"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds," wrote Aldo Leopold.
In today’s world, where plant blindness is a global affliction, it can feel lonely to be a person who sees plants. I’m lucky to live in a community with many friends and neighbors who see plants, but we recently lost one of our great plant seers, Robert Johnson. Every time I ran into Bob, he would ask me the same question: “what have you seen lately?” As in, “what have you noticed out in the woods?”
As we mourn Bob, we are fortunate that he bestowed on us tangible ways to celebrate his life. He leaves behind an incredible body of work in which he shares what he saw in plants (and mushrooms and other charismatic critters of the forest!). If you haven’t already, I urge you to visit his memorial exhibit, Safe Places, at the Blue Spiral in Asheville this week.
Bob was a student of plant communities, the little ecosystems that botanists love to classify. He spent hours in the field sketching the characters of each plant community. Back in his studio, he winnowed the sketches into paintings that represented each community -- typically no more than a dozen or two meticulously arranged species that called to him for their colors and patterns.
The Mount Mitchell paintings in Safe Places epitomize his work, and are easy for mountain folk to relate to. They represent moments in time on the mountain. Many take place in late summer: the showy blooms of sochan, bee balm, and turtleheads drawing butterflies, while the raspberries ripen and the St. John’s wort and Angelica display their ready seedheads.
Bob’s notebook sketches, full-sized paintings and public murals are now scattered like seeds throughout the state and beyond. His work is a beautiful contribution to humanity’s fight to regain plant sight. Everyone who views his art will see the plants through Bob Johnson’s twinkling blue eyes, and the world will be a less lonely place for the botanically inclined. Safe Places closes this Friday, October 29, and we don’t know when such a remarkable catalogue of Bob’s work will be assembled in one room again.