As an artist engaging with Thoreau’s digitized herbarium, I find it conceptually significant that the artifacts I am working with are virtual, digitized representations of what was present, tangible, and alive when Thoreau walked through the woods. Through immersive visual interpretations of his herbarium, visualizations of the collected plant data, and soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond, we can imagine and appreciate the extraordinary abundance, beauty and diversity that he encountered. If Thoreau were alive today, he might point us back to our present reality— that nearly half of these plants (indicated in cyan) are now declining towards local extinction as we approach a time when they may only be seen in museums, pressed and preserved, or digitized. These are the digital ghosts of the landscape Thoreau revered and documented, a landscape so transformed by climate change, that he would not recognize it.
““Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake.”
— Henry David Thoreau
My conceptual framework for the immersive experience was to leverage plant data and the digitized collection to provide visual evidence of the impact of climate change on species in the collection while also presenting the digital artifacts as objects of beauty, digital afterlife, and contemplation. I collaborated with scientist Emily Meineke who guided me in the reading and synthesis of the scientific data collected by Chuck Davis and his collaborators. Together, we identified potential stories in that data to visualize.
The animations also feature the species in most severe decline performing in a kind of digital afterlife in a fashion that asks viewers to contemplate their beauty and loss. A spatial augmented reality floor projection, evocative of a pond, transitions through several flowering species that appear to momentarily hydrate and rebloom from their herbarium sheets. A soundscape recorded at Walden Pond further immerses visitors in local birdsong, the lapping of the pond, insects chirping, and the sounds of footsteps traversing the woods.
What stood out to me as a most devastating and sobering reality was the dramatic decline in abundance and local extinction of over half of the species that Thoreau collected. I envisioned and prototyped this as a grid that presents the entire herbarium in one view at life size — using cyan (a tether to Sobsey’s work and study) to color code the declining species and gradually darken the images in sets organized by the data on severity of decline. Leah Sobsey borrows this concept and powerfully reinforces it as a stunning cyanotype wallpaper.
*Willis, C.G., Ruhfel, B.R., Primack, R.B., Miller-Rushing, A.J., and Davis, C.C. (2008). Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau's woods are driven by climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105, 17029-17033. PDF
Trying to visualize extinction in a fashion that bends time, our exhibition provides an encounter with permanent loss while also offering an aesthetic appreciation of these plants, even as they exist only in their pressed, desiccated state on the pages of Thoreau’s specimen collection.
For a traveling exhibition, the floor and wall animations can be customized for indoor or outdoor installations and scaled up or down to fit spaces. We hope to partner with museums and galleries that have large spaces suitable for large scale, fully immersive, experiences and floor to ceiling projection and interactive possibilities. We also see the potential for visualizing other stories present in the data and further developing the intellectual take-aways from this experience.