Looking, seeing, painting, knowing

February 28, 2021

In 2015 I took a wetlands ecology class as the first step in a Master of Environmental Studies, a degree which I ultimately left to begin a PhD in the history of science two years later. Just a semester after that wetlands class I realized that a life of the mind was speaking to me. By 2017 I’d changed course. But, back in the fall of 2015 I was immersed in the wetlands of southeastern Pennsylvania and south Jersey, surrounded by plants whose names I did not know.

This wasn’t a new problem for me. Growing up in New England I learned the names of plants and trees in school and out. I’m not an expert; the New England woods and roadsides are more full of plants I don’t know than plants I do. I know when to look for goldenrod and purple aster on the sides of highways and I know which trees will flare red earliest in August. From the plants I can recognize the first signs of changing seasons. But I couldn’t walk through the woods behind my childhood home and name every plant I see. Still, I learned to understand the history of forests by reading the shape of humps in the ground and the species and age of the trees. I recognized the shapes of trees and knew when to expect which flowers, and sometimes, which could be used for dye. But for years, living in Pennsylvania, I’d felt like I couldn’t figure out a sense of where I was because I was surrounded by unfamiliar plants. When I worked at a nature center my patient colleagues taught me the names of plants and birds, helped me begin to have a sense of this place. Looking through the woods the size and shape of tulip poplars helped me imagine the forest half a century earlier, and I knew when to expect bloodroot and Virginia bluebell to bloom. But, once I was knee-deep in these wetlands I realized I still knew almost nothing. Knowing that plants can tell you how often it usually rains in an area and whether it will be flooded every spring, that they can tell you what used to live and happen in a place, I knew I needed to learn to recognize them.

I started this plant learning campaign with a jar of Windsor & Newton black ink and a squirrel tail hair brush that had sat among my art supplies untouched for a decade. The brush was delicate and light, a thin piece of wood with a fine, curve of the brush, tapering to a single hair at the end.

After field trips I came home with plastic bags full of plant samples, often bent and crumpled. I could pull them apart, see how leaves attached, feel the spikes of their seed heads. Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground, I recited as I run my fingers along the stalks, noting where a new leaf appeared. One by one, I started to draw their profiles, to fill in the shape of their forms in ink. Slowly, I trained my eyes to see the pattern in the attachment of leaves, the form of bud to stem to stalk. I love, especially, the tiny idiosyncrasies that interrupt what at first glance often looks like symmetry: at its base, a leaf tapers and attaches to a stem, but a closer look reveals a deeper curve on the righthand side and a more gradual taper on the left. I learned the round shape of bayonet rushes and the long leaves of pickerelweed with their deep fold, one side always catching the sunlight. In painting these plants, I learned how to see them. Or, I learned, at least, to see their forms. Oddly enough, despite hours of painting plants and dozens of lovingly designed flashcards, I still don’t know the names of most of the plants I see. I paint naively, barely knowing the anatomical names for different parts which would aid me when I take out a field guide and compare it to the painting. Working with a dichotomous key is still sometimes torturous: what, I have to look up every single time, is a stipel? Which the anther? What does glabrous mean? I’m not without any taxonomical knowledge, but the plants whose names I can call up are ones I know through other means.

The painting has become a way of knowing. This botanical painting has now long outlived the wetlands ecology class in which I started it. Now, it’s outlasted the master’s program and carried me into my doctoral work. I started painting in order to learn to see. And I wanted to see because knowing how to see these plants is the first step to learning how they are a part of their living communities, learning their names, learning how they shape and are shaped by their context. When I travel I collect plant samples and paint them at the end of the day (or over several days, the cuttings getting more crumpled and dried out). Gathering and painting are ways of greeting a new place, a way of seeing it, getting a feeling for its little sidewalk plants. In Greece in 2016 I picked roadside weeds from the ruins of the temple city at the foot of Mount Olympus and from the graffitied waterfront of Thessaloniki. When I started my doctoral program I picked sidewalk plants on the walk from home to campus, trying to capture it before my energy for the day was gone.

A part of my comprehensive exam reading was about the nature of knowledge, of knowledge production, of being the subject or object of knowledge. In learning how to see the shapes of these  plants, in learning how to draw my focus in to the tiniest details (someday, I keep promising myself, I’ll get a hand lens with which to enlarge them), I learned just a little more how to see the place where I am. This knowledge is not at all like the knowledge of the mind, despite my efforts to memorize scientific names and test myself against samples of similar plants. Instead, it is a knowledge that is about noticing and seeing, feeling and recognizing. The growing world comes alive with things to see. The edges of the pavement, gardens, and parks come into focus.

I’m still painting these plants—though I’ve brought color into the mix as well, with trepidation. I love the simplicity of the black and white forms. When I paint in silhouette, I need to find just the shape of the plant, the details that make it itself. I paint in order to get to know a place, or to remember it. But I also paint because it forces me to narrow my attention to the present space and time, the moment in which I can hold a sample of a growing thing and turn it one way or another, sketch out its leaves, use my tiniest brush and the smallest possible bit of ink or paint, notice what is there.

With gratitude and apologies to:
Lorraine Daston
Peter Galison
Elizabeth Lunbeck
Linda Tuhiwie Smith
Pamela Smith
Isabelle Stengers
Anna Tsing