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Botanicult Fiction: Freeman Lowell, Space Gardener

July 8, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

In the third decade of the 21st century we’re used to epic science fiction films costing in excess of $200,000,000. If one doesn’t earn three times that much it’s considered a flop. A half-century ago a small experimental film was in production that still stands up today as a landmark in science fiction, and it had a budget of just $1,000,000. That was Silent Running.

Silent Running (released in 1972) was the personal project of Douglas Trumbull, who had worked with Stanley Kubrick as a young special effects artist on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The film has a poignant premise at the dawn of the environmental movement. It’s set a few centuries in the future when all of earth’s forests have been lost. To protect the last remnants of these ecosystems, large greenhouse domes were launched into space and fastened to commercial space freighters. The space cargo business being what it was (or will be), the crews were delighted when the order came to return to regular service, jettison the domes, and blow them up.

The lone botanist aboard one of these freighters, Freeman Lowell (played by Bruce Dern), wasn’t exactly thrilled with the destruct order. He rebelled, eventually killing the three members of the freighter’s crew before they could destroy the last forest. Lowell wasn’t a space navigator, and in the drama of trying to save the forest dome and manage the ship he became injured. Alone aboard the huge spacecraft, he reprogrammed small robotic drones named Huey, Dewey, and Louie to serve as gardeners. Realizing that if he returned to earth the forest would be destroyed, he outfitted the dome with its own power source and grow lights and sent it off into space, tended by Dewey, the last functioning drone. He then blew up the ship while still aboard.

Although not in the same rank as 2001: A Space Odyssey as a science fiction classic, Silent Running is a well-regarded genre film with a strong environmental message. It also features two songs written by Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach fame) and Diane Lampert, sung by Joan Baez: “Silent Running” and “Rejoice in the Sun.” These lend considerable emotional weight to the final scene. Lonely little robot Dewey is seen faithfully tending earth’s last forest, drifting alone in space after humanity has abandoned it.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

BF Freeman Lowell Space Botanist Silent Running Poster

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