Elizabeth Farnsworth, 54, research ecologist, writer, artist
Science and art, often considered divergent pursuits, “join hands to inform us all about the ecological and aesthetic value of plants,” Elizabeth Farnsworth once wrote.
The two disciplines converged in Dr. Farnsworth, a senior research ecologist at the New England Wild Flower Society, who could dazzle an audience by effortlessly speaking without notes for an hour about the state of New England’s plants. She could be equally illuminating in her musings as a writer and artist.
“To paint a painting or draw a drawing or shoot that spellbinding photograph takes hours or even days of patient observation,” she wrote in a 2015 “Earth Matters” column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “When I sit down to sketch a plant or a panorama, I’m blessed with the luxury to just notice, and to build an appreciation that I couldn’t achieve by just passing by.”
In essays and drawings that were precisely detailed and playfully poetic, Dr. Farnsworth shared what she observed in the world around her with everyone from serious scholars to would-be gardeners. She was 54 when she died Oct. 27 after a fall at her Amherst home, her family said.
“Perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist, but I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and do what I do if I thought the natural world was destined for doom,” she wrote in a 2016 column. “Sure, I’ve seen some populations of plants paved over, but I’ve seen others pop up just when I was certain they were gone for good.”
In her papers for scholarly journals, newspaper columns, and letters to friends, her voice is no more “gone for good” than the plants and mosses she praised as “true resurrectionists.” Colleagues and friends can also still see through her eyes by enjoying her illustrations in books, her artwork that is posted online, or the cards she designed that might feature a stately moose and the single word “Peace.”
A New Englander all her life, she traveled widely and sent back words and images from afar. One trip prompted a 2010 essay and drawings about a stretch of Oregon rainforest that was both an outdoor laboratory for a “mad scientist” and a magical kingdom out of J.R.R. Tolkien. She felt humbled among Douglas fir trees that were “800 years old, three times older than the oldest of those towering New England hemlocks. . . . How can a scientist-artist hybrid like me, accustomed to studying and illustrating organisms the size of my hand and smaller, possibly take all this in? Slowly, quietly, gradually, meditatively, I suppose.” Dr. Farnsworth took her time (“I cover three feet in three hours”) while putting her powers of noticing to use.
“There were few people I ever knew who were more exuberant about their work and at the same time so serious-minded about it,” said her brother, Robert, a senior lecturer in English at Bates College who lives in Greene, Maine.
“My sister got a great deal of pleasure from bringing awareness of the staggering multiplicity of life forms on the planet to as many people as she could. She never tired of that, and she gave great joy to people in doing so,” he added. “But she was also a very serious scientist who was very concerned about the state of the planet and the future.”
Dr. Farnsworth was just as fervent about other pursuits, her brother said. She built wooden boats and was a long-distance kayaker. She sang solos in contemporary and classical chorales. She played guitar and piano. “I often wondered where she got the time to become so accomplished in all these areas,” her brother said. “I wondered if she ever slept. It certainly made my jaw drop. I couldn’t imagine being as accomplished as she was in so many ways.”
At a celebration of her life held last month, Bill Brumback, conservation director for the Wild Flower Society, gazed from the pulpit at the scores of people who filled the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence. In attendance were Dr. Farnsworth’s overlapping circles of friends from science and music, from kayaking and art, from writing and teaching. “I’m learning about all the circles I didn’t know about,” said Brumback, who worked with her for more than 20 years.
Dr. Farnsworth’s résumé, he noted, stretched for 13 pages and listed 54 published scholarly papers, hundreds of articles from magazines and newspapers, more than 230 presentations, and several books. She was the author of the society’s “State of the Plants” report on the status of threats to New England’s native plants, and cocreated the society’s “Go Botany” website.
“She could do anything,” Brumback said. “Her official title was senior research ecologist, and titles were important to her, but in reality that was just a title. She was really our ‘hired gun.’ ” As an educator, he added, “her skill at reaching every level was amazing. It didn’t matter whether you were a PhD botanist or somebody who was just interested in plants. Elizabeth was interested in teaching you something.”
Elizabeth Jean Farnsworth was born in Boston and grew up in Wellesley, the younger child and only daughter of William Farnsworth, an engineer and Raytheon executive, and the former Jean Gibson, a homemaker.
Dr. Farnsworth graduated from Dana Hall in Wellesley — the school still uses drawings she did of buildings back then — and went to Brown University, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. She also graduated from the University of Vermont with a master’s in botany, and from Harvard University with a doctorate, writing her dissertation on the evolutionary and ecological physiology of mangrove seedlings. Her academic studies took her to Scotland, Alaska, and Puerto Rico, along with 17 countries to study mangroves.
She formerly was married to Aaron Ellison, an ecologist.
Her many awards include Harvard’s Bowdoin Prize for her natural science essays, and her published artistic work included illustrating “A Field Guide to the Ants of New England” (Dr. Farnsworth championed ants, which she considered unfairly maligned).
A consultant to the US National Park Service, Forest Service, and Environmental Protection Agency, Dr. Farnsworth “was very versatile,” said her brother, who is her only immediate survivor. “She was at home in a college classroom. She was at home in a peat bog.”
“She was the sweetest, kindest, smartest person I knew, and just a lot of fun to be with,” said her friend Nancy Goodman of Hadley, who met Dr. Farnsworth when they were growing up in Wellesley. “And she never made you feel dumb. She always was able to talk with anybody, from a total layperson who knew nothing about plants to a top botanist, and speak with everybody on their level.”
As a research ecologist, Dr. Farnsworth often contemplated the threats that natural habitats face. They were cause for caution, she said, but never despair. In a 2016 “Earth Matters” column, she wrote that “it’s important not to lose sight of the havoc humans can wreak on the world around us, and to issue a clarion call for action. But it’s also vital to keep hope in our hearts; optimism is the catalyst that spurs us to act.”