MIT Weisner Student Gallery Presents


EVENT SCHEDULE

Botanical Ghosts: Artist Talk and Walkthrough
Tuesday, February 23, 6 PM EST through Zoom. Click here to register.


The Loss of Green: Imaging Vegetal Worlds
A conversation with Nancy Valladares, Shireen Hamza and Semine Long-Callesen
Tuesday, March 16, 6 PM EST through Zoom. Click here to register.





This site is the web version of an exhibit that has physical and temporal components. This configuration of the project contains 3 elements that can be experienced in any order: a short film, the speculative archive, and the narrative fictions and letters. It’s best experienced in Google Chrome in full-screen.

Note from the Artist

I first crossed paths with Dorothy Popenoe at what is now Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela, Honduras in 2017. I was working on a film at the time, trying to untangle the political and historical threads behind United Fruit Company’s stronghold in the region during the early 20th Century. I spent three years drawing from the gaps in archival collections at the Harvard Peabody Museum, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon, and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to create the speculative archive with Dorothy’s letters and photographs.

From her life and work emerged this project, which is both a homage to Dorothy and to the turbulent history of Honduran plantation worlds. Comprised of a constellation of images, texts, and video, Botanical Ghosts traces the transatlantic voyage of the Ackee Tree (Blighia Sapida), and its encounter with Dorothy at Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in 1932.

This site was the central command of the political forces that shaped Honduran political ecology for decades — the unspoken archaeon of botanical governance and administration of non-human life. The agricultural paradigms that flourished here would spread all over the world in the form of agricultural technologies.

What Was Once Dorothy

I was buried beneath the cemetery at Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Tela, Honduras in 1932. I’m writing to you, so you can remember, so you can build worlds and tomorrows by not committing my same mistakes. I can only tell you what I know, and what I have learned after centuries of communing with the soil and the critters beneath.
I was buried near the palmariums. The valley of Lancetilla had been cultivated and engineered for hundreds of years before we arrived, before the people who lived there had settled. Let me tell you about the worlds within worlds that came from Lancetilla. This has always been a place of death, where bodies were fed to the soil and then proceeded to becoming and transforming. In order to ensure the formation of the acres upon acres of plantations in the coast of Honduras, we chose to accept the death of many things.
In the soggy marsh of the plantation, everything makes love. Everything consumes everything, then it returns and releases. To summon the specters that are buried in the marshlands and the jungle requires an act of necromancy and magic. A specter is that which leaves behind an imprint whose frequency cannot be sensed with tools for quantification. Rather, it requires a sensibility to speak to the inanimate and the dead, and the living things that are considered dead but aren’t, and the persons whose animacy has been obscured and undermined by structures of power and dispossession.

To accommodate for the world we were about to build, we burned a billion graves, leveled, razed to the ground, cemeteries within cemeteries of microbial subjectivities and vegetal life, ecological networks that must now must parlay an imbalance in the systems that have been disrupted. Things that once slept, now have awakened. Whose life do we choose to mourn? Whose deaths do we then memorialize?

Her time working as an assistant and researcher at Kew Gardens had afforded her a certain level of freedom from the domestic malaise which so many of her friends and colleagues had groused about. Wilson’s proposal had come as a bit of a surprise for her, as their acquaintance had been short. They had briefly met at Kew Gardens while she was still doing catalog work for Dr. Otto Knapf. Later, at the request of Agnes Chase, she joined the US. Herbarium’s Office of Foreign Plant Introduction.

The roughness of her damp clothes created uncomfortable frictions with her skin, while sweat beaded on her nose bridge and forehead incessantly.

Her time working as an assistant and researcher at Kew Gardens had afforded her a certain level of freedom from the domestic malaise which so many of her friends and colleagues had groused about. Wilson’s proposal had come as a bit of a surprise for her, as their acquaintance had been short. They had briefly met at Kew Gardens while she was still doing catalog work for Dr. Otto Knapf. Later, at the request of Agnes Chase, she joined the US. Herbarium’s Office of Foreign Plant Introduction.

Dig SITES

Tela had grown on her, a bit like the surrounding jungle seemed to grow at alarming speeds around the perimeter of the park. She had expected her discomfort to extend to the rest of her time in Honduras, but she had quickly adapted. She seemed to have a knack for the spanish language and had made quick friends with her neighbors and some of the workers at Lancetilla.

She had spent the last few weeks knee-deep in excavation of the new site where the experimental station was to be founded. During the beginning stages of the levelling of the site for the main laboratory buildings, some of the laborers, comprised of locals had found what looked like remains and shards of pottery.

They immediately ceased digging and had called for the local priest to come and bless the site as well as the laborers who had found the artifacts. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding between them; that these things were best left untouched and remain buried. To her scientific mind it was their only opportunity to study the history of the site that this project would occupy. An opportunity to contribute to these histories that often were left unwritten didn’t come along often.

She was determined to prove herself. Tela was like tabula rasa for her, what she perceived to be a land untouched. The settling of various groups of American and British expats working for the fruit, railroad and mining companies truly must have helped transform this town.

Valleys of Death

She loved being like this, knee deep in the layers of the excavation, brushing away at a shard of history, reconstructing in the theatre of her eye the many lives that must have lived and died here.

She hadn’t been here for the slashing of the jungle mass, but Wilson told her of the unbelievable amount of life they had been able to identify, just within 100 square metres. They had decided to name the place Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station, after one of the native palms that grew there, shaped like a tree made of lances.

She was in touch with some old contacts who now worked at the Peabody Museum at Harvard who seemed excited at the prospects of the local findings. She had heard from the team of archaeologists of a possible site of interest as well, which had never been excavated. They had heard from the locals about some glyphs mounds that showed potential in the nearby Ulloa Valley. It was her hope that her work in Lancetilla would earn her a spot in the dig team for the site. She had high hopes for what she would find there.

The Beach
of the Dead

One of Dorothy’s greatest pleasures was sketching in the gardens. She had a select few spots overlooking the valley where she would sit and draw the jungle-covered hills, the matted vines and squirreling animals of Lancetilla. She had picked it up during her time at Kew, where there was no lack of inspiration. Tracing the work of botanists and naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, she had spent a great deal of time at the herbariums studying the plates and plant specimens from the tropics.

She found a way to make this her own, in her corner of the world, where no one could force her to conform to a certain style or form as everyone seemed to want to do these days. It was through these informal studies that she began to notice patterns and repetitions that would emerge among specimens. The persistence of these forms and their extraordinary qualities had changed something within her. Even as she pursued her own path, she sometimes thought that her life was a bit like a dream or a play that would repeat in front of her as she lay in her bed on the nights she couldn’t sleep.

Those sleepless nights seemed to become more and more frequent. She was restless and would toss and turn in her sheets, damp with sweat that had simply become a staple of her reality since arriving at Tela. Late at night, if she thought about it too much, she thought she heard singing and whistling at night. She told herself she wasn’t one to believe in spirits, especially not the ones that she heard about among the workers of Lancetilla. Instead, she tried to listen to the different frequencies of the crickets and the never ending cacophony of bugs at Popenoe house. Wilson, oblivious to her discomfort in his deep sleep, simply snored away.

A FICTION ON HERBARIUMS May 1925

A FICTION ON HERBARIUMS May 1925

I was buried beneath the cemetery at Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Tela, Honduras in 1932. I’m writing to you, so you can remember, so you can build worlds and tomorrows by not committing my same mistakes. I can only tell you what I know, and what I have learned after centuries of communing with the soil and the critters beneath.

I was buried near the palmariums. The valley of Lancetilla had been cultivated and engineered for hundreds of years before we arrived, before the people who lived there had settled. Let me tell you about the worlds within worlds that came from Lancetilla. This has always been a place of death, where bodies were fed to the soil and then proceeded to becoming and transforming. In order to ensure the formation of the acres upon acres of plantations in the coast of Honduras, we chose to accept the death of many things.

In the soggy marsh of the plantation, everything makes love. Everything consumes everything, then it returns and releases. To summon the specters that are buried in the marshlands and the jungle requires an act of necromancy and magic. A specter is that which leaves behind an imprint whose frequency cannot be sensed with tools for quantification. Rather, it requires a sensibility to speak to the inanimate and the dead, and the living things that are considered dead but aren’t, and the persons whose animacy has been obscured and undermined by structures of power and dispossession.

To accommodate for the world we were about to build, we burned a billion graves, leveled, razed to the ground, cemeteries within cemeteries of microbial subjectivities and vegetal life, ecological networks that must now must parlay an imbalance in the systems that have been disrupted. Things that once slept, now have awakened. Whose life do we choose to mourn? Whose deaths do we then memorialize?

a dedicated mechanism

for forgetting

There was a time early morning where sunlight would hit at the most perfect angle at the dining table. She would sit and read while having a cup of her favorite tea, or keep Wilson company as he read the papers or prepared for the upcoming day at the station.

At breakfast one morning, she found herself entranced by the buzzing of fruit flies that had begun to accumulate in the fruit bowl full of rambutan. She had never before noticed how they flew in certain patterns, figure eight-like and choreographed at a curious tempo she was still trying to decipher.

She wasn’t as bothered as she ordinarily would be by their presence, little pests they usually were. What determined these strange insect behaviors, she wondered. Were they determined by their genetics, or did they rely on the conditions of their environment? She continued to monitor the little creatures and crawlies that made their home around Popenoe house.

infections

August 1931

It was increasingly clear to her, the longer she spent at the experimental station, the more unsettled she became. It wasn’t what was changing within her, but the how. She wasn’t sure when it began, or if it would stop. She was afraid to tell Wilson about the newfound sense of thereness she had acquired. It felt a bit like her bones and her skin were slightly off, like a blanket of flesh was refracting off her frame at a wrong angle. But in that slow, thin tearing up of her skin, other spectrums of something had been opened.

Mrs. Popenoe, are you awake?

Smells had suddenly become overwhelming. She had become accustomed to the various scents of wet soil and clay at the dig site but in the gardens, whenever she entered the grove of newly planted fruit trees, she felt like she was being swallowed into the root systems beneath.

Mrs. Popenoe, can you hear us?

Perhaps she shouldn’t have come?

Or maybe she had been bitten by something that had made her delirious as she was. It wasn’t uncommon for people to go mad in a place like this, with the kaleidoscope of fevers and illnesses she could be infected with. She would wait for a bit. It hadn’t manifested into something physical yet, not that she had noticed. She would ask Maria to check the following days if she noticed anything off after she bathed.

Dorothy?

NOCTURNAL HABITS

December 1932

Another sleepless night. Even one story above, she could hear the heartbeat of the grandfather clock beating a tempo against her chest from the living room.

We met at the gardens. Do you remember?

There were nights when the air at Lancetilla was so sticky and humid that she felt like she couldn't breathe. Her sheets, limp with sweat, stuck to her body like a cocoon but she kept them to ward herself from the mosquitoes. The slightly sour smell of things that never fully dry caressed her nose every so often, along with the Atlantic ocean brine that came and went with the tides.

Sometimes she woke to sounds of the ocean and lapping waves, as if she had fallen asleep on the beach. The things that kept her awake, she couldn’t name, or perhaps was afraid to.

What do you know about love Dorothy?

In moments like these she would write. The gas lamp created a kaleidoscope of shadows over the shelves in the study. The artifacts on her desk, the books, and the specimens became her nightly companions. All the things she could not articulate during the day bloomed at night

She enjoyed the coherence that came with the dimming of the sun and the orchestra of tropical insects that never slept. Her thoughts turned inward, more balmy than she wanted to admit.

We want to know how you choose who you love.

There was hardly anyone around at the station other than the few resident scientists. She wasn’t afraid of wandering alone. Not really. It was starting to wear on her, the lack of sleep and the strange nightly habits she had begun to acquire.

We want you to do something with us.

Will you do it, Dorothy? For Love?

ON BITING INTO THE FLESH OF A CANNIBAL

I will tell you about my encounter with the fruit.

There were no strange dreams, no slow descent into madness, except perhaps a restlessness that came when one is on the verge of a new idea, a new thought that would unravel within me a whole new path. It was a moment of clarity, as if beneath a microscope things finally fell into focus; where my thoughts lacked the friction of everyday life and finally slithered their way onto the surface.

First, I saw a kind of romance.

It wasn’t love as I understood it, but something like it. It wanted to show me a version of what it could be. The trees simply perceived that they were part of a constant unfurling and flow of energy and matter. When the tree is tasked to sprout, to flower, its body senses in unison what may perhaps constitute a desire. It wasn’t joy, but rather a sense of things as they are, as they always and yet never have been.

Whenever new nodes emerged from the body of the tree, those branches were tasked with its care. The body pushed and pulled as needed to distribute food through the little roads, and filaments; wiggling alive, breathing, pulsating with animacy. Through these nodes, things were encoded, secrets from where new things would unfurl.

I asked it about pain and the fear of death. It said nothing about fear, but I had a sense that what I understood as pain, was simply a kind of information, necessary for the body and its flows. The thing I understood as pain, the agony of being eaten and consumed, simply was. I was never offered any explanations, and my mind wanted to ascribe morality to it, but couldn’t. For where I was, there was none.

There was the vestige of a shell that anchored my mind to language, to keep me moored before I was swept away into a stream of everything and nothing. I asked it about endings, but there was no conception of such. I understood then, that my fear of endings, of death, was merely to reject the inevitable. It was the feeling that my world was more important than the one that would come after.

I had no words for the realization that preservation was the antithesis of the Great Composting, that the recycling of matter is necessary for the continuation of life. Extinction is only the word for lacking imagination for what comes after one world consumes another.

project

Organized by Sarah Hirzel, with the support of Heidi Erickson, Shannon Rose and the MIT Office of the Arts. Many thanks to everyone who made this online project possible.

This project was funded with the generous support of the Transmedia Storytelling Initiative, the Council of the Arts at MIT, the program in Art, Culture and Technology and the Harvard Film Studies Center. Branding and web design by Sophie Loloi

about the artist

Nancy Dayanne Valladares (b.1991) is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Through writing, photography, and filmmaking, her work traces the colonial legacies and agricultural histories of Central America through the lens of human and non-human migration. Her works intersect various fields and practices—drawing from economic botany, archaeology and archives to re-configure historical narratives through biofiction.