The Forest for the Trees: exploring the unexpected interplay of art, history, and science at Harvard Forest
Photos by Maggie Janik
Taking a walk through Harvard Forest is like stepping 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 recent signs of human intervention here, as well.
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.”
Coinciding with a recent lecture by Dümpelmann on the use of trees in art, students received a tour of Hemlock Hospice, a 2-mile art-based 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.