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Approaching Nature from the Slant: Conversing with Rhoda Maurer


Accomplished horticulturalist and photographer Rhoda Maurer comes to the Garden Feb. 28 to share personal insights – and not just on plants, but also on spirituality, social justice, sustainability, biocultural diversity, and the changing role of public gardens.  The Garden’s Training Center director Kristin Faurest recently asked Maurer, of Cornell University, about her work:

KF: How has photography changed the way you perceive the world?

RM: When I started my horticultural education, photographing plants helped me learn to observe and see differences and similarities.  As this question of merging science and art continued to grow, I started to take photography more seriously. It was the experience of working with some of National Geographic‘s photographers after my life partner gifted me my first professional camera that reminded me that the camera does not make the photograph.  I was struggling with the technical controls of a new and complex camera and being challenged to create new images every day for a shared critique.  But instead of commenting on things like exposure, composition or focus, the critique focused on something unique to each of us – our seeing of the world, ourselves as artists.  It challenged me to share the web of plants, art and humanity through images, and to recognize myself as an artist.   My photography has been essential practice for heart knowing – something that our Western culture dismisses into the realm of non-scientific knowledge.

KF: You’ve always been drawn to nature and the complexity and inter-relatedness of life, and you observe that our Western way of thinking discourages that holistic approach. Could you elaborate?

RM: I’m seeing a break in the status quo, with more people investigating interdisciplinary studies and solutions to what Western culture’s dualism defines as human vs. nature problems. What I’m personally grappling with is the lack of validity certain kinds or sources of knowledge have in higher education. Academia has historically divided study into disciplines as early as primary school. People generally specialize more as they continue their education. Our Western culture has rewarded expertise and specialization through social and economic gains.  I’ve been driven to find work, learning and teaching spaces where practical implementation of ideas and creative exploration are actively supported.

KF: What is the new social purpose for public gardens?

RM: What seems to be changing is that any social purpose for a botanic garden starts by redefining relationships with who the public or audience is, and how participatory practices of engagement are growing. Many educational programs at gardens have started this transition from just presenting information to or for the public into knowledge with the public. I see opportunities for interpretation and programming to be grown and implemented from the public served, rather than directed solely by garden staff. We need to use participatory processes to reorganize historic power dynamics deeply embedded in our current society and reinforced in both intentional and unintentional ways. We need sensitivity to how language shapes culture and thought as we discuss ideas in community or reflect on our meaning. I’m reminded of the work of the writer Deena Metzger, who said, “Stories move in circles… So it helps if you listen in circles. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories, and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is getting lost. And when you’re lost, you start to look around and listen.”

KF: You refer to the importance of bringing a sense of awe and mystery into our lives. It reminds me of the Zen concept of shoshin – beginner’s mind – that even someone who is older and highly trained should approach each day as a new, extraordinary learning opportunity.  How do we keep this?

RM: Academia rewards competition through grades, accreditation and jobs. Play, so essential to learning processes, is seen as acceptable behavior for children or creative adults. Yet, adult play and the creative process need supportive structures and practices. A beginner’s mind is something we need to practice and pay attention to as we grow into adulthood. I’m immediately reminded of these words from Pema Chödrön, “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us.  We always have a choice.”

Rhoda Maurer’s lecture takes place Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. in the Garden’s Yanai Classroom and is part of the Garden+ Lecture Series.

Garden+ Lecture Series is a presentation of the Japanese Garden Training Center and is supported by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.