Long-Term Reflections

Merging ecology with the arts and humanities


July 24, 2019

In 1985, OSU forest researcher Mark Harmon started a 200-year log decomposition study, requiring careful placement of 530 logs. Harmon
emphasizes the long-term nature of the project when he notes, “There were
people before me that thought about setting up the study. I was just hired to
do the final design and supervise the location of the logs.” Now a professor
emeritus in OSUʼs College of Forestry, Harmon has expertise in ecosystem
succession processes and decomposition. Objectives include studying the logs’ role in forest floor ecology in terms of carbon dynamics, animal and insect habitat and fungi interactions as the wood decomposes.

In ROT: The Afterlife of Trees, an exhibit catalog and multimedia art show at the Corvallis Arts Center, Harmon writes about the unfolding of two simultaneous scenes in the Pacific Northwest. The first is a log truck hauling dead trees away, and the second is several stream ecologists crawling over, under and around similar dead trees as objects of research.

Harmon’s long-term study is also subject matter for Long-Term Ecological
Reflections, a collaboration among the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word at Oregon State, the Andrews Forest Research Group and the Pacific Northwest Research Station. Spring Creek views the initiative as another way to collect cultural data. A host of writers, poets, photographers and mixed media artists participated with Harmon in producing the art exhibit.

Winter-Solstice-Leah-Wilson-400
Winter Solstice, oil on wood. (Leah Wilson)

Leah Wilson, a visual artist who creates place-based paintings is one contributor. In ROT she writes that while following Harmon around the Andrews, she began teasing out a nascent idea to pursue in her work. Wilson, who is also participating in a long-term artistic inquiry at the Andrews, was astounded by Harmon’s infectious passion for all things rotten.

The benefits of merging ecology with the arts and humanities like this, in places of sustained inquiry, have the inherent potential to illuminate society’s path and the values people find in magnificent forests and streams – empathy, hope, awe, magic. These sun flecks through canopies sighing in the wind — to borrow words from Forest Understory, a book compiled by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas — will surprise us. Sites of long-term ecological inquiry that layer science, the arts and humanities over each other and incorporate indigenous knowledge and cultural views are increasingly recognized as essential to assess, portray, value and achieve desirable futures, writes Fred Swanson, a retired researcher with the U.S. Forest Service in a paper published in the professional journal Ecosphere.

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