Discovery TrailPublished in the Rot: The Afterlife of Trees Exhibition Catalog, The Arts Center, Corvallis, OR, January 2016
A lacquered tree round adorned with an image of a salamander marks the beginning of the Discovery Trail located at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest headquarters. The trail wanders through old growth forest and leads to Lookout Creek. Along the trail you will find no signs or kiosks designating an area or object as particularly “discover worthy.” There is an invitation at the trailhead to discover, but it does not dictate what that discovery should be, or when it should happen. The small gesture of placing the marker at the trailhead, and no more, succinctly describes the nature of this complex place perfectly. It is an invitation to you, the visitor, to discover both your questions and your answers.
By the time I found the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest I had completed three year-long place based projects that originated from conversations with ecologists, two projects with wetland prairies in the Willamette Valley and one with a river in Northern California as their foundation. I was searching for a new place as the subject for my next project and instead of finding a place, I found the place.
In 2012, as a stranger to this forest, I spent ten days at HJA in pursuit of an idea. Fred Swanson, a geomorphologist by training and an art-science connection-maker by passion, took me on a day-long tour of some of the sites, talking to me about the scientific significance of each place. By the end of the day I was so overwhelmed that I could not effectively process my experience in the forest. I felt I had walked into a deep dark, abyss of the unknown, and I could not come up with any idea, neither a good one nor a bad one. I feared that my time there would be spent wandering around aimlessly with nothing to show. It ended up that my fears were unfounded. That does not mean that I did not wander around HJA aimlessly, because that is primarily just what I did. I left with only one gouache painting on paper of bark beetle galleries to show for my time, but not a single substantial project prospect in the works. However, wandering around that complex landscape proved to be a very valuable experience that continues to serve me well.
Now, although I have two projects under my belt derived from time spent in the forest, and a third project in the works, I still wander around the forest aimlessly. Now I go there specifically for this purpose. The practice has been incorporated as an essential aspect into my creative process. These seemingly aimless wanderings are a means to develop a deep knowledge of the place without being limited by a defined or specific goal. I am growing more familiar with the place and, I hope that it begins to know me, too. The more I know of it, the more questions I can ask of it, and I like to think that the more I know of it, the more the forest will be willing to reveal itself to me.
As I spend more time in this forest, I am also coming to know some of the people associated with it. One notable rainy day in October, I lugged my camera gear down a steep set of wooden stairs on a hillside to the gauging station at one of the creeks to find, for the first time, that someone else was already there. A graduate student was systematically checking an array of piezometers that extended up the creek from where I stood on the bridge. We did not speak much aside from general introductions and explanations of what brought us there on that rainy morning, but I felt a kinship with him as I set up my camera, umbrella and tripod. We both gathered data – mine visual and his numeric – that we would be using to try to find answers to specific questions we had each posed for ourselves. We were connected through our curiosity: what will we find by observing this creek? The specific questions and perspectives that we brought to that place directed what we constructed to explore possible answers.
During my wanderings I have often come across evidence of other questions scientists have asked of the forest. I have a particular fondness for two locations – one where the ground is wrapped, not unlike a Christo wrapped island, and another where you can find deliberately placed sticks arranged in a row inside small tents or laying directly on the ground without a tent. These discoveries of science in action always delight me. In appearance, they are akin to finding the work in progress of the initial stages of site-specific art installations. However their intention is not of art inquiry, but of science inquiry. Their forms do not ever reach what one would consider art, but they do resemble art enough for me to feel that what the scientists and I are engaged in at the forest are related. We are creating in the pursuit of a deeper understanding, knowing that our work will lead to yet more questions – ones that we could not conceive of asking without first working through our respective processes of discovery.
An inevitable result of discovery is that it reveals not only a deeper understanding, but also an even greater recognition of our own ignorance. It may sound as if inquiry is a Sisyphean effort, but it is the discovery of new questions in the pursuit of understanding that is so intriguing. It is the driving force in both science and art. The process of making art is the act of bringing into the world physical manifestations of the pursuit of greater understanding, be it of materials, form, or concept. Once the artwork is completed, there is a fleeting sense of elation. But it is ephemeral and, when it soon dissipates, it is replaced by the desire to once again walk back into the unknown. In the unknown lies the exciting potential of all possibilities. This is the territory both artist and scientists inhabit.
An advantage of working at a place populated by scientists is that I can come in without much knowledge and have my level of observation increased dramatically with every interaction. For Rot: The Afterlife of Trees, my thinking began incoherently. Rot and decay are not subjects that would naturally attract my attention. It was only after I followed Dr. Mark Harmon for a short while at his log decomposition site that I could begin teasing out a nascent idea with which to work. I did not know enough at the onset to even understand what to look for. Mark strode off the trail and thrust his hand into the end of a rotting log. He pulled out a wet mass of white rot, something that I was completely unaware existed. I listened to him enthusiastically describing the white rot and other fungi found on wood. I had never heard someone talk about rot with such passion! It was infectious. I returned a week later to spend an extended weekend splashing up Lookout Creek and blazing my own trail through the dense forest searching logs for rot and fungus. My attention was focused on something novel to me. I now stopped at places where I would not have previously stopped, and was rewarded by finding some truly strange and beautiful forms.
Experiences like this differentiate this forest for me from others. There are many people here who, like the Discovery Trail placard, encourage me to begin to discover, and once I have begun, to then discover again and again. This community of people is continually inquiring and discovering. What a vibrant environment for an artist! When the Rot exhibition is dismantled you will still find me at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest wandering aimlessly and making art in response to wondering what it would look like if…
I hope that the Discovery Trail remains the way that it is now rather than conforming to the expected form discovery trails typically take. The path that conveniently provides the answers may be the easier and more comfortable path to travel, but it is also far less intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The freedom to be able to walk into the unknown and find no answers readily available encourages creativity. It is the path that scientists and artists alike choose to take. It is the reason that we can be found wandering in HJA.