Western Hemlock - Butt Flare - Leah Wilson

Western Hemlock – Butt Flare (Dendrometer), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46 in. x 62 in.,
Panel 7 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Listening to the Forest

Stream Drawing Studio

Four times in one year, I sat for the duration of a day at the gauging station at Watershed 2 in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest on the solstices and equinoxes. My task was to take reference photos of a white rock sitting at the bottom of the small creek for a series of paintings entitled Solstices and Equinoxes. Every 10 minutes from sunrise to sunset I pushed the shutter button on my camera. The doors on the gauging station, as always, were locked.

Tim @ Watershed 2 - Solstices & Equinoxes

Although I had used data collected at countless stations for decades, I had never seen the inside of one. As an avid whitewater kayaker, I watched lines of graphs drawn from data collected at these stations rise and fall like others watch the stock market. I was fascinated by the patterns that they created as the rivers’ flows swelled and waned every day. Each river has its own unique pattern. Experiencing what those pattern looked and felt like on the river fed my fascination, and data helped me visualize the cyclical nature of my experiences on the water. It was another way of knowing that complemented my experiential knowledge of the rivers.

Finally, I have now seen the inside of a gauging station – the same gauging station that sheltered me from the rain at Watershed 2 for Solstices and Equinoxes. What intrigued me about it was that there was a roll of paper housed inside, and a suspended pencil drawing a continuous line describing the changing flow of the water in the creek. The gauging station housed a little drawing studio for the creek. There was a simple and elegant analog counterpart to the constant flow of digital data being drawn next to me as I collected digital data to create analog paintings.

After I completed my Solstices and Equinoxes paintings, Julia Jones, Professor of Geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University prepared graphs from Watershed 2 marking the days that I sat by the Watershed 2 gauging station to take my reference photos. I was thrilled to learn from the data that I sat through the largest rain event of the year when I took my Winter Solstice photos. I felt like an art badass.

Solstices & Equinoxes: Winter Solstice, Oil on 3 wood panels, 40 in. x 56 in.
Solstices & Equinoxes Graphs

The Aesthetics of Data (or the lack thereof)

Several scientists that I have talked with expressed ambivalence toward the aesthetics of graphs. It is an understandable attitude – the graphs are not made with aesthetics in mind. This ambivalence, combined with the knowledge that the rivers and creeks are continuously making line drawings in little locked studios, that cemented my decision to incorporate actual scientific data from the Andrews into Listening to the Forest. Until now I had only collected my own version of very non-scientific data for my artwork. I took it as a challenge to find a way to integrate graphs that Julia Jones prepared from data generated by the curious whirring contraptions strung up in the Discovery Tree, an old-growth Douglas-fir tree, and to present them in a way that would illustrate the elegance embedded within scientific models of the forest’s cyclical rhythms.

The data used in Listening to the Forest come from instruments affixed at regular intervals to the Discovery Tree at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Similar to the Solstices and Equinoxes project, data for Listening to the Forest describes forest processes on specific days, the days that I collected my own very non-scientific data for the project. Adding the additional context of time, Julia Jones prepared graphs encompassing a five-day span including the two days before and two days after the days that I climbed 150 feet up into the Discovery Tree.

Discovery Tree Meteorological Station Data Sets

Listening to the Forest comprises 16 panels arranged in a 4 x 4 grid.

Row 1 (Top): Air Temperature in degrees Celsius at 56m, 20m, and 1.5m above the ground.

Row 2: Leaf Wetness measured in units of electrical current across a plate positioned at heights within the canopy at 56m, 20m, and 1.5m above the ground.

Row 3: Dendrometer Reading at the Discovery Tree and 3 other nearby trees.

Row 4: Soil Temperature in degrees Celsius at 10cm, 50cm and 100cm centimeters in the soil – below the soil surface.

(Dendrometer bands are metal bands with a spring that are attached around the bole of the tree like a belt. They measure the tree’s diameter. The data show that, along with a yearly growth trajectory, the trees shrink and swell throughout the course of a day.)

Leaf Wetness Graphs
Western Hemlock Graph Detail

(Left) Superimposed leaf wetness graphs taken directly from graphs produced by Julia Jones from data coerced at the Discovery Tree August 18 – August 22, 2019
(Right) Graphs integrated into the bottom edge of the finished artwork panel (Western Hemlock – Mid Bole)


There is an intricate and complex order to the ineffably patterned randomness of the natural world. In Taoist philosophy, where I have found the most clear and succinct description, the patterns are described as the li. These patterns, the li, are continually forming and reforming as patterns within patterns within patterns, occurring in time, in space, and within our own minds as perceived by our senses and interpreted and reinterpreted through our mind. Often, as with the patterns of moving water, or the patterns of spreading lichen on a rock, the intricate patterned random order that is present everywhere is sensed and known intuitively, but it is difficult to truly comprehend.

We are not able to effectively model this. With our senses and instruments we are able to see more of these patterns than ever before, but our senses and instruments are limited. Micro patterns— the patterns within patterns within others, have been successfully understood, modeled, comprehended, and may be even verstehen. But these still do not encompass the whole thing. They cannot hold the greater meanings and the larger causes. They are not the pattern of patterns that are expanding with every newly accurate model. Those patterns remain out of reach of human cognition. In nature, these patterns have continued to fascinate me and have been a theme that weaves its way through all of my artwork.

When I study the modeled patterns of the real-time graphs on the Andrews website I can see the patterns of the li emerging more precisely through data than through what I am able to discern with my senses when I am physically present in the forest. The patterns are graceful. There is a rhythm to them, a musicality.

Because the graphs describe the li, there wasn’t anything that I needed to do to them to present them beautifully. They came to me that way. All that I needed to do was find where they best fit the composition of the panels, and within the project in its entirety. The bottom edge of each of the panels is cut to the exact pattern of the data as prepared by Julia Jones. I see this as a small part of a score of music that is constantly being composed without interruption in the forest. The movements of the Listening to the Forest symphony are transcribed at the Discovery Tree for the instruments: air, water, space within trees, and earth. Excerpts from the symphony weave through time, dancing across the tree rings of Listening to the Forest.

Western Hemlock - Mid Bole - Listening to the Forest - Leah Wilson

Western Hemlock – Mid Bole (Leaf Wetness), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46x62in.,
Panel 5 of 16 Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Read all of the Listening to the Forest stories

Webinar: Listening to the Forest

Webinar: Listening to the Forest

Join us on Wednesday, May 12 at 4 PM for a conversation about the new public art installation “Listening to the Forest,” located in the George W. Peavy Forest Science Center on the OSU campus. The discussion will be preceded by a short video introducing the artwork and will include a live Q&A with the artist Leah Wilson, moderated by Dr. Brooke Penaluna.

read more

Let's Keep in Touch!

Studio News

Have the stories sent to your inbox

Studio News will provide you with a glimpse into the art making process. It's the next best thing to visiting me in my studio.

Your support is important to me and your information will never be shared.

Send an Email

Write to me: Ask a question, send a comment, or just say hello. I'd love to hear from you!

Phone:  (541) 556-8253

Mock-up Sketch for Listening to the Forest – Leah Wilson

Field Research, Discovery Tree, HJ Andrews Experimental Forest – Leah Wilson

Studio News & Events

Sometimes I send out postcards... Add your address in the postcard field if you would like a fun piece of mail every now and then.

Thank you! You have successfully subscribed. Your support means a lot to me!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This