Why art at NRS reserves?

By Faerthen Felix, Assistant Manager, Sagehen Creek Field Station
Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Erica eyes an elderberry. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

Located on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, in a bowl lined with conifer forests and fens, Sagehen Creek Field Station is a research area owned by the U.S. Forest Service and administered by UC Berkeley. It’s one of 39 reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System, a network of wildland areas across California encompassing more than 756,000 acres. In addition to hosting science research ranging from native fish populations to forest health, and offering education at all ages, Sagehen explicitly encourages the arts.

The purpose of the art program at Sagehen is to inspire reflection, connection, and new insight into the ecosystem of which we are a part. This insight can and should inform scientific inquiry into, and management of, this ecosystem.

The process of forming a scientific (or any other kind of) question is essentially an artistic one. People seldom, if ever, come up with their research question via the scientific method; science is a criterion of truth and a test of knowledge, not necessarily its originator. Science has been so successful at this that the term “knowledge” is often assumed to mean only scientific fact, leading to conflicts with other cultural knowledge like religion, ethics, politics, and even economics.

Art—whether literary, visual, musical, performance, or other form—is, at its core, the discovery process whereby we connect apparently unrelated elements to create new knowledge of any flavor. This knowledge can then be explored and tested via the scientific method, or brought to cultural attention through the application of pattern, beauty, or controversy.

As environmental artist Helen Harrison once told me, “It becomes art when it starts to reverberate in your mind.”

Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Stonefly nymph. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

The history of Sagehen is peppered with this kind of occasional alchemy. For example, graduate students frequently, even typically, come to Sagehen with a thesis question that changes dramatically as they see things on the ground. One can only work with the raw material already in one’s head, and just being in the field allows the possibility of seeing something unconceived, creating new knowledge to be tested. One student discovered that slave-making ants parasitize different species here than anywhere else. Another found that traditional timing of grazing severely impacts native bees. Their willingness to notice differences and open their eyes to new patterns put them on a path that led from art to science.

In another example where connections between formerly unrelated elements created knowledge leading to action, researchers living at Sagehen in the 1950’s randomly happened upon large rainbow trout spawning in tiny ephemeral rivulets. This serendipitous discovery ultimately changed Forest Service management policy for these formerly devalued, temporary watercourses. Again, the journey from art, to science, to policy.

Our Sagehen Forest Project is another prime example.

This project will soon begin restructuring the Sagehen Basin forest for greater resiliency against climate change and wildfire, more natural structure, and friendlier wildlife habitat. I would argue that the collaborative, two-year process of designing the project was essentially about writing a community narrative. It followed a trajectory that moved from science, to art, to policy.

Planning the project began with a meeting of all the stakeholders we could think to invite: loggers, environmentalists, wildlife biologists, NGOs, agencies, and other interested parties. The first meeting essentially consisted of the Forest Service and the UC Berkeley saying, “The science suggests our forest is failing, and we’d like you to help us figure out what to do about it,” to which everyone else replied, “Okay, show us what you are thinking and we’ll tell you how we feel about it.”


Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Water droplet in pine sprout. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

It was such a vast departure from management precedent to begin like this—without preconceived notions, without a strategy, without preferred alternatives, starting with just a problem in which everyone felt invested—that no one could initially wrap their head around it. We discussed the science; we walked in the woods; we looked deeply at the forest; we marked trees for removal; we cordoned off animal habitat; we cut and burned test plots.

A year and a half later, the team had hammered out a radically new prescription and proposed action for the Forest Service to codify and execute. No one got everything they wanted, but everyone got something they could live with. We would remove lots of smaller trees from roughly 30% of the basin, in patchy, topographically driven patterns.

Then at the eleventh hour, the day before the final meeting, an endangered northern goshawk moved its nest out of the area marked for its protected habitat and into an area slated for forest restructuring.

This was the moment when environmental groups could have vetoed the entire project. In the meeting, we addressed the bird’s movements. Everyone tensely turned to the environmentalists’ representative, who thought for a moment before saying, “What we are trying to do will make things better for those birds. I can’t see stopping this project because of that bird.”

Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Reflections. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

We let out a breath of relief, carved the nest site out of the map, and agreed to wait until nesting season was over before working in the vicinity. Remarkably, the process moved forward.

The Forest Service received three letters of support during the public comment period: one from UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, one from Sierra Pacific Industries (the loggers), and one from Sierra Forest Legacy (the environmentalists).

This kind of agreement among these very different stakeholders is unprecedented. Such folks don’t usually agree, much less voice support for the same forest project.

It would have been helpful in all these cases to have a physical artwork to mold and share the narrative, to provide a doorway to participation and ownership by the community of the new truths…and the subsequent science and policy emerging from them.

We are now working toward the installation of such an approachable physical artwork at Sagehen, the Invisible Barn. Conceived by designers stpmj, the barn consists of a small building wrapped in reflective film. The building blends into the environment and enables visitors to view themselves standing in the midst of the forest. The structure encourages contemplation of the meaning and presence of people in nature, without telling them explicitly what to think or how to feel.

Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Water strider. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

Invisible Barn is a departure from the idea of imposing preconceived, top-down form on a community narrative. It’s more abstract.

Invisible Barn builds on the techniques of the Aldo Leopold Land Ethic Leadership (LEL) workshops held here at Sagehen a few years back. LEL teaches participants to “Observe, Participate, Reflect,” which provides “a framework to help you facilitate values-based discussions in a new and open way, allowing you to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of your own views as well as those that differ.” There is no end goal except to start a conversation around a subject and see what commonalities emerge to guide future action.

Given the almost universal reduction in natural history emphasis, collections, and field time within university science programs in favor of lab work, art is naturally going to play a far larger role in discovering and exploring future scientific questions, and will create linkages between and within communities to effect policy change as a result of this science. Somebody has to be out there observing the world as it is and reporting its meaning back to us.

Image credit: Faerthen Felix
Hermit warbler. Image credit: Faerthen Felix

The point of this lengthy manifesto is that the public doesn’t seem to understand what art has to do with our research program, or why art is important beyond its aesthetic value.

We have heard this directly from an agency partner, and from many confused visitors who, perhaps understandably, can’t wrap their heads around Force Majeur, the 50-year art project by Helen and Newton Harrison that explores enhancements to the water carrying capacity of the soil in this watershed and in the other mountains of the world.

At least the Sagehen art program is already stimulating questions.

Addressing this confusion would be very helpful to our community, to Sagehen, and to the UC Natural Reserve System in general.

Maybe it would be a good idea to talk to other groups about this issue and ways to address it? Maybe we need more partners? Maybe we need a larger effort in the form of a workshop of some kind? Maybe there are tools out there already that we are missing? Maybe we need to incorporate this priority of communicating the value and purpose of art in science and at reserves into artist-in-residence criteria? This would be at least as useful as any actual artwork produced.

We’ve had some interesting feedback and would like to continue the conversation about how to move forward from here. We hope you will weigh in on this conversation with your ideas.

Faerthen Felix, ffelix@berkeley.edu.