Seeking Symbiosis in the Classroom
Geoffrey Thomas imagines a future with seed-spreading tarantula robots and genetically-engineered giant sloths.
These whimsical ideas, the subject of three digital art images, have a ring of truth, said Thomas, who collaborated with Juniper Harrower, a UCSC environmental studies graduate student studying the tree. The duo is planning to create an educational mobile app and short animations from the sketches within the next year. Once found throughout the American Southwest, the tree is now only found in California’s Joshua Tree National Park and small areas of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. As deserts become hotter and drier, the tree’s range marches north toward higher and cooler elevations, as animals carry the seeds in their digestive tracts.
Seeds were once spread by car-sized sloths, now extinct. Now the tree depends mostly on rats, which can’t spread it fast enough to keep up with climate change, said Harrower.
Within 60 to 90 years, climate models predict that most of the Joshua trees within the national park will disappear, she said. Thomas said humans have transformed the planet and must be intimately involved in saving it, an idea that shapes his art.“We are nature now. It’s not a separate thing from us,” Thomas said.
Thomas and Harrower also co-led a digital art class this fall in which students created their own Joshua tree projects. Harrower, a guest lecturer, spoke about the tree’s fragile future and took students to a campus greenhouse showcasing 20-year-old Joshua tree seedlings, which grow to around 40 feet as adults over hundreds of years.
Harrower said a partnership between artists and scientists is critical, not only to help science reach a wide audience, but also to push thought beyond the obvious. “I think you can get this really interesting, beautiful science from these massive paradigm shifts, which comes from being open to creative thought,” said Harrower, also UCSC’s Women in Sciences and Engineering art and science outreach officer.
Using Adobe Illustrator or digital photography, students created short comic strips inspired by the tree’s plight. Camilly Pereira, a senior art and economics double major, said she was struck by the crucial relationship between the tree and the yucca moth, the only animal which pollinates it. Joshua tree flowers, in turn, are the only place where yucca moths lay eggs.
Pereira spent more than 40 hours creating three simple, clear images: a cocoon, a seed and a flowering tree covered in moths, she said.
“I just thought it was a really good visual representation of how much the Joshua tree not only depends on the yucca moth, but also how much we depend on plants and animals to keep things thriving for us too,” Pereira said.