When ecology meets art, you get a dating site for trees
In 2015, as a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, Juniper Harrower was planning to go back to Costa Rica, where she’d been working in the cloud forests to study patterns of forest regeneration. But then she learned something — something heart-wrenching — that would change the path of her research.
“Scientists had just found out that Joshua trees were really impacted by climate change and could be gone from the National Park within 100 years,” said Harrower. “When I read that, it was such a gut punch.”
Harrower grew up in Joshua Tree National Park — a vast, protected area in Southern California, home to thousands of twisted, spiky Joshua trees. And hearing that the iconic species was in jeopardy, Harrower felt she had to do something.
“It started this whole trajectory of thinking about what species were really crucial for Joshua trees and how those interactions might change with the changing climate,” she said.
Berkeley News spoke with Harrower, now a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art Practice, about the power of art and science to spur social change and why she started a dating site for Joshua trees.
Berkeley News: You got your Ph.D. in environmental studies with a focus in ecoart from UC Santa Cruz in 2019, and now, you’re a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. What brought you to Berkeley?
Juniper Harrower: My background is in ecology, and I’ve spent the last eight years working as an environmental artist. I got my bachelor’s degree in plant biology from Berkeley, where I talked my way into some art classes. I was kind of jumping between science research and having a really visible art practice. I continued to have a very present art practice at UC Santa Cruz, where I created and still teach science art classes. I left Santa Cruz with a Ph.D. in environmental studies, but madly, madly in love with art.
At Berkeley, I’m thinking about how an arts practice that is connected to ecological research can impact social change.
Berkeley has such an incredible art department. There’s a very strong post-colonialist framework that people are working from, and I’m looking forward to having those conversations and dismantling some of my science background. To have the incredible privilege of making art for two years with the support of an art practice committee is such a dream.
What is your ecological research about?
I’ve been studying for many years now, both as an artist and a scientist, species interaction under climate change. The system that I’ve been working with the most is the Joshua tree down in Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree National Park is basically the hottest, driest, furthest south place where Joshua trees can live. Joshua trees grow in parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. So, you have this testing ground of what’s happening at the hot spots, and we’re seeing at the hottest places where they’re growing, they’re not reproducing sexually.
The only way that Joshua trees can reproduce sexually is with this teeny tiny little moth. They pollinate the trees. It’s amazing. What’s even crazier is this moth is one of the only examples in the animal kingdom that does purposeful pollination. The moth visits and lays eggs inside of the flower, which becomes a nursery for the developing larva. They eat some of the Joshua tree seeds as they grow, and some of the seeds go on to become the next generation of Joshua trees. So, it’s this incredible story of symbiosis and millions of years of coevolution between these moths and these trees. It’s so wild.
We’re looking at how these relationships have so tightly coevolved over time and how tweaks and signaling in the climate can make it all crumble and fall apart. And then, poof! No more Joshua trees. This is just one story in all of the vast, giant species die-off that we’re going to be seeing.
While you were researching Joshua trees, you made a discovery about the way these trees communicate with each other. Can you explain your findings?
While I was doing fieldwork and lab work, I discovered for the first time that Joshua trees actually form these specialized fungal communities underground. They’d never been studied before. These fungal communities are critical for the tree in dealing with stress and climate change and drought.
I published an article on this research in the science journal PLOS One in August 2021 about the Joshua tree fungal communities. I’d been working on it for years and years. It was a ton of work. I’m the lead author and my co-author is Gregory Gilbert. He is on the faculty at UC Santa Cruz, and he was my adviser when I did my Ph.D.
In the paper, I’m looking at how Joshua trees have different fungal associations. Joshua trees and several other species of trees form a symbiotic relationship with several species of root fungi called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are these little fungi that live in the soils, and they form symbiotic interactions with plant roots. They grow inside the plant roots and then out into the soils in these vast underground networks. They forage for water and nutrients, and they take it in and then trade it with another plant in exchange for plant sugars because the fungi don’t photosynthesize. So, the plant is giving the sugars in exchange for access to all of this stuff underground.
What does this mean for the Joshua tree, as a species? Could these kinds of multi-species interactions potentially help Joshua trees be more resilient to the effects of climate change?
They’ve shown that plants that form these kinds of associations can grow bigger, stronger, better, faster. They’re more resilient to pests and pathogens. They can even potentially communicate with other plants through this fungal network because it can connect full plant communities. It has become known as the “Wood Wide Web.”
My research demonstrated that Joshua trees form these relationships with different fungal communities, and that the outcomes of those relationships depend on the environmental conditions of where the relationship is happening. As the climate changes, or as we consider assisted plant migrations or post-fire transplanting, these symbiotic relationships and specific fungal species will be really important to consider.
While you were an artist-in-residence with Joshua Tree National Park, you created a dating site for Joshua trees, which is an ongoing project. How can a person date a Joshua tree, and what is the purpose of this project?
I created a dating site for Joshua trees, called “Hey JTree,” so that people can meet and fall in love with some of the Joshua trees in my field sites.
I invite guests to contribute by writing a profile for a specific tree, and then name them. Participants can send the trees a love letter that I share on the site, and they can make a print of their favorite tree at one of my pop-up events. I have worked with thousands of people to create Joshua tree prints, share stories about these trees together and discuss ways to better care for them as a society. I am also interested in the role that plants play in constructing our identities and how we impact their lives.
Another thing that I am thinking about is the distance created with people’s obsessive phone behaviors. The Joshua tree dating site is a way that I aim to co-opt some of the tools that divide us from our environment.
You have created a lot of other artwork that involve Joshua trees, including a series of paintings that look at the underground fungal systems using experimental materials like Joshua tree seed oil and alcohol, as well as surreal, abstract multimedia works that use augmented reality and that invite participation from the viewer. What are some of the questions you ask when you’re creating your art? Why do you think art is a powerful way to share scientific findings, and how do you hope your art impacts people?
In some of my work that I’m doing now, I ask: How does Joshua tree mythology intersect with the mythos of the American West? And where have the archetypes of the Wild West and Manifest Destiny brought us today, with the larger story of settlement and development and environmental degradation and marginalization and species loss? How can Joshua trees be an icon to think about that?
Art connects with people at an emotional level. It also leaves so much more space to explore and question outside of the tightly defined scientific framework. With art-making, I can question and critique science and bring others into dialogue around these topics.
I think that science-inspired or collaborative art + science artwork can often fall into the trap of art illustrating or communicating science. While there is an important space for this and is part of the work that I do, I am much more interested in how we can better understand our relationships with other organisms and our shared histories through an expanded and interdisciplinary framing.
Science methodology is very defined and prescriptive. With art, I can approach and question things in entirely new ways, including ways that question the processes of collecting, viewing and meaning-making in science.
As we are dealing with human-driven crises on our planet, we will need to better understand how our colonial histories have impacted multispecies entanglements, but also how we can change our course from the continued pursuit of capital at the expense of nature. These are questions that I will be addressing during my time as an MFA student in the Berkeley Art Department with the guidance and support of my outstanding cohort and faculty.
You are working as an artist-in-residence with Benjamin Blonder’s Macrosystems Ecology Laboratory in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at Berkeley. What work are you doing in the lab?
I am thinking about the role that plants play in constructing our identities and how our activities influence and shape their development. I am looking at embedded histories in the landscape, both current and through deep ecological time. Using medicinal plants and techniques for decaying leaf material in the Blonder Lab, I have been developing some alternative imagining methods to embed and share stories within the leaf, while also uncovering some of the plant’s ancient evolutionary stories. I will share this work at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery on campus beginning on Jan. 26 and at the UC Botanical Garden in spring 2022.
In addition to these two exhibitions, I also have a big show, Confluence, coming up with my international arts collective, the Algae Society BioArt Design Lab, that explores ideas around algae and the environment and the ways that humans and algae come together. It will open at the Cameron Art Museum in late January 2022.