CAMBRIDGE — There’s a seeming imbalance between ambition articulated and space occupied with “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss.” That’s a mouthful of a name, yet the show takes up just a single gallery at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. Even so, that gallery manages to accommodate a show that combines celebrity, topicality, and beauty — or, if you prefer, literature, science, and art.
All have a place in this stimulatingly cross-disciplinary exhibition, as do texts, images, artworks, and artifacts. “In Search” runs through November 2023.
Celebrity and literature come courtesy of Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). The concept of celebrity would have made Thoreau flee even further into the woods. He is to our Kardashian culture as, say, Concord then is to Las Vegas now, and even that comparison rather understates the difference. But the great and enduring popularity of his writing makes Thoreau one of the most famous classic American authors. Putting his name in the show’s title is selling point as well as accurate description.
Several Thoreau quotations are written in cursive on the dark-blue walls. The most concisely pertinent is “I have a great faith in a seed.” The show also includes a page from his journals. Thoreau’s copper-plate handwriting is at once slightly fussy and bookkeeper legible, if also far less elegant than the fancy-dan rendering on the walls.
Thoreau is one of those rare writers who is at once intensely local and a part of world literature. Gandhi, for one, much admired “Walden” and was deeply influenced by “On Civil Disobedience.” Out of this interaction between the local and global comes the show’s topicality and science.
Over the course of his life, Thoreau collected more than 800 plant specimens. Those are the flowers mentioned in the title. Thoreau pressed them in the pages of his journals, with accompanying annotations. The Harvard University Herbaria has 648 of them, which it has digitized and made available online.
The topicality and science have to do with climate change. In gathering these specimens, Thoreau was engaging in what we would now call citizen science. Of the plant species represented by those more than 800 specimens, 27 percent are no longer found in the vicinity of Concord. The term for disappearance of that sort is extirpation — meaning when a species has gone from an area but is not (yet) extinct elsewhere. Another 37 percent are in danger of extirpation. Those extirpations are the result of climate change and the introduction of non-native plant species (whose presence is often the result of climate change).
Average spring temperatures in the Concord area are now 5 degrees warmer than in the mid-19th century, when Thoreau was active. His collecting back then offers an all-too-vivid demonstration of our environmental situation now.
Beauty and art factor in through the work of two artists, Leah Sobsey and Robin Vuchnich, inspired by the Thoreau specimens. Sobsey’s very handsome “The Dispersion of Seeds” is a gridded wallpaper, each rectangle 5 inches by 8 inches, showing a different one of the digitized specimens. Sobsey recorded the images as cyanotypes. Cyanotype is the same photographic process that produces blueprints. Sobsey chose the process in honor of the photographer most associated with it, the 19th-century botanist Anna Atkins. The size of a substantial mural, “Dispersion” has the look of a very large quilt hanging on the wall. It has a homespun appearance that harkens back to Thoreau’s (and Atkins’s) era.
Sobsey’s “The Fall of the Leaf” also nods to the 19th century. It employs cyanotype and gold leaf in several large-scale oval portraits, substituting a plant specimen for a person. To properly look at the image, viewers have to get close, which means their reflection is part of what they see. It’s a nice way to underscore the role of personal engagement in the issues the show raises.
Vuchnich also uses digitized images of the specimens. She’s set up an immersive installation, with images, projected on a temporary wall. Some of the projections are gridded, like Sobsey’s. Extirpated specimens are cyanotypes, standing out from their fellow specimens, which are in earth tones. Others are much larger and animated. They’re a bit splashy and overwhelming. There’s audio, too, with recordings of birdsong and insect sounds. Heard throughout the gallery, they’re more distraction than enhancement.
Finally, the show includes five actual Thoreau specimens, in display cases. With all due respect to Sobsey and Vuchnich, the beauty of their sere elegance surpasses that of the artworks. Even the plant’s names are striking: bird vetch, common buttercup, common water-crowfoot, Canadian serviceberry, bristle thistle. That last one rhymes, but they’re all a form of homely poetry.
IN SEARCH OF THOREAU’S FLOWERS: An Exploration of Change and Loss
At Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, through November 2023. 617-495-3045, hmnh.harvard.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.