In Search of Better Worlds.

This year, a flower came back from the dead. The Hawaiian National Tropical Botanical Garden announced in April that a lost hibiscus, Hibiscadelphus woodii, had been found alive. Watching footage from a drone sweeping the cliffs of Kaua’i’s Kalalau Valley, scientists spotted a lone specimen clinging to a near-vertical rock face, inaccessible to humans. The species had only been “discovered” by scientists in 1991, but as botanists failed to propagate it as it died out in the wild, it was presumed extinct by 2016. A second flight found two more H. woodii plants on that vertiginous cliff, defying extinction.

I shivered reading this story. It would seem like a rare instance of nature quietly triumphing, requiring human ingenuity to witness. But there was another reason – I’ve spent the last year resurrecting the smell of extinct flowers with the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks, and smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas. One of those is a relative of H. woodii – the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, last seen in 1912 a few hundred miles away on the southern slopes of Maui’s Mount Haleakalā. H. wilderianus had only been “discovered” two years earlier, by Joseph F Rock, an Austrian-American botanist, before it was lost as colonial cattle ranches – another human technology – destroyed the indigenous forests on the ancient lava fields. 

Image Credit: Pierre Grasset

In our technological “resurrection”, synthetic biologists extracted DNA from a pressed specimen of H. wilderianus at Harvard University’s Herbarium, sampled by Ginkgo’s creative director, Dr Christina Agapakis. From these fragments of century-old DNA, Ginkgo’s scientists and engineers built a list of smell molecules that this flower may have produced (repeating the process for two other flowers). Tolaas then reconstructed the flowers’ smells in her laboratory, which we diffuse in installations for humans to experience. 

Each installation of Resurrecting the Sublime is strewn with boulders alluding to its lost landscape. As people enter the space, we perversely complete a natural history diorama – only we, not the flowers, become the subjects on view. We can once again experience these flowers, but any glimpse is fleeting and contingent. While science can establish which smell molecules each flower may have produced, we don’t know in what quantities. So, the flowers’ smell is diffused in four fragments, mixing around the visitors’ bodies: every inhalation is an interpretation of what biology randomly generated, and what humans carelessly destroyed.

Learning of H. woodii’s re-emergence from the biological chaos of an undisturbed cliffside, I wondered whether our flower might also reappear. Could we ever compare the smell of the real bloom against our technologically-constructed one? Which would be better? More specifically: which would be better for humans to experience? Would the natural flower or its synthetic simulacrum spur us to reflect more deeply on humanity’s impact on the nature we are part of?  

Image Credit: Grace Chuang

Our resurrected flower smell is a false memory, like a landscape painting conveying the drama of a mountain from a human perspective: it is an interpretation. Would nature be better off with the flowers back in it? Nature is ambivalent – the individual flowers don’t care whether they exist. Their obliterated ecosystems don’t care either. Care (in this sense) is a human value. We may care to dream of making a better world. For some of us, perhaps that world has room for these flowers.

  1. woodii may have been there all this time, hidden on the cliff. But it now exists again only because it was captured by the electronic eye of a drone. It had been H. woodii for just three decades since botanists ensnared it in Western scientific taxonomy. But it was part of the Hawaiian landscape before then. Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock has another name, one without a Western botanist appended to it. In Hawaiian, it is Maui Hau Kuahiwi, the Mountain Hibiscus. Crucially, “we” humans are not equally responsible for the loss of this flower – its habitat was destroyed by the choices of some; its spectral “resurrection” by the choices of others. 

Image Credit: Pierre Grasset

Working as an artist exploring advanced technologies, I often hear the refrain, “technology can help make a better world”. But what does “better” mean for the people invoking it? Whose better? And who decides? If we consider synthetic biology or drones – both “dual-use” technologies that can be used for good or bad – what is better, and for whom, easily fractures. Using them for what appears overtly “good” – such as reconstructing the scent of lost flowers, or searching for them – paints them as making a better world. But is a world with three living specimens of H. woodii better for the flower, or does it simply allow us to feel better about ourselves? 

H. wilderianus was lost to colonial and capitalist impulses, manifested in cattle. The flower may yet be found, but its habitat is still lost. Today, a community group is trying to reforest the southern slopes of Haleakalā, beginning by culling grazing animals and selling the meat. This itself has sparked controversy about whose better is really being served. Our technologies are simply tools. In search of better worlds, together we must take care to think about who, or what, the world “we” make is better for.

– Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg