HJA Day 2015

June 25, 2015

Decomposition & Composition: Writing and Reflection Inspired by Long-Term Research

This time at the log decomposition site I was there not to write, but to see if I could figure out what to paint for ROT, opening in January 2016 at the Arts Center in Corvallis, Oregon. I have been to this site many times, mostly by myself, sometimes with one other, but never with a group, and never with Mark Harmon. This is Mark Harmon’s PLACE. This year he is conducting the thirty year mark of research and observation here. It was a privilege to be shown various types of rot by this man who is thoroughly passionate about decomposition. Enthusiasm can make even the subject of rot sound thrilling. If you ever find yourself there, please do not sit on anything that has a tag – to Mark it would be more than unfortunate to have a tree collapse due to human intervention rather than natural decomposition.

The log decomposition site is a key site for the LTEReflections writers and poets that come to the Andrews forest every year. It provides a natural opportunity to reflect on the human experience, on our mortality. You can learn more about LTEReflections and read the writing from the authors that have come to be shaped by this complex place.


We need to stop calling dead trees ‘dead trees’. We need to start calling them live-er trees. – Mark Harmon

If a tree lives 500 years old, it has the potential to ‘live’ another 500 years, sustaining more life in death than while it was technically alive.

Image: Dr. Julia Jones (Oregon State University, Geography, Environmental Sciences, and Marine Resource Management) listens to Dr. Mark Harmon (Oregon State University, Richardson Chair in Forest Science & Professor)

After everyone had a quiet experience sitting and observing, Julia asked everyone what they noticed. Responses varied from sounds heard in the dense forest to the unexpected roughness of sitting on moss that looked that it was soft, but was not – a reminder that our expectations often lead us to the wrong conclusion, to a young man timidly sharing his observation of the impression that a dead leaf left on leaves underneath it – patterns built upon patterns. When people are given the opportunity to slow down, be quiet and to take it all in, they are able to discover beautiful, poetic things in the world around them and can share their experiences eloquently. This is a natural thing to be able to do if we just give ourselves the freedom and space to do it. It’s one of the things that make us distinctly human.

Trees rot at different rates, depending on what get into them. As people quietly reflected in the forest, I followed Mark to some different sites of rot. He strode up to a fallen hemlock, reached inside the trunk and pulled out a wet mass of whitish fibrous gunk – the work of white rot. White rot is a fungus that breaks down the structural lignin in wood to leave stringy, wet cellulose behind. Even on a day like this one, reaching into the 90s, the white rot was still cold to the touch.

The affect of brown rot fungus on wood is the opposite from white rot. Brown rot breaks down the cellulose. It dries the wood, causing it to shrink into cubical pieces and leaves it a rich discolored brown. If squeezed in the direction of the grain, the cubical pieces still retain a lot of integrity, but if squeezed against the grain, the wood easily crumbles.

I left the forest with a hunk of white rot and a chunk of cubical brown rot to contemplate later. By the time I got home the white rot had dried and become brittle, and the brown rot had disintegrated into many pieces, integrating itself into the interior fabric of my vehicle.

Jeanne Drevas, another invited artist that is participating in ROT visited the HJ Andrews forest for the first time. Moving from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia only two years ago, the forests of the Pacific Northwest are unfamiliar to her. Visit Jeanne’s website to see her artwork.

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