From the Director of the Arnold Arboretum

SEP 1, 2021

by William (Ned) Friedman

Trees in the Arnold Arboretum.

Like the storied trees we plant to grow and develop over the centuries, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University was established to be adaptive, resilient, productive, and long lasting. Just shy of 150 years since our founding in 1872, as America’s first public arboretum, the Arnold Arboretum has endured and flourished despite two world wars, a global depression, devastating pandemics, and critical times of unrest and social strife. Yet nothing since the Arboretum’s founding seemed quite like 2020, and perhaps no single year in our history has ever demonstrated how essential the Arboretum is as both a global and local resource for horticulture, research, education, urban open space, and the arts.

Botanical gardens, arboreta, and parks are not merely amenities or luxuries, as they are too often viewed. Instead, they contribute meaningfully to the fabric of our democracy, supporting public health, well-being, and the essential need for humans to connect to nature and to one another. For all of us at the Arboretum, it was unthinkable that this sacred space would shut down during the pandemic when the public needed us more than ever. The response from our visitors was remarkable and, perhaps, unprecedented. Somewhere between three and four million visitors have made the Arboretum their restorative refuge since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. Anonymized data derived from cellphones in our landscape over the year also indicate that the Arboretum is among the most diverse cultural institutions in Boston.

As such, the Arnold Arboretum sits at the crossroads of biodiversity and human diversity. Its founding was a testament to the enduring values of democratic spaces and democracy, a love of the natural world, and a belief that such institutions could and should uplift all who enter. While the depths and multiple meanings of such an intermingling of sentient organisms (us) and non-sentient organisms (the trees, shrubs, lianas, and our ever-expanding herbaceous layer) can never be fully unpacked in a lifetime of pondering, it becomes ever clearer to me that the arts and humanities hold immense power in revealing the magic of these relationships.

And this is where the American Repertory Theater comes in, as well as the Boston-based Actors Shakespeare Project, and illuminating programs with authors exploring nature and the human condition such as Richard Powers (The Overstory), Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass), and Tiya Miles (All that She Carried). Our programming last year with the Harvard Art Museums to pair artworks in the Painting Edo exhibition with the very plants from Japan that grace the Arboretum landscape was the epitome of reciprocal illumination. As artists interpret the natural world and create novel insights, botanists and horticulturalists can help infuse meaning into artistic endeavors. In every case, the interplay between the creative arts and the landscape and plants of the Arboretum allows us to reveal new insights into our shared and individual experiences and our connection to the natural world.

I am so pleased that the Arnold Arboretum can once again team up with the American Repertory Theater to help create The Arboretum Experience. I have met with the dramatists, writers, and choreographers who have created a unique experience for the young and the old amid our plant collections. I have walked with these tremendously creative talents through the Arboretum as we together tried to understand what this landscape and these individual organisms mean in our modern world and how artists can bring new meaning to the Arboretum itself. These interactions have helped us to reflect on what happened to humanity in the last year and a half, and I hope that our efforts open up new insights into the endlessly deep question of what a tree is. The Arnold Arboretum remains one of the very few botanical gardens or arboreta that is free to all every day of the year. Anyone can come and be inspired by the beauty of our trees and landscape. Anyone can come and be transported by partaking of the A.R.T. Arboretum Experience. Access to nature, especially in an urban environment, is a human right, one with implications for health and well-being, connection to beauty and complexity, and the incredible restorative powers of a pristine Olmsted design. Access to art is also a human right, and I look forward to the continuing collaboration between the A.R.T. and the Arnold Arboretum at the intersection of human diversity and biodiversity.

A ginkgo leaf sculpture with a roller skate and a QR code sandwich board at an entrance to the Arnold Arboretum.

William (Ned) Friedman is Director of the Arnold Arboretum and the Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.


Image Credits
Trees in the Arnold Arboretum. Photo: Nikolai Alexander
A sculpture and QR code sandwich board at an entrance to the Arnold Arboretum. Photo: Nikolai Alexander

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