Sara Smith

2015 Baron Fellow
Greenfield, MA

Research at AAS


Florence Rice Hitchcock and the Theory of The Soft Earth

It is hard to overstate the importance of my time at AAS to the development of my multimedia dance project, Florence Rice Hitchcock and the Theory of The Soft Earth. The performance wove together dance, animation, and mock-documentary video to tell the story of a forgotten nineteenth-century geologist (a fictional composite of “real” people) who dedicated her life to deciphering and channeling her prophetic visions into a theory of planetary interdependency. It prompted reflection on our relationship to the natural world and to one another. Florence's "Soft Earth Theory" was constructed from pieces of spiritual and scientific ideas across cultures and time periods, stretching from the 4th century forward to meet current understanding of the role of uncertainty in how the universe functions.


At AAS, there were so many delightful pieces to draw from that the whole project came alive. I borrowed details of engravings, and paragraphs from polemics to make Florence’s world. I discovered the prescient environmental warnings of George Perkins Marsh for the first time as well as the wild imaginings of Lyman Stowe, and tried to find points of convergence that could be reimagined as part of Florence’s fictional theory. I thought I would need to bend the words I found to match aspects of The Soft Earth premise, but in fact, I discovered kindred spirits in the collections, writers known and unknown thinking in dynamic, sensitive ways about the relationship between humans and our environment, and seeing parallels between the exploitation of nature and of some humans by others. Photographs of another family called “Rice” became Florence’s family album. Spending hours in the writings of Margaret Fuller helped me inhabit the diary-entry language I was inventing for Florence. I was also inspired by the work of women science educators, like Mary Amelia Swift and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and enjoyed imagining Florence growing up steeped in their textbooks. Pieces of lessons from Swift’s First Lessons About Natural Philosophy for Children became organizing markers for the episodic scenes of the performance.


I came to AAS to look at nineteenth-century geology texts, outsider science theories and predictions, and materials related to women’s education in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Massachusetts. Immersed in the books, documents, and photographs in the collections, I discovered the whole visual space of the project, and a voice for the central character that I could not have imagined before my fellowship. And as a full-time academic research librarian, it was a rare treat to be on the other side of the research desk and to have the support of the incredible curators, catalogers, and other staff.


About the Fellow

Sara Smith was a Baron Fellow at AAS in 2015. She is a trans-disciplinary choreographer and librarian interested in the interconnected poetics and politics of embodied research and knowledge. Sara also writes and presents on librarianship, art, and social justice, and from 2010-2017 edited KINEBAGO, a forum for writing by and about New England dance artists. Sara has been a recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship award in Choreography, and has received funding from The LEF Foundation, Maine Arts Commission, and Mary Duke Biddle Foundation among others, and residency support from MacDowell, Yaddo, and Hewnoaks.

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