Skip to Content

Digitally Traversing Global Plant Histories

Posted On October 26, 2020 | 12:12 pm | by mayw | Permalink
Virtual Plant Humanities Summer Program brought diverse disciplines, resources, and scholars together to create timely plant narratives

By May Wang

In 1999, the botanist-educators James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler embarked on a campaign against what they called “plant blindness,” defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s environment” and “the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.”

Two decades later, the Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative joins environmental scholars and activists to communicate the significance of plants to human culture. Whereas Wandersee and Schussler spread their mission with an iconic poster featuring red spectacles, the new Initiative leverages the connectivity afforded by the digital world. This summer, twelve students from across the globe and at various stages in their academic careers gathered virtually for the six-week Plant Humanities Summer Program in a shared effort to combat plant blindness.

Students came from fields as diverse as history, archaeology, anthropology, geography, literature, and performance studies. A distinguished roster of guest lecturers fostered dialogue between scientists and humanists. In the final three weeks of the workshop, participants worked in groups to enhance their digital skills and create interactive visual essays for the Plant Humanities Workbench, an open-access digital platform developed by Dumbarton Oaks in partnership with JSTOR Labs.

2020 Plant Humanities Summer Program Participants
Twelve students from across the globe and academic disciplines gathered virtually each day for the six-week Plant Humanities Summer Program.

A challenge to our perception of the importance and versatility of plants is their alleged lack of agency. As the philosopher Michael Marder argues, plant life abides by “a certain pace and rhythm of movement, which we customarily disregard, since it is too subtle for our cognitive and perceptual apparatuses to register in an everyday setting, and with which the tempo of our own lives is usually out of sync.” But close study of the global mobility of plants reveals that the seeming passivity of plants belies their catalytic role in human history. The ability to transport live plant specimens—such as rubber tree, breadfruit, or tea—aboard ships or to capture their likeness to disseminate knowledge among scholars and entrepreneurs were crucial factors that enabled colonial enterprise, the effects of which we still reckon with today. The digital medium lends itself particularly well to visualizing the diverse sources, timescales, and trajectories that make up these complex and far-reaching histories.

Over the past decade, Dumbarton Oaks has developed a number of programs for early-career humanists that emphasize skill-building, collaboration, and collections-based learning. The Plant Humanities Initiative applied this approach to the creation of visual essays for the Digital Workbench. Under the direction of Ashley Buchanan and Ron Snyder, director of research and development at JSTOR Labs, teams of participants mastered techniques of textual, visual, and spatial analysis to narrate the histories of an intriguing array of plants that included watermelon, cassava, cork tree, geranium, and dragon tree. An important goal of these case studies is to connect primary sources with secondary literature using the rich online collections of Global Plants on JSTOR, our Rare Book Collection, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Composite image for Plant Humanities digital tool
Students collaborated with developers at JSTOR Labs to imagine and implement digital tools for the visual narratives.

Rather than use off-the-shelf digital tools, students collaborated with developers to imagine and implement the digital functionality they needed to embed images from primary sources and ephemera, design the flow of the interactive essays, and draw custom GeoJSON maps to visualize the mobility of each plant. By collaborating on the digital platform alongside more traditional seminar-style discussions, students had the opportunity to combine traditional and novel modes of storytelling and apply them to the cultural histories of plants.

During a summer of limited human mobility, the tempo of human life may have slowed enough for many people to register the acute environmental degradation and species extinction of recent decades, and the virtual Plant Humanities Summer Program offered opportunities to learn and implement traditional and innovative techniques for supporting this type of sustained study. Surveys have indicated a reengagement with the outdoors and nature during the pandemic, and painstaking citizen science research projects like birdwatching saw a 29 percent increase in participation this year. The summer program underscored the promise and relevance of digital fluency for humanists and gave this fluency meaningful direction, advancing the Plant Humanities mission of researching plant-human interactions and combating the inability to recognize and acknowledge the diversity and importance of plants.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Images by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.