Since 2008, I’ve been creating a photographic archive depicting America’s rich trove of wild edible flora. The project has taken me to fifteen different states, so far, and I’ve amassed a collection of over one hundred and forty specimens. The work sprung from disillusionment with the position of landscape photography in relation to pressing threats like climate change, extinction, pollution and the loss of commons. Too often, the genre traffics in the aesthetics of nature instead of the inner workings of ecology. To address climate change and environmental degradation, I felt a radically different artistic strategy was necessary. The resulting series; J.W. Fike’s Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of the North American Continent; Plates in Which the Edible Parts of the Specimen have been Illustrated in Color seemed a promising vein of work that satisfied the new critical criteria I set for landscape-based artwork – a socially engaged approach that was accessible without sacrificing theoretical depth and possessed the potential to affect change by making praxis, conciliation and utility integral elements.
By employing a system that makes it easy to identify both the plant and its edible parts, the images function as reliable guides for foraging. This functional aspect of the project directs viewers to free food that can be used for sustenance, or as raw material for creative economies. The seemingly objective style of the images references early contact prints from the dawn of photography (Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins) when photography’s verisimilitude proved a promising form of scientific illustration for taxonomical undertakings.
Beyond functionality, I try to construct images that operate on multiple levels theoretically and perceptually. Upon longer viewing the botanicals begin to transcend the initial appearance of scientific illustration – they writhe and pulsate trying to communicate with you about their edible parts while hovering over an infinite black expanse. This opticality becomes a physiological parallel to the chemical effects of ingesting the plants and opens up a mystical space for contemplation, communion and meditation. The scientific yields to something potentially spiritual as the viewer begins to experience our symbiotic evolution with the plant kingdom. I’ve been informed and inspired by Buddhist and Native American teachings about ecology, inter-connectivity, and consciousness. I found the Buddhist teaching on dependent origination particularly profound and elegant: “If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” I often find myself marveling at the intricate web of overlapping systems and sheer length of time – incomprehensible fathoms of time – it took to develop this symbiosis.
To achieve this layered aesthetic the plant photographs are meticulously constructed. I photograph multiple specimens of the same plant and combine the best elements from each to create an archetypal rendering of the species. By judiciously rearranging, scaling, and warping I can vivify the plant and turn the ground into space. This subtle reference to shamanic scrying and other mystical forms of seeing nudges the work towards the numinous. I hope viewers carry this numinous experience back out into the landscape, into their communities and see the plants that surround them in a fresh, wonder-filled way. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson more eloquently described the phenomenon, “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”
This work offers a dose of something palliative for the ills of alienation – a sense of connection to a certain place, a certain ecosystem, a type of belonging. With this in mind, I plan on continuing the survey until I’ve amassed an expansive enough cross-section of the botanical life on the continent to mount biome-specific exhibitions anywhere within the continental United States. After ten years of work, I’m excited to be approaching this goal. I hope the photographic survey can serve as a historical archive of botanical life during eras of extreme change, and provide viewers all over the country an opportunity to feel the type of bond with their landscapes that will encourage health, engender wonder, help identify free food, and most importantly, inspire greater concern for environmental issues.