The Forest for the Trees: exploring the interplay of art, history, and science at Harvard Forest

Field trip to Harvard Forest for HIS-4447 Forest, Grove, Tree: Planting Urban Landscapes

Photos by Maggie Janik

Taking a walk through Harvard Forest is like traveling back in time. Eighteenth century stone walls spotted with moss and lichen reveal the land’s agricultural past. They tell the story of many failed attempts to tame the soil and impose boundaries, and of the forest’s dogged will to persist. Every now and then, sunlight strikes through the dense canopy, creating a sense of primordial otherworldliness. But there are more recent signs of human intervention here.

Since 1907, the 4,000-acre parcel in Petersham, MA has been the site of interdisciplinary research and education programs investigating the ways in which physical, biological, and human systems interact to change our earth. One of North America’s oldest managed forests, it is at once a living laboratory and a museum.

According to Sonja Dümpelmann, associate professor of landscape architecture and head of the MDes concentration in History and Philosophy of Design, “Studying trees in time and place offers the opportunity to address questions and topics that straddle landscape, forest, environmental, and cultural history.”

On a recent visit to Harvard Forest, students in Dümpelmann’s course, “Forest, Grove, Tree: Planting Urban Landscapes,” observed firsthand the ways in which trees have been used to stake out territory, create place, and serve as inspiration for artists, designers, and scientists. “We’re looking at the forest from a humanities point of view,” Dümpelmann said. “The purpose of this trip is to see some practical research work in the forest and gain insights into the actual science.”

Field trip to Harvard Forest
Emily Drury (MLA ’18): “There’s a big aura around this place for me. I’m from the southwest part of New Hampshire, so this landscape is very familiar. These could be the same woods and old roads where I live. To have them occupied in this way, and to see what a research forest looks and feels like is pretty extraordinary.”
thermal biomass system
In October 2013, the Harvard Forest converted to a new, highly efficient thermal biomass system to heat the campus’s five main buildings for research and education (totaling 41,255 sq ft). All cordwood for the new system is harvested from Harvard Forest land.

Field trip to Harvard Forest for HIS-4447 Forest, Grove, Tree: Planting Urban Landscapes

Field trip to Harvard Forest
Charlotte Leib (front left) hopes the visit will inform her independent research project on how the forest was represented in scientific survey reports during the nineteenth century. “It’s been great seeing how scientists measure and represent forests today, and what kinds of visual and sensory tools they use to do that—whether it’s their own body or a camera on a really high tower.”
Lichens cover trunks, rocks, and stone walls throughout the forest.
Field trip to Harvard Forest
Greek architect Antonios Thodis (seated) will complete the MDes program in History and Philosophy of Design this fall. “For me, forests are a new area of exploration in relation to architecture. I’m interested in the relationship between the sacred groves of the ancient Greek temples, but I’m also curious about the contemporary management of forests.”
Daya Zhang
Daya Zhang, a cross-registrant from MIT, developed a personal connection with the woods during her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University. “I think it’s very nice to learn from nature itself rather than going to a garden or a museum.” Zhang kept a well-loved copy of Ann Whiston Spirn’s The Language of Landscape close at hand: “That’s my bible for the semester.”

Coinciding with a recent lecture by Dümpelmann on the use of trees in art, students received a tour of Hemlock Hospice, a two-mile interpretive trail by artist David Buckley Borden. Hemlock Hospice blends art, science, and design to chronicle the demise of eastern hemlock and to address larger issues of climate change, human impact, and the future of New England forests.

Memorial Woodshed
“The Memorial Woodshed” frames the loss of the hemlock ecosystem at the mouths of the hemlock wooly adelgid, an tiny aphid-like insect from Asia.
The World's Most (In)Effective Insect Trap
Artist David Buckley Borden discusses “The World’s Most (In)Effective Insect Trap,” one of 18 installations along the Hemlock Hospice trail.