Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson


Part 1: Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson

Log Decomp Site

200 Year Log Decomposition Study

Patience is at the essence of the log decomposition study at HJ Andrews. Mark Harmon began the study of forest ‘morticulture’ at the Andrews about 30 years ago. It is designed to continue for 200 years. How patient must one be to wait to know that the answer that you are seeking will not be found during your own lifetime?

It takes patience for stream and soil scientists to set up hundreds of piezometers in multiple fields or multiple streams, and to keep them maintained so they provide the information that you need to extract from them. It takes patience to routinely visit the piezometers in seemingly endless intervals to collect data that will begin to tell a story about the way that the land and the water interact.


Log Decomp Site

Sarah Clearing a Piezometer in the Rye Field

The study of geomorphology, the way that the geology changes, takes patience on a fundamental level because it, like the log decomposition study, occurs on a time scale that is not our own human scale. I have visited a site where the earth has been plotted out in a small rectangle that slowly becomes more skewed over time as one area of the piece of land slides past the other. One must wait patiently for the land to drift to see this happen.

I am inspired by the patience of the scientists at the Andrews forest. If I am to also work within that place, I must also put patience in the forefront of my projects. I am planning to work with that location for the rest of my life. How else can I know the place as well as I possibly can? Knowing cannot occur immediately. It unfolds slowly only after being with the place, sitting within it quietly and being patient, for it to begin to reveal itself. Most places reveal themselves slowly. After all, they are not concerned with human time.

At first, while sitting in the forest, it may appear that nothing is happening. You can’t observe the growth of a giant tree if you look at it for a minute, an hour, or a day. With patience, and with awareness, it begins to become apparent that things are happening constantly. Slowly it becomes possible to become aware of the tree’s growth, the land shifting or the water passing through soil.


10 minute interval photo

A Ten Minute Interval Photo Shoot at Watershed 2

Solstices/Equinoxes was designed to unfold through patience. I returned to the same location on the solstices and equinoxes over the span of one year. I stayed there from sunrise to sunset on each day, taking a photograph of the same spot every 10 minutes.

Once patience has been practiced, other things begin to happen. The ten minute intervals of photographing the same area, a white rock in a creek bed, didn’t allow me to divert my attention from the place for long. If I did, I missed my photograph. Maintaining my awareness of the place for a day honed my perception. I was very aware of the way the light shifts throughout the day, and how brief of a time that the sun directly shined on the spot that I sat. I became very aware of the temperature and of the sounds of the forest, most of which I could not hear because they were lost in the murmurs of the creek. I became aware of the path of a salamander in the water and the tracks that it left in the sediment. Likewise of a slug that explored the edges of the creek.

I found that heightened awareness came naturally when I accepted patience as being a fundamental aspect of my process. When I became impatient, I became cold and uncomfortable, and inevitably irritable. But with patience and awareness I felt very alive. The forest felt very alive. And I felt a part of the forest. As long as I accepted patience, the forest seemed to accept my presence and welcome me. I practiced this only 4 days of the year in that location, but those four days remain vivid in my memory. They were deeply satisfying days, although I was not doing much of anything but pushing a button every ten minutes. The majority of the time I was simply being. Now that I have completed that part of this project, I miss being there.


painting grid

Spring Equinox Painting Grid

My process has moved from the forest to the studio. Patience is no less of an aspect now that I have moved indoors. I have drawn grids of 1 x 1 inch squares on 12 panels. There are thousands of squares that need to be painted with a specific color that I took from the photographs on the solstices and equinoxes. I paint 40 colors for each of the ten minute intervals from sunrise to sunset. The process is not exciting. It is slow, methodical and deliberate. It is not fun, in any sense of the word, but it can be deeply satisfying – if I can hold on to patience as I paint. If I am patient with the process, I accept the activity of painting squares fully. It is my purpose for being in the studio. And then, like in the forest, patience unfolds into attention and attention brings satisfaction.

When I become aware of the time it has taken me to paint 40 squares, of the time that it will take me to complete the entire project, the process suddenly shifts from being satisfying to being tedious. Tediousness leads to feeling that all that I am doing in the studio is, a chore to push through at best, and pointless at the worst.

I choose to remain patient as well as I can. Either way, patience or impatience, will bring me to the same end point – finished paintings. But only one way will the experience of painting be aligned with the experience of the aliveness of being in the forest. The other way will bring about paintings through suffering and discontent. Either way it will take me over two years from when I began the project until when I can see what the forest gave me in the form of finished paintings. The only way to stay sane for that long to discover what I initially set out to do, is to maintain patience as I move slowly through the project.

Part 1

Responses to the essay Poetry-Science Gratitude Duet by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Frederick J. Swanson in Forest Under Story Edited by Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich and Frederick J. Swanson


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