Going extinct

Photo: One of Emma Robertson's earlier works (more images)

A week ago I said a few words at the launch of 'Ascendent and Descendent', an exhibition by our 2008 Artist in Residence, Emma Robertson. You can view the exhibition in the Red Box Gallery (off Mrs Macquaries Road) until 27 March. They are beautifully executed drawings - complex, creative and with a strong conservation message.

So at the launch I took my lead from Emma's catalogue and talked about conservation, and particularly plants close to extinction. What follows is a slightly edited version of my speech:

Ascendent and Descendent... Every species, in fact, ascends and descends in a sense. In most cases, species become extinct – the ultimate descent. Extinction and evolution feature strongly in the catalogue and in the artwork – all part of the Darwinian story we are celebrating this year.

The focus here is the Australian flora, but also our science and collections at the Botanic Gardens.

The Australian flora is under threat. Nearly 80% of our plant species grow here and no where else, but 1 in 20 are under threat of extinction. That is, if we do nothing, and current trends continue we lose 1,000 or so species.

Does that matter? A fascinating question.

At the launch of Emma’s year here at the Gardens I noted that the loss of any species is a sad and dramatic event. Not something we should just allow to happen as we go on with our lives.

Species go extinct all the time and over 3.8 billions years of evolution we’ve lost uncountable numbers. But as it says in the catalogue, the species we live with today are the ones we evolved with as a species.

Some of these species are ones we depend on now, or may need for the future. We don’t know which species are necessary for our survival and it’s a courageous step to lose them one by one…and at a rate of 100-1000 times the average historical rate of extinction. And we might say that extinction always happens so why not let a few species go. Well which ones? Do we really know enough to make these decisions? What about ‘forgone benefits’, to use an economic term – that potential for life-saving drugs, for new foods, for surviving change…

Scientists today [e.g. Brian Walker from CSIRO and Resilience Alliance, on Radio National Big Ideas] also talk about ‘response diversity’, ‘adaptive capacity’ and ‘resilience’ of a community. They point out that what might appear to be redundancy – e.g. half a dozen species in the pea family that can all have bacteria associated with them for trapping and fixing nitrogen – is in fact a strategic approach to change. And don’t we need that now, with climate change adding to our own direct impact on our flora and fauna. When it comes to what are called the ‘tipping points’ – when an ecosystem will change or be wiped out – having some diversity and resilience will be critical.

In fact one of our scientists, Peter Weston, is co-author on a paper in the latest issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature talking about the constraints on plants in a changing world – can they adapt, can they move outside the vegetation type they have evolved in? The answer is generally not, at least at the big 'biome' scale.

On top of these practical considerations for us, the species on earth today are also the ones we have got to know and appreciate – part of our world family. Each is a unique outcome of evolution. It won’t evolve again. As Steve Hopper from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew has said, do we really want to lose the equivalent of De Vinci’s Mona Lisa?

But it’s a complex business. We have limited resources, climate change may mean that we have to decide which species are important to us. I have no problem with us deciding to conserve the Wollemi Pine or a helmeted honeyeater, but as I noted last week at the Darwin dinner this is may be a cultural or social activity rather than something we or the world needs to do to survive.
Which is fine, and something as important as retaining our language, artworks and culture – we just have to be clear about why we are doing it.

So conservation is a mix of our survival as a species and a commitment to not pushing to extinction species that otherwise (with us not here) would still be happily thriving…

* * *

So how has Associate Professor Emma Robertson from the University of New South Wales, and our Artist in Residence for 2008, responded to this challenge?

Emma was born and educated in Scotland, moving to Manchester for her post-graduate study. She has travelled throughout the world, at first with her parents who moved to South America and the Middle East.

She has works in public collections in four countries. As well as being short-listed and winning major art prizes, Emma continues to teach and do research.

It was a great honour to announce Emma as our Artist in Residence in Feburary last year, and particularly to learn of her desire to focus on rare plants and the way the Botanic Gardens responds to their plight.

Tonight we can enjoy the fruits of her work!

* * *

Emma has clearly brought immense style and talent. These artworks can be appreciated for their exquisite design and almost ephemeral beauty.

But Emma has put much more into these works than style alone. For her they have important things to say.

The Sydney Harbour seaweed – Vanvoorstia bennettiana – is something that struck a chord with Emma. This species has been lost to the world since 1886. Back then is was apparently common but changes to the harbour, presumably due to our settlement, have removed it from earth, forever…that’s a long time.

But who noticed? Have there been grainy pictures of sightings from divers, reports of shadows passing in the night – I guess no scat analysis?? This seaweed is arguably as important as the Tasmanian Tiger but not only has it been forgotten, but very few people know about it in the first place.

Emma in her art is celebrating the importance of our collections here at the botanic gardens. And this is a place where species – common, rare or extinct – are appreciated. With a sense of hope, I would add. We document and study life around us with a real sense of not only understanding how it evolved and how it works, but also of its intrinsic value. We work on both sides of that conservation decision – the practical and the emotional.

Working on threatened species might seem a little depressing, for a scientist or an artist. Emma focuses on the living dead and living fossils…As Dr Vaughan Dai Rees says in the introduction to the catalogue, ‘there is a sense of loss’ – a sadness. Dr Rees ends by saying there is a ‘hint of hope’.

I see more than a hint here. I see a recognition that our collections – our living plants, our seeds, our herbarium specimens are all part of us solving the problem. Not really dead collections but collections that reflect and respond to the world around us.

The ‘living dead’ – species that are critically endangered and survival is dependent on humans intervening in some way – are an interesting group, and either something to give us hope or to feel depressed, depending on how you view them. We have a Eucalyptus copulans growing outside the Maiden Theatre to remind us of one species that clinging to existence – two individuals in the wild – and needing us to prop it up. And the Wollemi Pine is close to this.

But what Emma reminds us is that each of these species is important and if we lose it, it’s like losing a friend or family. How could we possibly sit by while this happens? That social element again.

‘Living fossils’ are another disturbing group of organisms. Adapting to change is what evolution is all about. If you don’t change, you go extinct. Our so-called ‘living fossils’ are species that seem to have changed very little for millions of years and they don’t have many close relatives alive today (either because they went extinct, or the species didn’t diversify into new species over that time). Perhaps it didn’t have to? But a living fossil often doesn’t have much potential to survive change so they need a little care and attention.

Again we have to make tough decisions about which ones to conserve. Emma includes them in her ‘Book of Hours’. We can contemplate them as the clock ticks through hours, days, months and years.

Can we conserve them all? How important are these long unbranched twigs of the tree of life? No easy questions and the artwork, to me, has this same complexity.

Throughout all the works, and then particularly in ‘Collectors’, Emma recognises the role of the botanic gardens and its staff in inspiring people to appreciate and conserve plants. This is done through stories about plants, which Emma appreciates and interprets, and in our collections, from living seeds and plants in the gardens, through to the pressed seaweeds and pickled plants in bottles.

I’d have to say that my own pickled algae and the slides I make of them are not as pretty as those Emma has seen, but I beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and think they are pretty special.

And that, perhaps, is a good place to end today. Emma’s pictures will mean different things to different people.

To some they will represent how important all life on earth is and the need to make sure we lose no more of it.

To others it will reflect the complexity of making decisions about conservation, about which species are more important than others – the living dead or the living fossils perhaps?

Others will appreciate the beauty of the artwork and be mildly surprised to learn of the stories behind each picture.

For everyone, though, I’m sure they will stop and think, and their life will change a little by visiting this exhibition - and that’s absolutely what a botanic garden is all about.

So I formally declare the exhibition open, and thank Emma for her wonderful contribution to our Botanic Gardens.