HARA: Robert Corban on the New York Botanical Garden

The cover of the 1894 catalog of Vaughan’s Seed Store, held in the Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection in the Mertz Library

HARA recipient Robert Corban discusses his experiences working as a Research Associate in the Humanities Institute at the New York Botanical Garden…

Since September, I have had the great fortune of serving as a History in Action Research Associate in the Humanities Institute at the New York Botanical Garden. When I arrived for my first day at the NYBG, I was under the happy assumption that my service would be limited to planning and programming for a couple of workshops, seminars and symposia sponsored by the Humanities Institute, but I quickly learned that my time at the Garden would afford a range of opportunities and experiences much greater than I imagined. Over the course of the past three months, I have been able to meet and interact with individuals from a number of different disciplines and institutions, to attend and participate in a score of lectures, panels and colloquia, and to affiliate as a fellow among the others funded by the Mellow Foundation in the Humanities Institute. All in all, it has made for the most pleasant and productive of any semester that I have spent at Columbia.

Much of the experience that I have gained at the Garden has been in the context of a series of events that we are planning for next spring under the banner of “Biodiversity and its Histories.” Organized alongside several faculty members in the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge and the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University and Barnard College, my supervisors at the NYBG and I have spent the last several weeks working to organize a symposium with the title “Threshold: Biodiversity, Climate and Humanity at a Crossroads,” currently scheduled for Thursday, March 9, 2017. In doing so, I have been involved in several, concurrent conversations of the most enlightening kind, involving as they do the scheduling, marketing and financing of events on a much greater scale than anything that I have ever experienced. Obviously, we academics still have a lot to learn about the way that an institution like the NYBG continues to operate and prosper on a daily basis, so for the patience as well as the insights of my wonderful supervisors, I am most thankful.

I am also grateful for the conversations that I enjoy around the Science, Conservation & Humanities Seminars, held at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the NYBG every Friday morning, when botanists, humanists and conservations of every stripe come together for a discussion of some topic at the intersection of all of our interests. Earlier this semester, my colleagues and I participated in a lively discussion of American impressionism, and just last week, I heard a fascinating talk about the history of lichens, lichenology and ‘Reindeer Moss’ in the Chi-Choc Mountains in Quebec. I even rubbed shoulders with some of the most important names in the field! Who knew that algae and fungi could incite such an interest?!

Throughout my time at the NYBG, I have also had the pleasure and the privilege of working in the archives of the Mertz Library. Among the many rich, diverse collections housed in this beautiful building is the Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection, one of the largest of its kind in North America. Though most of my research is in modern European history, I am currently at work on a history of the seed industry on either side of the Atlantic, so these sources have been extremely useful for me. Stay tuned for the paper on the Henderson Seed Company, E.B. White and killer tomatoes that I plan to present at the end of the semester!For all of these reasons and so many more, my time at the NYBG has been more rewarding than I could have possibly imagined at the start. On top of everything else, I have had unlimited access to the grounds, where I am free to wander among the 250 acres of leafy, luxuriant landscape that make the Garden a place of refuge and inspiration to so many in the New York Metro Area. As a Mississippian, I often find myself in the northernmost corner of the Garden, along Magnolia Way, reading, writing or otherwise reflecting wistfully about the flora that serves as the official tree as well as the official flower of my home state. Here’s to hoping that I’ve brought a fraction of the grace to this place as these elegant old beauties.


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