NTBG exhibit features rare plants

KALAHEO — Suspended in a sea of black, a single Hawaiian stilt peers from a print hung in the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Botanical Research Center.

It’s among 32 prints on display at NTBG, all spotlighting Hawaii’s rare and endangered flora and fauna in a collection entitled “Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii.”

“They’re isolated to try and create a portrait of an individual plant or animal,” said wildlife photographer Susan Middleton, who created the project with David Littschwager.

The portraits tell the story of discovery, rediscovery and conservation in photos that in some cases connect the viewer with not just the individual specimen, but specific pieces of that plant or animal.

“It’s kind of eavesdropping on the miracle of creation at its best and the devastation of (its) loss,” Middleton said during the exhibit opening Tuesday night.

The prints are part of a larger collection, published originally in book form 2001. Middleton distilled the hundreds of photographs in the book to the 32 images for display at the Honolulu International Union for Conservation of Nature conference last September.

Distilling those photos from the entire book was a process, and Middleton said she knew she couldn’t use all of the pieces.

“We wanted to do enough to communicate the urgency and the breakthroughs in conservation,” she said.

The images on display at NTBG are the same ones that were debuted at the IUCN Conference, where more than 10,000 people from 190 countries viewed the exhibit.

“We’re trying to communicate the rich biodiversity and (seeing) which ones talked to each other,” Middleton said.

Fieldwork for Remains of a Rainbow started in 1998 when Middleton and Littschwager teamed up with NTBG research biologist Ken Wood and Steve Perlman, Kauai coordinator for State of Hawaii Plant Extinction Prevention Program.

After more than two years and more than 50 days traipsing around the most remote parts of the Hawaiian Islands, the team captured photos of some of the most rare and endangered plants and animals in the world.

Some plants that were photographed are considered to have disappeared from the wild at this time. Other species have rebounded from five individuals in the wild to thousands that have been repopulated.

Helicopters were paid for by NTBG to help with the project and with that resource the photography mission was able to branch out a bit into research and collection as well.

Hawaii Tourism Authority also sponsored the exhibition.

“We weren’t just going to the plants and photographing them,” Wood said. “Steve and I would have time to wander off, break away and find rare plants — multitasking.”

Perlman said the exhibit is meant to inspire, even though most of the plants and animals in the book and the exhibit are few in numbers.

“We don’t think of these plants as doomed and we don’t give up on any of them,” Perlman said. “Diversity can come back and there are some examples of success stories (in Remains of a Rainbow).”

Working with plant and animal experts was integral to the project, Middleton said, and much of what was photographed was driven by a list of the most endangered species from Perlman.

“First and foremost I attach myself to scientific experts to do my work,” she said. “I’m trying to communicate to a broad audience about visualizing diversity.”

The stories attached to each of the photographs are still powerful for the team, who talked story about the experiences.

One story was when the photographers captured a new species of cricket that hitched a ride on Wood’s sleeve during a day of photography in the field.

“Kenny said, ‘do you want to see the most beautiful cricket I’ve ever seen?’,” Middleton said. “As it turned out, it was a new species.”

She continued: “These are the stories that you remember after all these years of photographing plants.”

Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii will be on display at NTBG’s Botanical Research Center through Nov. 30, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., excluding Veterans Day and the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Some Saturday showings will also be scheduled. Admission is free, with a suggested $10 donation.

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