Plant Talk

Daylight Studies—an Emerging Discipline

Posted in History & People , Plant Science on April 15, 2020, by Michael Balick, K. David Harrison, and Gregory Plunkett

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is NYBG’s Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. K. David Harrison, Ph.D., is a Mellon Humanities Fellow at NYBG and professor at Swarthmore College. Gregory M. Plunkett ,Ph.D., is Director and Curator of NYBG’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics.

Photo of Walking Sun

Aneityum islanders Orien Namu (left) and Chris Nevehev with a “Walking Sun” figure they have drawn in the sand. Photo by K. David Harrison.

Daylight surrounds us, and much of life, both plant and human, depends on it. The many dimensions of daylight have recently become an emerging field of scientific study. In 2017, Dr. Michael J. Balick helped found a scientific academy—the Daylight Academy—based in Switzerland with an international elected membership. Members come from engineering, architecture, urban planning, chemistry, biology, medical sciences, and other disciplines, and all have a common interest in exploring the uses and effects of daylight. One important subject of the Academy’s work is the theme “Plants as Daylight Factories,” since photosynthesis in plants uses the sun’s energy to produce many useful substances that support life on earth.

The Academy met last November in Zurich and invited Dr. Balick and Prof. K. David Harrison to deliver the keynote address, which they wrote with their colleague Dr. Gregory M. Plunkett. Their theme, based on recent work in the South Pacific, was “Indigenous Perspectives on Daylight.” With today’s rapidly evolving technological revolution taking charge of our lives, these new technologies often bring new perspectives. However, there is also much to be learned from traditional, indigenous societies, in the ways that their religious, technological and scientific knowledge related to daylight.

Photo of plant review

A group of community members from Kwaspoa, Tanna Island, review images of plants collected by the project and refine information on cultural uses, language names, and pronunciation. From left to right: Taya Ninneth, Dan Danife, Naiwan Sam, Natao Numrukwen, and Kayas Narkahou. Photo by Michael J. Balick

Since 2014, Drs. Balick and Plunkett and Prof. Harrison have studied plant and language diversity in Vanuatu as part of a project known locally as “Plants Mo Pipol Blong Vanuatu” (Plants and People of Vanuatu). All of this work is done in partnership with local communities. As part of the ongoing botanical and linguistic project, the three researchers learned about a set of complex cultural knowledge systems relating to weather, navigation, architecture, and sustainability, all domains that are linked to daylight.

For example, the people of Aneityum Island in southern Vanuatu were formerly sun-worshippers, and though they no longer make sacrifices to the sun, they still practice a variety of plant-based rituals to forecast and influence the weather. A powerful figure known as the “Walking Sun” is depicted to this day in traditional Keamu woven bag designs, clothing, and sand drawings. Their understanding of the interconnections among land, sea, and sky allows them to detect subtle changes in their environment and adapt accordingly. The people of Futuna Island use a wind compass system that connects weather conditions to the cycle of day and night, allowing them to navigate the ocean on fishing voyages and return safely to their island. This is based on their intimate knowledge of the wind’s currents, which they have carefully cataloged and calibrated to guide their voyage. The people of Tanna Island also practice weather lore and rituals, and much of this knowledge is held in secret by special practitioners who are believed to have power to influence the weather.

Photo of Nalep

Nalau Wasep, a local expert on traditional knowledge from Tanna Island, Vanuatu. His decorative armband is made from the aromatic leaves of Euodia hortensis. Photo by Michael J. Balick

Another topic of their keynote address was the use of what the team calls “calendar plants,” species with flowering and other patterns that are used as cues to direct agricultural or other local practices. For example, the flowering of Boehmeria platyphylla in southwestern Tanna signals to local farmers that it is time to harvest the important food plant taro (Calocasia esculenta). Even the cadence of work life is determined by plants. On Aneityum Island, when the needles of the ubiquitous seaside tree Casuarina equisetifolia start to turn brown, people know that the season of higher temperatures has arrived and that they should not work as hard as they do during other times of the year.

This interdisciplinary talk on how daylight impacts the trajectory of Vanuatu traditional society, using examples from botany (Plunkett), ethnobotany (Balick) and linguistic anthropology (Harrison), generated a great deal of interest and discussion at the Zurich meeting, and the researchers have been invited to follow up with an essay to be published under the aegis of the Daylight Academy.

Photo of plenary address

Dr. Michael J. Balick (left) and Prof. K. David Harrison (right) giving a plenary address in November 2019 at the annual meeting of the Daylight Academy in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo by the Daylight Academy

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