A look up close.
Red Alder – Top of Crown (Air Temperature), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46 in. x 62 in.,
Panel 1 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson
Listening to the Forest
A Story of a Relationship with a Place
Listening to the Forest is not about wood anatomy, or data, or science. Although what you will see is wood anatomy and lines drawn from data, it is not the basis of my work, or what compels me to persevere through all of the setbacks and frustrations that come along with making a public art project. The foundation, and the impetus to continue, lie in an ongoing story of my relationship to specific places. Everything I make is in service to that.
Creating reference material for this project was challenging. I heard suggestions to seek out and use preexisting wood anatomy images. It’s logical. After all, the structure of wood is the structure of wood. If you were looking at the cellular structure of bones, would your cells look any different from anyone else’s? Probably not.
If this project was about wood anatomy, then absolutely, I could use preexisting images from a slide library. But it is not a project about wood anatomy, at least it is not for me.
In the fall of 2007, I visited the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest for the first time. It was a rainy day. I remember it well: I had recently met the person that I would eventually marry and I had asked him to show me a place that held special significance for him. We drove to the Andrews Forest and stopped at an information board to read the story about his great-grandfather, H.J. Andrews, before hiking down to Lookout Creek on the Old Growth Trail.
I, however, did not begin my own relationship journey with the Andrews Forest until 2012 when I arrived for an artist residency. That time I spent there was the most disorienting time I have spent in a forest. It brought into sharp focus that what I knew about forests was minimal, and that if I wanted to understand what that complex place was about, it would take a lifetime to know. Forests do not work on the same time scale that humans do.
Since my first foray into that forest with the intention of making artwork in 2012, I have continued to return. Most of the artwork that I have made since then is a result of deepening my relationship with that place.
This particular place just so happens to also be filled with scientists. As a result, my artwork includes aspects of science, data, and in this instance, a lab and a lot of wood anatomy.
Watershed 1 after the late February, 2019 snowstorm. The red alder samples were collected at this location.
I needed to collect wood samples from root to the crown from four different tree species. As I was trying to solve the problem of accessing samples that were higher than my reach, an auspicious-for-this-project weather event occurred. The end of February, 2019 brought a fierce, wet snow storm to the area. Trees of all sizes came crashing down, including massive old-growth Douglas-fir trees. After the storm raged through the forest, the issue of collecting samples became much more straightforward. We simply needed to walk the length of the fallen trees with a chainsaw to cut cookies, rounds of wood, to use to create sections for the wood anatomy slides.
Tree Species and Wood Anatomy Locations
Butt Flare (where you would hug a tree)
Mid Bole (midway up the trunk)
Top of Crown
Tagging and Cookie Making
In April of 2019, Fred Swanson and I walked through an old-growth stand in the Andrews Forest, measuring length (formerly height) of trees, and marking locations to cut for cookies.
After the fallen trees were tagged, cookies were cut with a chainsaw.
Fred drove the cookies to Barb Lachenbruch’s lab at Oregon State University. They sat on the floor to dry for over a month.
Last May I met Barb in her lab to learn how to start the process of creating sections of wood for viewing and imaging in a microscope. Tiny sections of the wood needed to be shaved so thinly so that one single layer of cells would show clearly in the microscope. This proved to be a more difficult process than I had anticipated. Barb handed me a mallet and chisel to split the cookies into small chunks while she shaved the wood into even smaller bits with a microtome.
However, there were problems with the microtome and Barb was not able to cut clean sections. Listening to the Forest then took on an international flair. She mailed my chunks of wood to Alan Crivellaro, an ecologist at Cambridge University, to create and image the sections. Alan’s main current research interest is determining which biotic and environmental factors shape plant anatomical traits. He creates stunning wood anatomy images. The main composition of all of the panels comes directly from his processing and imaging of the wood that I collected at the Andrews Forest.
Read all of the Listening to the Forest stories
It is an exhilarating time in the studio. Attention-Devotion, Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2019, 46 in. x 62 in., This is a prototype for Listening to the Forest - Leah Wilson Listening to the Forest I am excited to announce that I have been awarded the...
Harmony Experiential Knowing and Data Sets Climbing the Discovery Tree - Leah Wilson I climb a 200ft old growth Douglas-fir tree every season so that I can feel the light quality change as I ascend above the forest canopy. This means of knowing extends past light...
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