hinges on this diagnosis of plant blindness, that people assume that plants are just there, and they will always be there,” said Elkin, an associate professor of landscape architecture and faculty fellow at the Arboretum.
Yet, “We’re an entirely plant-dependent species. Plants were here way before we were; they will be here way after. They move, grow, communicate, behave, and adapt in magnificent ways and have a very different relationship with time. Once you start to appreciate that, the world around you does become a little more articulated,” she said.
Plants can be bellwethers of environmental risk, which often is overlooked by urbanists or architects focused on parcels of land whose confines are determined by economics or politics. High risk from and to the environment, such as drought, transcends manmade boundaries, however. This means that studying the effects of climate change requires acknowledging that where ecology is at risk, so is all of the area that the local environment defines, Elkin said.
Plants, as living, growing, slowly mobile lifeforms, are in both harmonious and conflictual existence with humans. It’s a complex dichotomy that is constantly shifting, said Friedman, the director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold professor of organismic and evolutionary biology. But the relationship goes beyond the barriers of our intentions—reducing plants to objects of food, or shade, or decorative beauty.
“One of the most important goals of the course is to break down the dangerous assumption that plants are an extension of the human condition—that we can relate to plants if we humanize them, make them seem like us or exist merely to serve us,” Friedman said. “The goal is for students to begin to meet plants on their terms and initiate a lifelong process of understanding these non-human living organisms through the repeated acts of observation and reflection. They are going to spend their professional lives doing things that involve the use of plants in design, but they don’t necessarily have a relationship with plants.”
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