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Remarks on the Opening of the Nichewaug Panorama at the Fisher Museum

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by Clarisse Hart, November 3, 2021, on the opening of the new Nichewaug panorama

The best stories begin with a blank page, and over the past year, I’ve learned that some of the best relationships begin with a blank wall.

But of course pages, and walls, are never blank—not really. If you zoom way in, that blankness is actually a landscape: the bright mountains of stories that have been told, and the shaded valleys, equally as rich, of stories that have been silenced.

Today, we are here to begin to shed light on the whole scene. Today we welcome every story, especially those stories that have been silenced.

Which brings us to two storytellers who have enriched our community and are joining us today, and who were central to the creation of this new panorama on the Museum wall: Nia Holley and Roberto Mighty.

I’ll begin with Nia, a talented artist, community organizer, mentor, and thought leader from the Nipmuc Nation, who in a short time has transformed my entire sense of what should be said about land, and how, and when. Nia is very direct. One of the first things she said to me, on one of our many walks, was, “You’ve been working here for 14 years. What took you so long?” Which is a fair question.

And this has brought to my work – to our work – an important sense of urgency.

We are an organization that is centered on the land. For over a century, Harvard and the field of ecology have benefitted from the ability to occupy, shape, and learn from this land.

And if we check the historical record, Harvard did not come by this land honestly, because the Brooks family did not come by it honestly, because the original six families who were granted the land that is now called Petersham were granted the land as a reward for scalping Nipmuc people. For killing and taking what wasn’t theirs.

So, what now? As an organization focused on the history of the land, what has taken us so long?

Our work in the Museum is an attempt to begin to do better. To tell the whole story. To bring the rightful stewards of this land into the conversation about its future.

I am grateful for Nia’s grace and directness in this work. I am grateful for the work she is doing every day, with organizations, with her tribe, with the larger Eastern Woodlands Rematriation Collective, which recently won an international award for its work to reconnect the land with its People.

Harvard Forest is land that was once a farm. That was once a genocide. That today is a place where transformational science is done that helps save the planet from climate change. That today is a place that still separates the land from its People. We can do better. And we will. Thank you, Nia, for doing this work with us.

And now, Roberto. Since his First Contact exhibit in the Fisher Museum in 2012—in which he masterfully combined interviews and field footage and photography to help us walk back to the 17th century and begin to experience the range and intensity of human feeling about the land—Roberto has been helping Harvard Forest tell the stories that need to be told.

Sometimes, like with First Contact, Roberto comes with his own ideas. And a central part of that initial idea is hanging on the wall in the HF Common Room, above the fireplace, where we honor Roberto's spirit of inspiration and inclusivity each day.

Other times, I come to Roberto with a desperate, time-sensitive, and usually vague objective like, “We need to tell a story about Harvard Forest research!” and together we work really long, deliberative hours and create a whole video series, like we did for the LTER site review earlier this year.

And rarely, we have the opportunity to create something that will serve as a foundation for thought and community for decades, like we did with this mural panorama image.

It took several walks, some with Nia – thank you, Nia – one walk at a very dark and buggy time of the morning, and all of them involving a tripod perilously perched in the middle of a rushing river – to get this image right. There is a great deal that happens, technically, behind the scenes to make a panorama. It’s not just setting up a camera and clicking the shutter. Thank you, Roberto, for your skill.

In case you didn’t know, Roberto has some incredible new work out on American Public Television, which he has been completing simultaneously and in my opinion, heroically, with our projects this year. The first series premiered last month and is airing now on dozens of PBS stations – World’s Greatest Cemeteries. The second premieres on PBS and also interactively on the web in January, and it features inspiring, often laugh-out-loud funny interviews with Baby Boomers. It’s called Getting dot Older.

Every time I watch an interview Roberto has done, I smile, because I can always see the tug of a grin on the interviewee’s face. And I know what that’s about. Roberto makes everyone – even terribly camera shy people like me – feel like a movie star, like a vital storyteller, like an imperative part of the team. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to work with him and learn from him.

Thank you, Roberto, for all of your incredible contributions to the Harvard Forest mission over the past 10 years.

Thank you, Roberto and Nia, for your skill and vision and grace in telling the stories that need to be told.