“A Joshua Tree Love Story:” Dr. Juniper Harrower On Biological Art and Activism

By Quinn Hoop

Dr. Juniper Harrower gave a seminar last Friday on how she came to be an expert in the niche field of Joshua-Tree-inspired biological art and activism. She was inspired to pursue that work early in life. She described how her five-acre homestead in the deserts of the Southwest had a single beautiful Joshua Tree. It was “a sacred tree for [her family],” a place where pets were laid to rest and she spent lots of time in contemplation.

During the lecture, she described sitting on rocks which demarcated graves,  imagining “those subterranean underworlds with roots running through spinal columns.” The tree “became a portal to another realm. . . it had this whole other life down there.” This imagination linked to the death and growth of the Joshua Tree would follow her around the globe. 

Dr.  Harrower ended high-school searching the US for a place to belong. She found herself first at a community college in Palm Springs, and then studying Plant Biology at UC Berkeley. There, while working towards a degree in Biology, she often found herself spending time in the Art Department, where she soaked in  different ways of viewing the world. Before she could finish her degree, she decided to become a teacher in the underprivileged schools of nearby Oakland. Finishing her degree at night school and helping students during the day eventually spurred her to move to Argentina. There, she pivoted to her artistic side, and began experimenting on canvas with novel mediums from red wine to mushroom ink. Her paintings began to get her into “biodiversity issues,” which eventually led her to a research position in Costa Rica (after a brief stint at the circus and as a farmworker). There, she began her dissertation research on Joshua Trees. 

To her surprise, the relationship between Joshua Trees and mycorrhizal fungi had never been fully researched, and so – as a new mother, with baby in tow – she began the arduous task of filling in the gaps in scientific knowledge. She found that mycorrhizal fungi, like many other plants,  gather resources from the soil in exchange for sugars from the plants’ roots. The mycorrhizal fungi allow the Joshua Trees to grow much faster and stronger than their ecological competitors, and so, a symbiotic relationship is formed. 

The close study of these plants for years intersected with her artistic habits, and soon enough she was painting. Her time in Argentina experimenting with mediums served as her foundation as she began painting with biological substances. The mycorrhizal fungi themselves were first, and were quickly followed by Joshua Tree fibers, roots, seed oil, and live algae. The different oils would be used to create natural patterns, and the fungi would be allowed to grow into their own designs. 

Part of the beauty of these works is that they are truly made with the plants and fungi. In some sense, the non-human parts could be considered co-authors, as variations in variety of oils, fungi, elevation, and temperature, could all cause unique designs, colors, and textures beyond the control of Dr. Harrower. She wanted to, “[explore] the tension present in Joshua Tree roots,” and, “the tension inherent in symbiotic relationships,” with, “high mycorrhizal density,” and, “slow painted soilscapes.”

Her later works also involved redefining how biologists see their subjects. She described how she took classical sketches of plants, which traditionally existed as single subjects on the page, and re-integrated them into their environments on a canvas. She worked on “speculative entanglement,” creating works that question: “ ‘where does the flower end and the bird’s nest begin?’ ” in order to understand, “the complex multi-beingness that is a plant.” Her artistic work with the plants led her to larger realizations, like the idea that “every frame you put around an object will have a leaky boundary.”

 She described how  “I found a lot of inspiration through interdisciplinary practices.” She found herself drawn to a deep study of the humanities, feminist science, and queer ecology theory, to try to understand the interrelations between the natural world and humanity. She was “seeking a deeper realm where science and spirituality are not [. . .] a dichotomy.” In her time searching for this realm, she also came to realize that “multispecies collaboration is crucial for our survival.”

Unfortunately, the survival of Joshua Trees is not assured. Wildfires have burned through huge swaths of their native lands, human developments into the desert have destroyed habitat, and climate change is disrupting the natural cycles of their main pollinator, the Yucca moth. Throughout her experience with the Joshua Trees, Dr. Harrower did conservation and policy work to try to protect them. Although she did stress the importance of making politicians understand the importance of what was going on at the environmental level, she also confessed that this work did not bring her any closer to “the heart of the Joshua Tree.”

Instead, she shifted to using her art for activism, interacting with communities to show the value of the Joshua Trees. Much of her work centered on fighting against Desert Scrapping (clearcutting deserts for human developments, including solar plants). In 2019, she released a stop-motion film,  A Joshua Tree Love Story, recounting her time working with the plants. While working with students, she also released an art gallery, which had the paintings morph into short animations when viewed through a phone camera. Her activism involved working with local schools to bring children into the field to observe the plants, and created a program where kids could penpal with the trees. 

She also created the website heyjtree.com, a fun-for-everyone online dating site where you can find the Joshua Tree of your dreams, complete with profile pics, character descriptions, and music videos. Batchelor #16, “Desert Dweller,” posted:

“Why am I online dating? The neighborhood is thinning out with all the funding cuts, poor air quality, drought… it’s making it harder to find the real deal.  But, I know she’s out there; gorgeous and doing her part for a brighter future. #TrueLove #ActivisimIsHot”

Additionally, individuals can message the trees. A user named Kokkol responded to #7, “Aurora,” with:

“We are kindred spirits! I knew it from the moment I set eyes on you, standing there gracefully welcoming the sun in salutation. I can’t wait to meet you in person someday soon. Let’s do a little desert yoga together and you can introduce me to your bird friends. Stand tall until then dear Aurora! ♥️”

These novel uses of art for activism are intended to generate positive interest in the Joshua Trees, and Dr. Harrower hopes that her work can save the faltering species. She described the importance of spreading awareness as “if you don’t have a relationship to it. . . [we’ll be] hard pressed to get the change that we need done.”

Dr. Juniper Harrower will be teaching two courses this year at Reed: Painting II: Naturecultures, and Intermediate Experiments in Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking. She commented that “The Reed Canyon is so amazing as a resource to have on campus. . . my students will definitely be out there. . . so we can have a relationship with the location that we exist in.”

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