With the religion of progress lying in ruins about us, we engineers will have to relinquish the dream of priesthood, and seek to define our lives in other terms.

⸺ Samuel C. Florman
The Existential Pleasures of Engineering (1976)


In 2014 I set out to capture the scent of New York’s only federally protected flora, the Agalinis acuta. Over the course of a year, I visited nature preserves, biology laboratories, and US Fish & Wildlife offices across the Northeast, meeting with botanists, biologists, land managers, wildflower advocates, and conservationists. While I spoke to them about their work with the flower, I heard time and again, that the tiny Agalinis acuta has no scent.

In fact, the flower does release traces of volatile chemical in the wild—amounts undetectable to humans. I wanted to smell her. Together with chemists and perfumers from International Flavors & Fragrances Inc, we captured the aromatic molecules released during the blossom and recreated her aroma for our perception.

That year, I visited 6 of the 11 remaining communities, the largest of which appeared as a small field of pink. At the time, extinction felt distant. But in the years since, the flower’s numbers have dwindled. As I watch the Agalinis acuta disappear, her scent comes into focus.

⸺ Miriam Simun


United States National Herbarium Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Coll. M. L. Fernald, September 12th, 1901

Natural History

Before the pavement, this land used to burn. Some point to lightning, others to the Lenape, who lived here four hundred generations before the Dutch arrived, then the British, and eventually, the rest of the world.

The Lenape burned land to keep the ground open—better to spot prey and make their kill. But their flame enabled life for another: a flower, a tiny pink one, once grew wild under this sky.


15,000 years ago, this place was only ice.

After the melt, then came the invasion.

Lichen, mosses, grasses, wildflowers, everything wants to become forest… and will, save some disturbance regime.

10,000 years ago, the Agalinis arrived—around the time the humans came.

Her habitat of choice is the grassland.

So much rain falls in this place that sky-fallen seeds from passing birds will soon grow to scrubs, then shrubs, and eventually trees.


Left alone, things don’t stay as they are for very long. What Marker called “the impermanence of things.”1

In this place, grasslands may simply be a stage in succession to forest, rather than an ecological endpoint. Thus, maintenance of land in perpetual grassy equilibrium might be less ecological restoration, and more—

protection of landscape from the onslaught of history.


One botanist dreamily imagines a strip of “sandy glacial outwash near the ocean shore,”2 where the Agalinis might survive unaided by human hands.

The herbarium is now the only place within city bounds she’s known to be found. A library of lineage, a mausoleum for plants.

In here, we see the truth change, note by handwritten note.

In 1901 she was named: the Agalinis acuta; and seventy–six years later, declared endangered by law.

Illegal “for any person to pick, pluck, sever, remove, damage, or carry away”3 this pretty little plant.

An empire’s protection for one tiny weed.



Just one morning a year, she blooms… by noon, she’s already starting to fall.


A thousand invisible seeds flood the air.

Only a handful will germinate.

To make up for these odds, our pinky can self-pollinate.

But what is good for survival in a desperate moment may be poor strategy in the long term.

Selfing is the worst form of inbreeding.

Still, for these few morning hours, I’ve never seen so many bumblebees.



“What is deemed important in a landscape depends on who is looking.”4

Our little pink beauty has expensive taste: Montauk, Martha’s Vineyard, Connecticut shores.

Habitat succession is not only a botanical phenomenon.

“The thing of it is, we must live with the living,” wrote Montaigne.

While we drive out one species with our tools, we introduce another with our shoes.

Massapequa, Patchoag, Shinnecock, Montauk…. or, Paumanok, the land of tribute, before the ships and seeds, the cattle and disease.

What one person sees as just a piece of meat, another will declare agent of ecological imperialism.5

But how could imperialism ever hope
to steer clear of ecology?

I’ve read that plant diversity in New York may be twice that of 1609. Still, though we celebrate a rich cultural diversity, the cosmopolitanism of our flora tends to draw considerably less celebration.

Fear of invaders, those “exotic and alien” species, inspire such titles as: Science-Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species and, Plant Invaders: Beautiful but Dangerous. The epithets of melodrama.

Experts claim they’re taking over, threatening entire food–chains.

Other experts counter, that elimination is impossible, other species will always appear as weeds in the future.6

All of which betrays just how much our
construction of biology shifts over time.

Hempstead Plains,
prairie remnant


Through plenty of wars, Hempstead Plains has remained a military landing strip, with all the mowing and fences preventing human trampling that airports bring.

Today only nineteen acres remain, “every last scrap infiltrated by invaders.”


Every week, a group of devoted citizens gather, to kill the unwanted species.

They work tirelessly to hold
the oncoming future at bay.

Recently, the absurdity of wildlife preserves waging an ongoing mechanical and chemical genocide, has started to sink in. A much more palatable form of weeding has been introduced: Nubian goats.

They come with liability insurance and a hunger guarantee. The goats seem happy enough, fenced in, munching on these proclaimed marauders.

Villa Condos, Front Lawn


Welcome to the Villa Condos, a home for retired humans—and, fenced off, just at the edge of the lawn:

Thirty-one specimens were found this year. A genetically minimal scene.

The management strategy of choice? A lawnmower, that symbol of darkest suburbia.

Making room for our precious pink to grow.

Some call it a gardening solution for an ecological problem.

Others call it keeping a species on life support.

I rather like the thought of her keeping those retirees company.

Warhol Nature Preserve


Wildness can be wildly complicated.

It’s not well known that soup cans aren’t the only legacy Warhol left behind. Amidst the beach–front mansions, a strip of land, preserved, just for her.


Fire rarely meets land here anymore, only in the driest heat will the occasional spark catch flame. Burning dead vegetation allows sunlight to reach ground, preparing the seedbed for new grass and wildflower colonies to take hold.

These days, only the historians manage land with fire: town records, charcoal analysis, newspaper clippings. The one who starts fires in service of the Agalinis, uses old photographs as guides.

A picture, reconstructed.

We rewrite memory with flame.


What is the value of a species?

One botanist answers my question with a question: What is the value of a person?

Ecologists have only one god: Biodiversity.


Pettengill , James B. and Neel, Maile C. Phylogenetic patterns and conservation among North American members of the genus Agalinis (Orobanchaceae). BMC Evolutionary Biology, 8:264, 2008.

So what then, when two species become one?

It’s not known how our precious little pink, jumped three hundred miles from Maryland to Montauk, never a specimen recorded in–between.

One botanist has a truly contentious theory. A little story about a southern cousin, a train, and a northern market for hay.

“Even science, which prides itself on objectivity, depends on testimony and memory. Science deduces and infers, testing theory against all known facts… but not all facts are known and what is known is not necessarily a fact.”7

Specimens collected, leaves ground up, cell walls broken, genes released.

New science settles old scores.


Genetic analysis reveals her near identical to Agalinis decemloba. And since decemloba, a rare southern flower, has provenance, taxonomic custom would have the decemloba name reign.

But it’s only acuta that’s protected by law—suddenly, a legal fiction—

for it seems that the Agalinis acuta may not even exist at all.


Thank you

Helena Anrather, Seth Avecilla, Dr. Bill Brumback, Dr. Bryan Connolly, Alexis Convento, Paul D’Andrea, Zach Fishman, Clement Gavarry, Pablo Gnecco, Betsy Gullotta, Jane Jackson, Dr. Marilyn Jordan, Julia Kaganskiy, Wednesday Kim, Anahita Mekanik, Dr. Maile Neele, Subha Patel, Robert A. Raguso, Daniel Scofield , Simone Strifeles, Stella Sylva, Alex Teplitsky, Wayne Tyndall, Corrie Van Sice, Jake Yuzna, Dr. Bob Zaremba

Text written as part of A Wet Chemical Trace at Helena Anrather.

  1. “Poetry is born of insecurity: wandering Jews, quaking Japanese; by living on a rug that jesting nature is ever ready to pull out from under them they’v got into the habit of moving about in a world of appearances: fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains that fly from planet to planet, of samurai fighting in an immutable past. That’s called ‘the impermanence of things.’”
    Chris Marker, Sans Soleil. Argos Films, 1983

  2. US Fish & Wildlife Region 5. Agalinis acuta Recovery Plan. Abscon, NJ, 1989.

  3. § 9-1503. Removal of protected plants.
    “1. For the purposes of this section, ‘plants’ shall mean species of native shrubs, trees, herbs, ferns, fern-allies and wild flowers; ‘endangered species’ shall mean those species of plants in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state, and requiring remedial action to prevent such extinction; ‘threatened species’ shall mean those species of plants that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state; ‘rare species’ shall mean those species of plants that have small populations within their ranges in the state, and ‘exploitably vulnerable species’ shall mean those species of plants that are likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.”
    New York State Consolidated Laws: Environmental Conservation. Article 9 Title 15 Section 9-1503.

  4. Celia Lowe, Wild Profusion: Biodiversity Conservation in an Indonesian Archipelago. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013

  5. Kirksey, Eben. Living With Parasites in Palo Verde National Park. Environmental Humanities, no. 1 (2012): 23-55.

  6. Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, L. Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse and the Postcolonial State, Journal of Southern African Studies, no. 27 (2001): 3, 627–651.

  7. Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies, New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc, 1996