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St. Helena Olive Tree, Extinct 1884-1977, 2003-, 2010, 3:07, stop-motion animation

The video St. Helena Olive Tree, Extinct 1884-1977, 2003- (2010), concerns a species, the St. Helena Olive Tree, which was extinct by the late 19th century. (but rediscovered 80 years later, only to disappear once more in 1994.)

It was the only species in its genus – having been separated from Africa in the island’s tectonic journey to the south pacific. It's decline began soon after first European contact, due to the introduction of disease and loss of habitat (clearing of the land for timber and plantations, goats grazing and flax)1. It was subsequently thought to have gone extinct until a single tree was discovered by naturalist George Benjamin in August 1977. This tree was found dead on 11th October 1994 and the species became extinct in the wild2. During it's brief revival countless conservation attempts were made, but because of its genetic 99% self-incompatibility, this proved extremely difficult3. Of hundreds of attempts, only a single cutting was successfully propagated from the wild tree4. In 1988 it was transported to a greenhouse in Scotland where it grew to 2 metres before succumbing to fungal infections in 1996. Three seedlings were raised from this cutting in Scotland, two of which were planted nearby and the third transplanted back on the island. They displayed stunted growth and all but one were lost by 1999. The original wild tree had produced a single seedling, but it unfortunately also perished. Despite careful mulching, the last Scottish seedling deteriorated dramatically in December 2003 due to fungal infections and a dry winter, and with its loss, to this day there remains no living tissue in any botanical collection5.

The paper replica of the tree that appears in the video does not respond to the wind heard through the speakers, it stands motionless as the grid-like shadows of a greenhouse slowly moves across its surface. This video is an attempt to investigate not only how the plant’s history demonstrates the expanding and contracting of its being, but the impossibility of establishing the boundary of being. Our installation includes an accompanying collection of all documents about the plant available on the internet at the time of exhibition.

1Cronk, Q.C.B. (2000) The Endemic Flora of St Helena. Anthony Nelson, Shropshire.
2IUCN Red List (September, 2008) http://www.iucnredlist.org
3Cairns-Wicks, R. (2003) Extinction of the St Helena Olive. Ascension Conservation Quarterly, 5: 6 - .

4Jackson, A. (1991) Project Popeye – Saving the St Helena Olive. Preliminary report to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Project No. 162/89). Wakehurst Place, RBG, Kew.