Interlopings: Invasive Species/Endemic Breeds

We are dyeing wool with dyestuff from invasive and non-native plants growing on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands archipelago in California, investigating the complex and intertwined influence human’s have on our ecosystems, and the aesthetic, emotional, magical, and medicinal interrelationships between humans, plants and color. The wool is spun into yarn, the yarn woven into shawls. In addition, we are constructing a database of natural dye colors and various methods for visualizing and organizing that data, using a wide range of systematics, from scientific to alchemical.

The organisms (many plants and one insect, cochineal) we are working with, were brought to the island over an extended period of time, starting when it was first colonized by Europeans. New organisms were still consciously introduced in the late 20th century. For example, cochineal (coincidentally a very important source of red dye) was brought to the island in the late sixties to help kill off the cactuses which were considered a hazard to the cows grazing on the island.

The human immigrants had a relationship to these organisms in their home lands for millennia, many of these plants have been used for food, medicine, magic and dyes. Just as with humans, some behave better than others when arriving in a new land. Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes about Broadleaf plantain with affection in “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” To her, plantain is a model citizen, a foreign-born who is not colonizing. It’s a generous and healing newcomer, who is truly listening to the new environment. Other plants are infamous for wreaking havoc in the eco-systems they “invade”. On Santa Cruz Island, fennel, a sweet smelling, delicious plant, which is highly medicinal, traditionally used for protection magic and yields a magical yellow color, has taken over large swaths of land to the detriment of the native flora. It is now one of the many plants targeted for eradication from the island in a major conservation effort aiming to restore it to a more (real or perceived) natural state.

The sheep breeds producing the wool and yarns we are working with have an historical connection to Santa Cruz Island. It’s believed that the Santa Cruz Island sheep breed stems from sheep of several breeds, potentially including Merino, Rambouillet (a French version of Merino), and English Leicester, brought to Santa Cruz Island in the mid 19th century for wool and meat production. Over the years, the sheep increased in numbers and became feral, causing massive erosion to the landscape. In the nineties, consistent with restoration efforts on the island, the sheep, then in the tens of thousands, were eradicated. Due to the methods used (very few sheep were brought to the mainland, most were shot on the island) the endemic Santa Cruz Island breed has ironically become one of the five most critically endangered breeds on the Livestock Conservancy's conservation priority list.

The wool from these sheep speaks about the landscape where the individual sheep lead their lives and the breed emerged. Its staple length and crimp, the soil and vegetable matter trapped in it, reveals something about the sheep, the breed and their environment (craftspeople now speak of the 'terroir' of wool.)

Interlopings: Invasive Species / Endemic Breeds is a process-based collaborative art project combining traditional techniques such as dyeing, spinning and weaving, with data visualization and ‘performative science’ and ‘relational aesthetics’ strategies. The public is invited to participate in the process through workshops and exhibitions and to have a direct visual, olfactory and tactile experience with animals and plants that have been introduced to the island. By smelling and touching the wool, inspecting the insects and vegetable matter stuck to it, getting dazzled by rich and subtle colors given to us by the plants and sensing the warmth from the finished shawls, the audience-participants inadvertently explore a wide array of topics. They might gain insights into issues ranging from aspects of the natural and cultural history of the Channel Islands and conservation, to topics related to the Anthropocene and chemistry. Some of the questions this project evoke are: How do we define what a “native” species is? When was 'wild'? How do we decide where species belong? What animals 'deserve' our protection? What is the goal with conservation? What ends justifies what means? (Growing up in Sweden in the seventies, we marched to the catchy chant “sluta spruta” - stop spraying, while the children today learn that one of the most significant dangers to our natural environment are alien species.)

While these issues will be discussed in the workshops and exhibitions, this is an art project relying on visual, tactile, and olfactory modalities of generating meaning. As such the most important questions will be asked, and maybe answered, in the direct experiences of hands, noses, and eyes and in the relationships created between people and between people, processes and materials.

Lisa Jevbratt 2022