Fall 2011 Residents & Fred Swanson from Andrews Experimental Forest on hike led by Sarah Greene in the Cascade Head Experimental Forest (from left to right: Fred Swanson, Kurt Fausch, Patricia Wheeler, Diane Cook, Sarah Greene, Susan D'Amato)

Artist & Ecologist Program

Article about Scientists & Artists in Residency Together

So, a Scientist, an Artist, and a Writer Walk into a Forest...

On a recent trip to the Cascade Head Experimental Forest, residents from the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology stood around a clump of moss, taking pictures, oohing and ahhing over its intricate details, pinching off pieces to study later, maybe to use in a drawing or a painting. The scientists in attendance, forest and stream ecologists, seemed less fascinated. They'd certainly seen plenty of moss up close before. But they watched the excited artists, interested in what they saw, how the artists looked at this thing that was so familiar to them. Later, the scientists tossed around terms as familiar to them as sibling names or state capitals. The artists interrupted, asked for definitions, explanations, scribbled the new information down for later use. It was a normal day at the Sitka Center, where artists and scientists live, learn and create together.

For 41 years, the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology has offered artists time and space to pursue creative projects. But alongside those artists, the Sitka Center also invites an ecologist for a science residency. Why bring scientists and artists together in a beautiful, natural landscape? To create moments like the one described above. To allow for a cross-pollination between these disciplines that, though superficially different, each are charged with making meaning from the details around them. The nature of this cross-pollination, as with all creative things, is hard to predict. It depends on the mix.

After that day in the forest, one artist's work shifted to be inspired by webs. Another scrawled scientist's field notes across her paintings. I (the writer-in-residence) started a new novel based around a scientific term I'd had explained to me; I had never heard of the concept before and it opened up a whole new way to look at the natural world and our relation to it.

And the stream ecologist-Scientist-in-Residence Kurt Fausch from Colorado State University - he learned to alter the way he explained his passion, to find a more common language to get people to care about the rivers he studies in order to protect.

I spoke with Kurt about his time at the Sitka Center. "For any ecologist it is helpful to be around people who are the antithesis of what you do," he said. "I thought it was a gift for me to be able to talk about my ideas to people for whom they are foreign. It helps me gauge what people will think of them, what is important about them, and how to explain them in a way that is interesting. Because we want to reach people."

"It used to be that scientists could live in their own little world and you could be good at knowing your field. But because the problems are more dire in the world, science has been thrust into the spotlight."

That urgency to get a population of non-scientists to care about aspects of ecology has prompted programs like this Science Residency at the Sitka Center, or their pilot Sitka Reflections Program, which invites artists to produce work which is responding to or capturing the uniqueness of the Cascade Head Experimental Forest to offer to the public so that they might be inspired into stewardship. Programs like this are popping up all over the country. Disciplines are reaching out to one another, realizing that success is more likely if we use each other's strengths to get the population to invest in the natural world. When scientists and artists mingle, they share language and philosophies. A writer can take the data from a scientist and make it accessible to a wider audience. A painter can make a viewer feel something for a landscape.

Kelly Herbinson, a Scientist-in-Residence in 2010, wrote of the importance of this cross-pollination while in residence: "There is a massive gap between science and the public, and one of the best ways to bridge that gap is by using creativity to make difficult concepts seem fun and easy and interesting. I think if more people understood how the natural world works, and lived in awe of it, the world would be a much different place."

The Science Residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology offers scientists, who want to immerse themselves in the ecology of this special place, up to 3 and a half months of uninterrupted time to focus on research ideas, projects, or writing, in a private residence all free of charge. The Salmon River estuary, Cascade Head Scenic Research area, Experimental forest and the Pacific Ocean are there for your inspiration and study, and the residency exists to support the desire to use scientific knowledge to focus on an issue with ecological consequence, and give scientists time and space to do that work.

"If you study trees, mosses, insects, fish, then the Pacific Rim is a center for that study. For many, this is the center for biodiversity," explains Kurt. "When you're an ecologist and reading about a place, you can't imagine what a place looks and feels like." He pauses. "I can't describe how meaningful it is to sit on a river and have read the papers on that river and say, 'I get it.' You need the sensory detail, need to be able to write about how the place feels and smells and what it means to sit by it." He points out, too, that any ecologist would find the Salmon River estuary a fascinating place because it is not developed. "You see how the processes should operate. It's a special place and I hope more ecologists get to be here."

One night, during our residency, we all curled up in the library and watched a PBS documentary about Kurt and the work of a late scientist friend of his. In the movie, we watched Kurt don a wetsuit and lay perfectly still in the middle of a rushing river in order to take notes on what lived below the surface. It was an interesting sight for many reasons. First, Kurt is a very tall man lying very still in a small stream, trying to go unnoticed by the small aquatic creatures he's observing. But also it demonstrated the idea that to really understand the world, or a small piece of it we have to insert ourselves deeply into it, observe, gather information, make meaning, then share what we know; scientists, artists, all of us. And if that thing is a stream, well then, get in.

By Diane Cook, Fall 2011 Writer-in-Residence at the Sitka Center