Location: About 30 miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota
Year arts activities began: 2011, in current form since 2017
Number of artists chosen per year: 2 to 3
Funding: None currently, though artists have successfully secured outside funding. Residency includes access to facilities and a flexible time frame (concentrated periods of time or regular visits throughout the year).
How to apply: Submit application with genre, project idea, timeline (reasonable to be completed in a year), statement about how art connects to the science of Cedar Creek, and sample of work
When songwriter Sarina Partridge, a 2020 and 2021 artist-in-residence at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, walked out on the grounds, she was immediately struck by the dead, burnt-out trees and snags across the prairie.
As she toured the reserve with scientist Elena West, who researches red-headed woodpeckers, their discussion of prescribed burning and woodpecker habitat became layered.
“We got into this conversation about how American culture in particular is so uncomfortable with death we feel we have to remove the dead trees. We think they’re unsightly, unseemly, not healthy—when, actually, they’re essential to the health of the ecosystem,” Partridge says. “We need to find a way to reckon with our own fear of death and dying if we want healthy ecosystems. While I was driving home this song came into my head about finding beauty in the burnt and broken.”
Their meeting and Partridge’s eventual song “Burnt and Broken” helped West articulate how she sees Cedar Creek, which is run by the University of Minnesota and is part of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. The site stretches across 5,600 acres of land and is a sharp contrast to nearby urban Minneapolis. The “little island of incredible habitat,” as West calls it, is a unique meeting point of three biomes: the pine and spruce boreal coniferous forest to the north, tallgrass prairie to the south and west, and maples and oaks of old-growth deciduous forest to the east.
Prescribed burning allows land managers to maintain balance in the ecosystem, to keep fast-growing maple trees from outcompeting slow-growing, fire-resistant oaks, for example. And researchers at Cedar Creek have explored how fire can be used to restore and even speed up restoration of oak savannas. West appreciates the potential in the mess of blown-down and burnt-out trees.
“It’s a combination of chaotic and beautiful,” West says. “Burnt and broken landscapes are really important for the species that evolved in these ecosystems. Sarina had the ability to articulate a landscape so that not only me, but other people, too, can see it differently.”
In her songs—which are meant to be sung by others rather than only listened to—Sarina Partridge experiments with multiple frames to create the effect of a group singing in harmony. The song “Burnt and Broken,” above, inspired by her conversation with scientist Elena West and part of her project Song-Catching: Sounds of Resilience, includes the lyrics, “Beauty in the burnt and broken / what was ash becomes a home for a bird in spring / no straight lines or tidy rows / learn to see all the beauty in the burnt and broken.”
Partridge’s year-long residency allowed her to build a relationship with the place, returning to it again and again. Like finding the beauty in the burnt and broken, she’s found lessons from Cedar Creek about the relationship of humanity and natural landscape. “We’re so caught up with our own reckoning, with our own cycles and seasons, sometimes we forget that we’re part of all these bigger cycles and seasons. That’s part of why we need natural places not just to visit once, but that we have a relationship with,” she says.
Ecology and Community
The burnt landscape is essential for red-headed woodpeckers, striking birds with bright-red heads that make dramatic sweeps down to grab dragonflies, grasshoppers, and moths. They live in oak savanna and need dead trees for cavity-nesting and standing trees for acorns. The older generation of people living around Cedar Creek in rural Minnesota recall seeing many more of these birds in childhood and have noticed their decline in the past 50 years or so.
While the population of red-heads has declined 67 percent since 1970 in the Midwest, and 95 percent of the population has been lost in Minnesota, the birds are apparently stable at the reserve, with more than 100 breeding adults onsite in most years.
A group of birders from the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis took note of a sizable population of red-heads at Cedar Creek in 2008. Their informal monitoring led to formal research. West got involved in 2018 to help monitor these difficult-to-count birds and contribute more research into what makes them thrive in a place like Cedar Creek. It’s this relationship between community interest and scientific research that Caitlin Potter, outreach and community engagement coordinator, hopes efforts such as the artist-in-residence program can further bridge.
People even in the surrounding community may not realize Cedar Creek’s importance to the history of ecology. About six years after a botany professor from the university flew over the land in 1930 and noticed an intriguing purplish bog, Ph.D. student Raymond Lindeman and his wife, Eleanor, began studying what is now Cedar Bog Lake. Lindeman was a pioneering figure in ecosystem ecology, being the first to conceive of a whole, integrated ecosystem and to quantify it. He saw interrelationships and roles—such as producer, consumer, or decomposer—of every organism at the lake, and tracked energy flow from the sun down through the entire system. Lindeman himself even noted the importance of including dead organisms within the biotic community, calling their exclusion “arbitrary and unnatural.”
Potter wants Minnesotans to know about this history and about Lindeman, topics she first encountered early in college. And about current research looking at how human activity has impacted the land, through projects in biodiversity, nutrient addition and cessation, and climate. And that they live at this unique meeting point of three major North American biomes, which allows a variety of experiments in plant dynamics to be relevant to much of the continent in the relatively small space of Cedar Creek.
“Cedar Creek is just a famous location in science—it’s in all the textbooks, and our scientists give talks all over the world. I showed up and discovered that few people outside of science have heard of Cedar Creek,” Potter says. “The kids whose school bus goes outside my office every day, the neighbors across the street—no one really knows what we do here. We’re trying to change that.”
To that end, Potter reconfigured the residency program in 2017 to give artists of any genre a focused period of one year to work on a project that brings the science to life. The residency doesn’t include funding currently, but it offers access to facilities, a unique full-year timeframe, and flexibility in how it’s completed, which allows artists with full-time jobs to participate. Successful proposals put artists together in the field with scientists, even collecting data or assisting with fieldwork, immersed in the science they can help highlight and communicate.
“At a time in this country where there’s often distrust of science and scientists, we wanted to do something that met people where they were,” Potter says. The artists “take the science and make it really relatable and give people something to connect to, give neighbors a chance to come see the research without needing to understand the science. To come see quilts, paintings, or photos is not intimidating, while coming to hear a lecture might be.”
Artists have connected with the community through “meet the artist” events or displays in professional and student-run galleries in the area. A 2018 resident, Frank Meuschke, hosted a one-day course on nature photography.
A Patchwork of Past and Present
Cheri Stockinger, a quilter and artist-in-residence in 2019, is from the local area but also first learned about Cedar Creek in her college textbook. A middle school science teacher who began her career as a park naturalist, she’s been a hobbyist at her craft for 15 years. She saw an opportunity through the residency program to open up her art to a larger audience and to connect Cedar Creek to the local community.
During her residency year, she held quilting workshops, including one-day events for beginner sewers and a weekend retreat with 50 sewers, ranging from eight years old to 90. When they stopped for meals, Stockinger told the group about Raymond Lindeman and what she’d learned about current research. She also has held “bed-turnings” on Zoom and in person during which she stacked all of her Cedar Creek-inspired quilts and held up each as she told a story of the research while audiences followed the visual story of color, texture, and line.
One of Stockinger’s quilts consists of 12 blocks, each representing an area of Cedar Creek’s research, as diverse as climate science, astronomy, the red-headed woodpeckers, lichen, and radio collars for animal tracking, which were invented by scientists at Cedar Creek. She made other quilts inspired by current research, but she also became fascinated with the history of the place.
“I thought when I started that I’d do more modern quilts with modern techniques because this is a world-renowned research center,” Stockinger says. But she was inspired by a photo she’d pass in the main building of Raymond Lindeman’s wife, Eleanor. “My mind kept going back to her,” Stockinger says.
She discovered that Katrina Freund Saxhaug, a postdoctoral researcher, also had an interest in Eleanor and Cedar Creek history. Freund Saxhaug, who grew up five miles from the reserve, has compiled a trove of historical documents. “I like learning the personal histories of people who made Cedar Creek what it is. It’s important to remember the people who helped science be where it is today,” she says.
Freund Saxhaug also volunteers with a phenology project begun onsite in 2009. She coordinates a group of citizen scientist volunteers, and together they monitor lifecycle events of some 26 species of plants, from trees to woody shrubs to wildflowers, noting events such as budding, leafing out, flowering, and fruit. These observations date back to 1978, when John Haarstad first took handwritten phenology notes from daily walks around the property.
“It’s the kind of data you don’t realize has value until years down the road. It takes time to collect and to see the patterns and let the patterns play themselves out,” says Freund Saxhaug. “Even in a ten-year data set, it’s difficult to discern patterns.” But Cedar Creek researchers are seeing changes, comparing the past decade of data to Haarstad’s early notes. Some species are flowering or leafing out earlier.
Freund Saxhaug introduced the array of plants to Alyssa Baguss, a 2021 artist-in-residence whose primary medium is drawing and who appreciates long-term data—her project is titled Slow Data Transmission. A regional park director in Minneapolis, Baguss drives up once a month and draws a postcard after each visit, including a handwritten message about something she learned at Cedar Creek. She sends each postcard to 100 people around the world, including past researchers, schools, and groups in rural Minnesota. She received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to fund the project.
First, Baguss drew a fantasy-style map of Cedar Creek as an introduction. On her second visit, she stayed at the ICON House and went to sleep with 30-below temperatures outside. She woke up to a landscape that looked magical and sugarcoated with frost, which inspired her candy-themed postcard. She wondered if she was seeing hoar frost or rime ice—so she researched the difference and wrote about her findings.
Recipients have reached out to Baguss personally, saying, “I never knew that about frost,” or commenting on other postcard subjects. “I would never have that sort of connection through a gallery exhibition,” Baguss says. “It felt really personal and special.”
That intimate connection and sense of wonder and delight are what Baguss hopes to transmit as she connects personally with the science and scientists, as with Freund Saxhaug. “She walked me around and showed me all these plants she’s monitoring in these spaces I’ve walked quite a few times,” Baguss says, sharing that this helped her know the plants and feel a deep connection with them. She says learning from a scientist is vastly different than simply looking the plants up online: “It’s a human being telling you about something and lighting up.”
The third postcard, a line drawing converted into a 3D image, arrived in the mail with a pair of 3D glasses. “I want people to have fun, a little nostalgia. I talk about how everything’s popping out of the ground, how we have all these dimensions in spring when we’ve been sensory deprived, then all of the sudden water turns to liquid, and birds start chirping, and you smell dirt.” She contrasts that dependable, joyful spring with what she learned from the phenology research. “Nature is predictable, but things are changing. Some flowers are blooming three weeks earlier than they would have 40 years ago. It’s so slow that it’s hard to see, but things are changing.”
Baguss wants her slowly transmitted, hand-drawn postcards—as opposed to big gallery exhibitions or scientific papers—to help people experience and care about both art and science. “It brings the science down to a personal connection with people. Because if it’s an abstraction and only exists online, why would you give a damn or advocate for it? It’s something ‘out there,’ something for other people. We need tangible experiences and personal experiences to have a relationship with the science. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Scientists and people in general share curiosity about the natural world, and science is inherently experiential, Freund Saxhaug says, but scientists don’t always translate it well. “We get stuck in our data. We’re good at making graphs, but the average person doesn’t want to look at a graph. Artists are good at taking data and numbers and ecological concepts, and putting them into some kind of experiential form. They tap into sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, which is such a direct way to humans, while science jargon isn’t.”
Humanizing scientists and the work they do, says Potter, is critical for science to survive and thrive. The residents do that through art—but the program also helps scientists learn to better communicate and humanize their work. “In the same way that I want the artists to see a place so famous in science, or community members to feel invested, I want scientists to be invested in art,” Potter says. She wants scientists to experience people feeling passionately about climate change when it’s presented in a quilt, or people learning and caring about prescribed burning when it’s presented in a song.
And Partridge, an elementary school teacher with a science research background herself, has embraced this different way of approaching songwriting—listening to what the scientists are saying, seeing their passion, and helping to bring out the humanity perhaps hidden in a research abstract.
“What inspired my project is these little songs could be a little bridge between science jargon and the universal nugget that’s in there,” she says. Through her project she captures the music of the landscape and the science, and shares simple songs meant to comfort, to be sung together, to reconnect people with a grounded place.
One of Sarina Partridge’s songs, “Winter Heartbeat,” came from her experience being out at Cedar Creek in winter by herself. She wrote a song about spring equinox, too, a balance point amid transition. The barreling wind, majestic Sandhill cranes migrating through, and, as she learned, the burr oaks releasing their leaves only when new ones push them out in spring—along with turbulent current events—inspired a song about coming back to balance in the midst of motion and transition.
West says being out in the field with artists, as with songwriter Sarina Partridge, prompts her and her technicians to reflect on how they’re communicating, challenging the traditional ways scientists are trained to think. “Sometimes artists have a way of asking you things you’ve never thought about in a way you’ve never thought about—that’s really important, to be challenged to answer something that’s difficult,” she says.
West acknowledges scientists face a narrative of objectivity—the notion that a “real” scientist shouldn’t be influenced by values. A professor once told her she shouldn’t go into the “value-laden” field of ecology. “I’m glad I got past that advice,” she says. “I’m drawn to this field because I think we owe it to ourselves and future generations to figure out how we can live more sustainably and in a world where we, as humans, have what we need, but also are not ruining habitat or eliminating species because of our actions. We’ve already done that enough. There are value judgments there. I believe ecosystems and habitats are important.”
And in this place so rooted in ecology, where distinct biomes meet and interact, interrelationships among artists and scientists continue to be crucial. They’re finding, like Lindeman’s distinct roles, that each way of seeing and knowing helps bring a little more awareness of ourselves, a deeper connection with the land and its birds and buds and changes, and more understanding of our human place—our own relationship within a wide system of interconnection.
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.