Many school kids in central Massachusetts know some of their southern New England human and natural history from the dioramas in Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum. Crafted in the 1930s by Guernsey-Pitman Studios, these artistic, 3D models paint a picture of dramatic landscape change over three centuries.
The intricate details—trees made of thin strands of copper wire wrapped around each other, pine needles etched from thin sheets of copper, animals and rocks delicately sculpted from clay and wax—show how the land transformed from virgin forest more than 300 years ago to near-complete deforestation by European settlers for agriculture, and then the slow return of forest cover. Step outside the museum door and you encounter stone walls that once separated field from pasture, laced through the now-forested landscape—reminders of this place’s past.
Harvard Forest, a part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network since 1988, is part laboratory, part classroom. The museum is a cornerstone of its outreach, and communicating the story of the landscape through these incredible works of art fits with one of the site’s approaches: that many ways of knowing, including the humanities and fine arts, can integrate with the sciences to understand the past, present, and future of a place.
Pair the dioramas with the fact that many of the forest’s scientists already had side interests in writing, art, and music, and the arts already felt well at home by the time Harvard Forest began hosting arts and humanities residencies a decade ago. In that time, organizers have hosted seven residents and supported other local creatives in some long-term projects by offering access to scientists and the forest, and planning events and exhibits to showcase their work.
The arts and humanities work has engaged more people in Harvard Forest’s central mission of exploring how physical, biological, and human systems interact to drive landscape change over time. “We’ve had hundreds more people come to the forest because of the arts than ever would have visited before,” says Clarisse Hart, Harvard Forest’s director of education and outreach.
Elevating the Arts
LTER forests are working forests, with a steady flow of local and visiting researchers coming and going. You might guess the types of researchers—hydrologists, climatologists, ecologists. But at Harvard Forest, a writer, artist, historian, or designer also has a good shot at spending a year deeply engaging with a place-based project.
This is thanks to the Bullard Fellowship, established in the 1960s and endowed through Harvard University. It’s open to a wide spectrum of disciplines and was awarded to an artist for the first time in 2011. It has brought two writers and one more artist to the forest since then. A Bullard Fellow can spend up to a year living in Harvard Forest. This funding stream allows organizers to support artists in a meaningful and sustaining way as they dig into a long-term, forest-based project, which is important to the organizers.
“We want to provide appropriate compensation,” says Aaron Ellison, a senior ecologist at Harvard Forest who has been deeply involved with arts projects at the site. “Scientists, like most academics, are paid for ‘process.’ That is, I draw a regular paycheck to ‘do’ science—thinking, observing, experimenting, and writing. Most creatives are paid for ‘product.’ That is, no output, no pay. But if we really want to engage with artists in collaborative work, we must pay them for the process of production.”
Ellison says the Bullard Fellowship program gives those in the arts and humanities the same degree of recognition as any other visiting researcher, and it helps reinforce that an artist’s time is just as valuable as a scientist’s.
Deep Engagement Takes Time
Almost all arts and humanities engagement at Harvard Forest has been long-term. “We have the luxury of time because artists are here for a year,” says Hart. This allows for collaborative undertakings and a deeper understanding of the place.
Ellison, who worked alongside 2016-17 artist and designer-in-residence David Buckley Borden on several complex projects, thinks the long-term nature of the arts engagement is crucial. “Creative projects take time,” he says. “If we’re serious about engaging scientists and artists in collaboration—which should be co-labor—then we no more want an artist to ‘parachute in’ to an LTER site to do their own work for a few weeks than we want a well-meaning, first-world scientist to parachute in to a field site in a developing country for a few weeks to ‘solve’ a pressing question.”
Borden, now a Harvard Forest Associate Fellow, continues to collaborate with Harvard researchers on interdisciplinary science communication and says his work has been shaped by this partnership. “I’ve been working with Harvard Forest scientists since 2016, and I am a better artist for it,” he says. “As critical thinkers with a shared environmental ethos, I now view the scientists as part of my creative family. I think our projects have been mutually beneficial in that our collaborations serve our common goals of research and education around issues of ecology, forestry, and conservation.”
Ghosts of the Past
A walk through Harvard Forest reveals the dynamic nature of a landscape. “Every step that you take and everywhere you look, you see the ghosts of what came before,” Hart says. “So you have this unbelievable layered experience of human history and ecological change that is evident all around you all the time.”
Debby Kaspari, a 2011 Bullard Fellow and the first long-term artist-in-residence, focused on these ecological legacies during her nine-month stay in the forest. Through dozens of plein air paintings and drawings, she showed artifacts from the past in the process of being overtaken by nature. While in residence, she hosted workshops and presented her project “Ghosts in the Forest: The Art of Abandoned Landscapes” to students and the public.
Ghosts of Tomorrow
One of the most striking changes happening in Harvard Forest today is the rapid decline of one of its foundational species, the eastern hemlock. The hemlock woolly adelgid, a small insect brought to North America in the 1950s, has ravaged hemlock stands up and down the East Coast in recent years, leaving bare branches stark against the sky.
The insect wasn’t a significant problem here at first, but scientists say climate change has made a hospitable environment for the insect to thrive and migrate. The adelgid can’t survive if temperatures reach about 13 below zero Fahrenheit. Petersham, Massachusetts, where Harvard Forest is located, used to get that cold in winter, but Ellison says it hasn’t for at least the past 10 years. With climate change causing these shifts in seasonal patterns, human fingerprints can again be seen in the changing landscape.
The fate of the hemlock, part of the cultural fabric of New England, affects everyone who visits, including artists. “You walk into a totally dead forest, and I think that is a really impactful experience for people,” Hart says. “Especially because you look down at your feet and you see a whole other forest coming up. You realize that it is about loss, but it’s also about resilience.”
During his time in residence, Borden focused several projects on the hemlocks, ultimately collaborating with Ellison on an 18-piece installation embedded in the forest called Hemlock Hospice. Visitors to the “Exchange Tree,” one Hemlock Hospice piece that abstractly depicts the top of a fallen eastern hemlock, were invited to leave hand-written messages to the dying forest. “I’m sorry for our ignorance,” one of them reads. “S.O.S.” says another.
While the concept of hospice means care for the dying, Ellison says it’s also about the living. How do we move forward with care and empathy? The interactive nature of the installations prompted people to reflect and think critically about climate change, human impacts, and the future of the place. Hemlock Hospice was set up along an interpretive trail, and hundreds of visitors went on guided tours of the pieces. Many more tuned in via regional and national media coverage of the work.
Artists and Scientists Changing Together
Writers and other artists are captivated by the sense of loss they encounter in the forest, Hart says, and they see the role of humans and how important our decisions are. Rather than their time just being reflective, residents come to understand forest dynamics and want to make work that changes people’s behavior.
This was the goal of Warming Warning, another collaboration between Borden and Ellison. This immersive piece first installed on Harvard University’s busy Science Center Plaza engages the public in possible outcomes of climate change. On one side of the piece, which is made of timbers harvested and milled at Harvard Forest, a colorful heat-gradient shows a 1.5 degree increase in average global temperature, while the other side illustrates different future scenarios for carbon dioxide emissions. Viewers see the paths we can take and their own role in charting a course. At one end, a reflection bench made of nine more timbers points to our ability to shape how the story unfolds.
And the scientists? They, too, come away from this collaborative work with new perspectives. “Some of the questions scientists feel courageous enough to ask may have changed,” says Hart. “It makes them more willing to branch out.”
Ellison has found this in his own work. For instance, after working with Borden on “HWA Tent,” a piece in Hemlock Hospice, Ellison felt a shift in how he perceives the hemlock woolly adelgid, moving away from the cultural construct of the insect as an “invasive species” and instead seeing it “as just another actor in the web of organisms that maintains the forest in a continuous state of flux.” He says he also feels an increase in empathy in his practice as a research scientist.
What’s evident to everyone who engages with this place is that nothing is static. Changes, even when they seem abrupt, are a complex interplay with tentacles reaching back through time. And the more people who view all this change through their unique lenses—whether with a paintbrush, a notebook, a data set, or a camera in hand—the better we might be able to see the outcomes of our past decisions and approach the present conscientiously.
A growing network of long-term ecological research sites in the United States (and beyond) features collaborations among the sciences, arts, and humanities. From the hardwood forests of New England to the towering old growth trees of the Pacific Northwest, we will introduce you to a handful of these diverse places and explore what happens when environmental scientists and artists hike, live, research, and create together with the long view of decades and centuries in mind. Terrain.org is pleased to partner with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word on this series. Spring Creek Project hosts a Long-Term Ecological Reflections program in Oregon that is designed to last 200 years and is one of many organizations nurturing this loose-knit network of creative inquiry. Learn more at Ecological Reflections.
Shelley Stonebrook is the program coordinator for the Spring Creek Project. She manages the organization’s residency programs and helps plan events and other programming that support artists and writers and that cultivate connections across many disciplines. She holds an MA in English from the University of Kansas and was previously a senior editor at Mother Earth News magazine. She lives and gardens with her husband and daughter in Corvallis, Oregon.
Header photo of the Simes Tract in Harvard Forest by Audrey Barker-Plotkin.