Listening to the Forest
Listening to the Forest is included in the State of Oregon’s Percent for Art collection.
Oregon State University, Forest Science Complex, Peavy Hall Atrium
Acrylic and bio-based resin on birch plywood; 16 62 x 46 in. panels arranged in a 4 x 4 grid
Listening to the Forest spans the scale of an old-growth tree from the cellular level, to one growing in the forest. The composition and color of the installation is based on the distinctions of the cellular structure of wood and the variances of light quality from forest canopy to forest floor.
Four rows and four columns forming a grid of bas-relief panels were created over a one year period. Chromatic changes and patterns of the panels follow the results of my study of light and wood anatomy at the Discovery Tree, a tree approximately 60m tall and estimated age over 300 years in an old-growth stand at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Three cut-out layers comprise each panel that are separated 1/4 inch from one another, and arranged vertically according to tree height, and horizontally according to season.
The composition of the individual panels is taken from the cellular structure of the red alder, western hemlock pacific yew, and Douglas-fir trees, representing research into hidden aspects of trees: how they work as hydrologic systems, the support structures of ecological and human construction systems, and much more. The cellular patterning of the panels was created by cutting and layering birch plywood and varies according to the differences in wood anatomy at specific tree heights. Data generated at the Discovery Tree representing forest processes during five consecutive days each season are integrated as graph lines at the bottom edge of each panel, illustrating the elegance embedded within scientific models of the forest’s cyclical rhythms.
Each outward-facing surface is bright white, but the back of each layer of the panels is painted, creating the effect of color experienced not as pigment, but as reflected color and light. The colors on the back of the panels are taken from the results of an investigation of the change of light color and quality at the Discovery Tree at HJ Andrews Experimental Forest at 50m, 35m, and at the forest floor.
Listening to the Forest creates a contemplative visual experience of light, color, shadow, and rhythm. Through the layered cut-outs, the experience of viewing the artwork changes based on the vantage point of the viewer and the quality of light from the windows in the atrium. The subtle shifts in composition, shadow, and color create an invitation to investigate the artwork further.
Read more about the process below.
Curious About the Process and the Details?
Read about climbing an old-growth tree, making cookies for wood anatomy slides, and how the beauty of graphs found its way into each panel.
Color, Light, and Climbing Douglas-fir - Top of Crown (Air Temperature), Acrylic and Resin on Wood, 2020, 46 in. x 62 in., Panel 13 of 16 Listening to the Forest - Leah WilsonListening to the Forest Getting Physical - The Magic Bubbly I can't really know a place...
Data 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 WilsonListening to the Forest Stream Drawing Studio Four times in one year, I sat for the duration of a day at the...
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...
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...
Thank You! I couldn’t have done it without your help
My sincerest thanks goes to everyone who helped me make this project including:
Kate Ali, Oregon Arts Commission’s project manager who helped guide me through the process of creating and managing a Percent for Art public art project. Without her I would have been lost.
Oregon State University’s Percent for Art Forest Science Complex committee whose members made suggestions that strengthened the concept of Listening to the Forest.
Fred Swanson, a retired geomorphologist for the U.S. Forest Service who has worked at the Andrews Forest for decades, helped me choose the tree species for this project, connected me with people to help along the way, and tagged trees in the forest with me to make “cookies” for wood anatomy slides.
Barb Lachenbruch invited me into her lab at Oregon State University and handed me a chisel and mallet to start turning cookies into sections for microscopic slides. Barb taught me about wood anatomy and sent me home with many books to educate myself. She also enlisted the help of Alan Crivellaro at Cambridge University to help with the creation of exceptional wood anatomy slides.
Alan Crivellaro took our chunks of wood and created the extraordinary slides that were used to make the composition of each panel.
Julia Jones, Professor of Geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University prepared the data sets and graphs used for the bottom edge of each panel from the data collected at the Discovery Tree the day of each of my climbs and the 2 days prior and after the climbs. Julia helped me see the patterns and relationships of the forest processes.
Adam Sibley, a graduate student at Oregon’s State University College of Forestry’s department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, patiently taught me how to climb tall trees. We climbed the Discovery Tree together 4 1/2 times and had fascinating conversations perched 50 meters up in the forest canopy. Adam also lent an extra set of hands as we installed the panels in Peavy Hall.
Charles Mason of Boulder Works in Longmont, Colorado saved my sanity and this project when he picked up the labor intensive job of laser cutting panels after the local manufacturer stopped working on them at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My parents, Jerry and Kathy Wilson, not only provided endless encouragement, but also jumped in to help with the preparation of the panels in Colorado after Charles finished cutting.
Tim Wilson-Haley, my incredible project manager, partner and husband, was with me every step of the way and insured that this project would not only be completed, but exceptional. I have no words to express my gratitude for all the hands on help, advice, encouragement, dinner preparation, additional studio creation, rope and ladder work… the list goes on and on. And amazingly, after all we went though to see this project come to completion, he is willing and excited to help work with me on the next one.
Thank you to everyone else for your words of encouragement and patience as I navigated my way through this. Your kindness helped to carry me though dark and frustrating times.
Notes on the Title Listening to the Forest
Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer expresses how science can help you see. We have amazing technology and lenses that allow us to see far beyond what our physical capabilities allow. But seeing is a limited way of knowing. To know more about the land, you need to learn how to listen. As I understand it, this is a listening that goes beyond our sense capabilities, and wonder amplifies the sound. Being able to listen requires close attention and intuition to follow the ineffable and evanescent threads found within the land. These threads contain wisdom.
Threads of wisdom can shape lines of inquiry, scientific and artistic. The land can become a collaborator in human projects rather than being a separate object of observation. This change of perspective gives me hope that we can create relationships bonded by reciprocity with the land that will influence how we decide to live with it for the better.
Robin Wall Kimmerer has helped me find words to communicate the ineffable. Her work has made me more consciously aware of the threaded wisdom and embedded knowledge that I have from my time spent physically engaging with the land and water. She has led me to trust my intuition, a gift of reciprocity from the land given in exchange for my attention and devotion. She has helped me become a better artist by creating from a place of reciprocity with the forest. The title of my project, Listening to the Forest, is a homage to Robin Wall Kimmerer, taken from a line in her essay Interview with a watershed published in Forest Under Story:
“Rich as they are, conversation, mathematics and poetry are but human languages. And I think there is another language, the forgotten language of the land. Its alphabet is the elements themselves, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. The words are living beings and its syntax is connection. There is a flow of information, a network of relationship conveyed in rising sap of cedars, in tree roots grafted to fungi and fungi to orchids, orchids to bees, bees to bats, bats to owls, owls to bones and bones to the soil of cedars. This is the language we have yet to learn, and the stories we must hear, stories which are simultaneously material and spiritual. The archive of this language, the sacred text, is the land itself. In the woods, there is a constant stream of data, lessons on how we might live, stories of reciprocity, stories of connection. Species far older than our own show us daily how to live. We need to listen to the land, not just for data, but for wisdom.“
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Interview with a watershed
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