Late in every spring semester, many seniors find themselves slaving away in their carrels in the library basement, pouring through stacks of books and sorting through accumulated piles of notes. But not Hannah Fink ’14.
Fink is a multidisciplinary major with concentrations in biology and art. Rather than do a more traditional written thesis, as many seniors do, Fink decided to take a different approach to the final assignment of her academic career at Vassar.
Instead of turning in several dozen pages of writing to her thesis advisors at the end of the semester, she will be presenting them with six-foot-tall cactus-shaped planters that she has sculpted.
Fink was inspired to undertake the project by the water shortages and drought that plague the agricultural industry of the Southwestern U.S. and California.
Fink wrote in an emailed statement, “The project consists of a sculptural installation, as well as a complementary written component that elaborates on the topic that inspired the sculpture.”
This topic is based on the water crisis in the Southwest United States and California as it relates to irrigation for agriculture,” wrote Fink.
Though she has not totally escaped the many pages of writing that plague her classmates, Fink is taking an interesting and meaningful approach to her senior thesis.
The Southwestern United States, comprised of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and parts of California and Texas, has traditionally been an agricultural powerhouse of the nation, providing produce for millions of Americans.
Recent shifts in the climate in these areas of the country have caused these already arid states to suffer the effects of prolonged drought.
Fink said that the states such as Arizona and New Mexico require approximately 70 percent of the fresh water that is suitable for use by people. These recent droughts have forced the Southwest to tap into their reservoirs to meet the demands for fresh waters coming from farmers.
As these reserve supplies of water are running low, the cost of irrigating crops, the process by which most farmers water their fields, has been steadily rising.
Left unchecked, shortages of water and the skyrocketing prices threaten to cripple the agriculture of the entire Southwest. And solving the problem will be no simple matter.
Fink outlined the dangers that drought and water shortage can inflict on the region—and indeed the country as a whole. Climate change will place greater strain on national resources.
“Farms and ranches will be at great risk without substantial government aid to subsidize farmers and fund costly infrastructure necessary to transport water to the arid regions of the United States,” wrote Fink.
She went on to explained two main options to solving the drought problem. The first would be to pour large amounts of money into transporting water to the arid states afflicted by the drought so they can continue to grow crops for the time being.
A long-term move, according to Fink, however, would be for the government begin financing the growth of agriculture in less-arid states where the droughts will not be nearly as problematic to farmers.
Fink’s project—the cacti planters—is intended to represent the problematic situation facing the Southwest. “The cactus sculptures are meant to symbolize the desert, which people associate with an arid landscape,” she wrote.
Fink has two helpful allies on her side. Because her thesis is multidisciplinary, tackling two separate fields, she has two separate faculty advisers to guide her.
On the science side is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Margaret Ronsheim. Meanwhile, Professor of Art Harry Roseman advises Fink on her sculptures.
The art pieces will be fully functional planters, and will be used to grow farm crops. The planters will primarily contain lettuce and endives as they have had the best yields in trial runs in the Vassar greenhouses.
The plants themselves are intended to send a message about the plight of the Southwest’s agriculture.
“The farm crops growing out of the cacti symbolize the bizarrely lush farms within desert landscapes that are only possible with aggressive irrigation practices,” wrote Fink.
She wants to draw attention to the drought problems through her thesis project. She feels that the agriculture industry is one that is worth fighting for.
One reason to support the Southwest’s agriculture is the many jobs it provides for the people involved in the process of it, from the farmers who grow the food to the drivers who haul it to the stores where it will be sold, according to Fink.
Another is the huge stimulus to the economy both locally and nationally that the Southwest region provides through the employment and massive quantities of goods that circulate throughout the nation as a result of it.
The sculptures are intended to draw attention to the irony of one of the most arid regions of America being its major agricultural center.
Fink wrote, “This surreal landscape of misplaced cacti in an east coast environment is designed to mimic and mock the surreal landscape of a farm in the middle of a desert.”
Once the sculptures are finished and her project is done and graded, the cacti will be moved from the greenhouses and art galleries where Fink has been working on them to various spots around campus for students and the public to view.