Monument to the Common Barberry

2021

Monument to the Common Barberry serves as a memorial to the common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and the Barberry Eradication Program installed at Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer, MN. It consists of a custom greenhouse structure (envisioned in the form of a geometrically simplified shock of wheat) hosting a small root cluster of common barberry plants. 

Background
Introduced by colonial Europeans to North America as an ornamental shrub, the common barberry was the subject of an unprecedented federal and state plant disease control campaign lasting from 1918 into the late 1970s and beyond created to kill all common barberry plants for their ability to serve as an alternate host to black stem wheat rust (Puccinia gramanis) which threatened anthropogenic wheat crop production.  A product of the American Phytopathological Society (headquartered in Saint Paul, MN) and USDA’s formation of the War Emergency Board of Plant Pathologists; the Barberry Eradication Program resulted in the destruction of hundreds of millions common barberry bushes in the decades it was in operation.  While the destruction of other lifeforms to promote an ever-shifting terrain of human interest was nothing new, the scale of the campaign and its desire for a totality of kill and militant rhetoric with which it operated makes the Barberry Eradication Program worth considering as a parallel to the context of Nationalist/ Ethno-Nationalist and National/ World ideology wars, disputes, and atrocities through which we view and understand the modern history of the West.  The common barberry, due in no small part to the influence of University of Minnesota’s Elvin C. Stakman, was cast as ‘an alien enemy’ shape-shifting into whatever villain common prejudice would have it: ‘kin of the Kaiser’, ‘red handed anarchist’, a remorseless ‘thief’, and frequently appearing in illustrations as host to a cloud of stem rust assuming the form of Satan about to descend upon a farmer’s crop.  Moreover, a zealous youth brigade (akin to a Boy Scouts of America or Hitlerjugend) known as The National Rust Busters Club was assembled for the sole purpose of identifying, tagging, and performing a mass extermination of the plant. Presently, the common barberry is still subject to various state laws and ordinances prohibiting its spread and calling for its eradication including the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Noxious Weed Law.

Why memorialize the common barberry?
The common barberry was a curious casualty in the evolving co-dependence of human and wheat/grain: a relationship harking back to—and in many respects providing the groundwork for—the incipient stages of the early Western state formation, cities, property ownership and taxation, social hierarchy, and in-a-word: civilization.  The very real threat of stem rust upon wheat crops points to the results of this history of early state formation and the flaws of how states have structured themselves through the legibility and exploitation of a select few crops (a process that was greatly expanded in the modern era).  In the 21st Century, while we are no less—and likely even more—dependent upon large monocultures of crops, there is a wider knowledge and promotion of both alternate modes of being-with or eating the world and the deleterious and even catastrophic ecological and social effects of monocrop activity and the systems employed by human and state that created it.  From this vantage, perhaps it is possible to view the vitriolic propaganda against Berberis vulgaris as not entirely wrong but simply failed to employ the correct epistemological lens?  What if the common barberry was here as an 'alien enemy' (as USDA materials from the time refered to it), not of an individual nation state, but of the very notion of state biopower and its adverse effects on myriad forms of life?