Ithaca Times

New Plantations Director: Plants Integrated Into Culture

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Posted: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 12:00 am

Christopher Dunn has journeyed full circle, having traveled a long way to and from the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu to return to upstate New York. Recently hired as Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Plantations at Cornell University, he is replacing Don Rakow who returned full-time to academia after twenty years as director.

Comprised of over 4,000 acres of botanical gardens, arboretum and natural areas, Cornell Plantations’ mission is to “preserve and enhance diverse horticultural collections and natural areas for the enrichment and education of academia and public audiences, and in support of scientific research.”

Plantations is an integral part of a public garden tradition that began in 1545 with the Botanical Garden of Padua in Italy now affiliated with the University of Padua and still used as a teaching facility. Originally established for medicinal purposes and then expanded to include collections of plants from countries around the world, Padua is considered to be the birthplace of: science, of scientific exchanges, and understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. Modern scientific disciplines have since developed such as: botany, medicine, pharmacy, chemistry, and ecology. The academic and professional work that Dunn has pursued in plant ecology and conservation over the course of his life has contributed to our understanding of the relationship between humans and nature.

At the age of twelve he moved to Rochester from Aberdeen, Scotland when his father accepted a teaching appointment at the University of Rochester. After high school, Dunn attended SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse initially studying forestry until he realized that he was more interested in “what makes these forests tick?” and switched to forest ecology. From there he pursued a masters degree at Indiana State University and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin where he focused on the ecology of beech-maple forests, hemlock-white pine forests and native grasslands.

He worked in the Chicago area for thirteen years, first as director of research at the Morton Arboretum and then at the Chicago Botanic Garden where he established an international seed conservation bank program with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. During his recent tenure as director of Lyon Arboretum in Hawaii he helped revitalize a 193-acre tropical rainforest and botanical garden, and establish an ecology research center devoted to preserving the biological and cultural diversity of the Pacific region.

Ithaca Times: One could say that you yourself have evolved your own intellectual pursuits much like the purposes of Padua’s original public botanic garden evolved over time to engage both nature and culture. How has your own thinking developed over the course of your life?

Christopher Dunn: “... I was first interested in the interactions between the trees within a forest system, and then I looked at the relationship between grasslands and their forests, and then at people and farmland and their long-term impacts on the landscape. The mind expands intellectually and you start to understand the relationship between nature and culture—that’s a critical thing. You can call it people and place. Consider looking at the role of indigenous peoples on the landscape and how they molded it, leaving a softer footprint. If we’re going to be conservation-minded people, it’s one thing to study ways to bring nature back to the way it used to be with restoration ecology, or to bring individual species back from the brink of extinction such as birds, mammals, or plants. And it’s another thing to bring people back into the picture.

Take for instance the “Tree of Peace” display in our Nevins Welcome Center about the white pine [tree] and what it means in Native American culture. Or you could go to Hawaii and ask, what does taro mean to the Native Hawaiian culture? If something should happen to the white pine, the Native American culture loses some of its integrity. If taro were lost from Hawaii due to some disease then the native Hawaiian culture loses a bit of its identity. These are what we call “cultural keystone species” that are central to those cultures. Now that’s not far fetched because of the way that bio- diversity around the world is degrading. And as bio-diversity degrades, so goes too: cultures, languages, stories, music, and dance. We’re losing our humanity when these stories are missing. And this is where bio-cultural conservation comes in, where we look at the biological component and the cultural component simultaneously as part and parcel of the same issue.

It seems I’ve gone in the reverse direction of Padua, which started out as a physic or medicinal garden where they were explicitly looking at the relationships between plants and people, and then expanding plant collections to celebrate the broad floristic diversity of the world. I started out thatway—looking first at the floristic diversity of flowers, plants and trees and then finally coming back and saying, “Eureka!” an epiphany. It’s about the people and plants.

As director of a public garden, those are some of the things I’d like the public to become in engaged with. Not only come to Plantations for an aesthetic experience or an event. But perhaps if we could do the events and the interpretation in such way that people leave the garden with a greater understanding of the necessity of plants and healthy systems in our lives. We aren’t going to have a healthy human community if we don’t have healthy environmental ones. There are so many opportunities to engage people with plants and natural systems, human health because it’s all linked together.

IT: You have used digital technology in several ways to pursue your plant conservation work. If young people are wondering how technology can be applied to working with plants and the environment, what are some of the related jobs found at a public garden?

CD: People today carry around cell phones for one reason or another. They can be used to interpret QR [Quick Response] codes on the signs at museums or gardens, or perhaps in this newspaper to find its website. We can use these things in the garden. When I was in Hawaii we worked with the university’s museum studies program to develop a means of interpretation in the garden that could be immediately accessible to people who are wedded to their technological tools, be it cell phones, iPads, whatever. You could also create customized tours of the garden.

Let’s say you are studying information technology and have good skills in mapping and GIS [Geographic Information Systems]. You can help people planning a visit to go on-line to the garden’s website and guide them to what they want to see, such as where all the lilacs are. You as a visitor type that in and your personal tour pops up to download to your iPad or tablet. Then when you get to the garden, it’s like any other navigation system that directs you to the trails and takes you the most expedient way to see what you want to see. So that’s one way for technology and young people who are interested in such things to get engaged in the public garden world.

Another way is to take a picture of a plant and have that linked to an on-line database where someone can identify it for you. It may come back with two or three options of likely plants that you could be looking at. So these are some of the ways in which we can use this technology that we are saying separates people from nature, but is actually bringing people back in someway, by using it to take advantage of an individual’s interest or capability to better understand what they’re surrounded by. There’s an app[lication] called Shazam that allows you to listen to music and I’m sure there are people who are developing similar apps to allow us to listen to and identify songbirds and insect sounds. Young people can either take advantage of these technologies or, because they’re so smart, they can help develop them too.

IT: What was it about Plantations that drew you to apply for the position as Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director?

CD: It was the reputation Cornell Plantations has as a very fine public garden and Cornell University as one of the premiere universities in the world. That combination, as well as the intellectual capacity that is here and the administration’s interest in seeing Plantations increase its profile within the University community, Ithaca and the region. I’ve been involved with public gardens for almost twenty years now and I appreciate the role they play in the community. They need to be essential to civic life, integrated into the community, and be indispensible. What would Ithaca and Cornell be without Plantations? To a significant extent Cornell Plantations defines the Cornell University experience on campus (gorges and gardens) and the surrounding areas. There are many ways in which they can be of value to people in art and music.

When you talked about the history of botanic gardens, there’s also the history of art with representations of humans in nature. Even in music, some of the great compositions in classical music such as Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: “Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life” and many others are evocative of landscape. So one thing I want to do is bring more of that here, we do have the Ithaca Shakespeare performances and that’s great. There’s MacBeth with its references to the forest. And there’s an opportunity in having music performed as well. I can just imagine having chamber music and someone says, “Well, how does that relate to your mission?” and you could very easily have a five-minute presentation before a concert under the trees and talk about the spruce trees, or the fir trees or the maple trees and how they were used to make instruments such as violins, then talk about the history of that and now, “Let’s hear the forest sing” and out come the chamber musicians to play.

There are many ways we connect or reconnect people to trees and the landscape in any number of ways. We need to think creatively, out of the box as it were, to draw people in and then have them leave touched in some way where it subtly grows on them, or maybe it’s an epiphany where a light comes on, and then in turn they become ambassadors for what we are trying to achieve here. Volunteers are essential to the success of a botanic garden, especially at a university garden where we depend on student help. It’s a great way for students to learn more about informal science education and community outreach.

I’m looking forward to being here—the staff here is tremendous. It’s going to be a team effort with the enthusiasm and creativity of the staff and volunteers—we need to give all the credit to them. To some extent they’re like the orchestra and I’m the conductor—in a way, maybe—this is what we want the symphony to sound like, so let’s all play together. •