A Forest Pastiche

“Every element of the forest — from the cryptic to the monstrous — inspires creativity. Scientific discoveries feed artistic imagination, and artists’ imaginations inspire further appreciation and inquiry.”       Fred Swanson, Research Geologist

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WAITING FOR YOU IN THE STILLNESS of Oregon State University’s Valley Library’s fifth floor is an exhibit as richly layered as the forests it portrays. It tells the story of trees as old as Methuselah, of the plants and animals they shade and shelter, and the people who, over time, have used them, studied them, cherished them, explored them, and found in them an irresistible muse.

The exhibit’s title, Heartwood: Inquiry and Engagement with Pacific Northwest Forests, suggests the symbiotic acts of seeking and creating, of doing science and making art, that are inspired by the region’s vast forestlands. Step into the gallery at the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center and you’ll get a visual overview of the ecologies, economies, philosophies and practices that have shaped our forests and how our thinking has shifted over the last century. You’ll learn how these changes have played out in legislation, litigation, forest planning and other social forces and movements. You’ll also explore the various ways humans experience the forest — as habitat and provider, lab and classroom, sanctuary and studio.

A giant pine cone, a piece of a lichen and  a collection of forest insects are mixed with poems, paintings and photos that tell the story of Northwest forests. (Photo: xxxxxx)
A giant pine cone, pieces of lichen and a collection of forest insects are mixed with poems, paintings and photos that tell the story of Northwest forests. (Photo: Ruth Vondracek)

At first glance, the exhibit is a visual feast. Now look closer. You’ll see a subtext of near-revolutionary change over time, a rising consciousness of forests’ value in ecology and creativity. A timeline marks the European settlers’ evolving view of forests as boundless sources of timber to fragile ecosystems sustaining an astonishing host of life forms — from unregulated logging to the current era of biodiversity protection on federal lands.

You might first be drawn to a digger pine cone the size of a bread loaf and then to a northern spotted owl, stuffed, looking out of its case with shiny eyes. The owl is flanked by two of its wild nemeses, the predatory great-horned owl and the competitive barred owl, which have benefited from the spotted owl’s loss of old-growth habitat. Wander across the gallery to see an excerpt from “mesmerizing storyteller” Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, alongside last-century photos of tribes gathering fruits from the forest. You can read a letter from President Bill Clinton written to the noted Northwest stream ecologist and conservation leader Jim Sedell, thanking him for his testimony at the momentous 1974 President’s Forest Conference in Portland. Poems by celebrated writers hang among logging artifacts such as a worn sawblade and a ragged pair of caulk boots. Decades’-old scientific reports, frayed and faded, snug up against vibrant digital photos by Bob Keefer of Creswell and Tom Iraci of Central Oregon. There’s a thin slice of western red cedar called a “cookie,” part of a 200-year study on decomposition now in its 31st year at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where hundreds of researchers collect terabytes of data. Another book on display, Forest Under Story, collects the reflections of many writers who have taken inspiration from the Andrews.

All the cases are accented playfully by lifelike frogs, salamanders and other forest-floor hoppers and crawlers (the curators call them “fun critters”) created from plastic on 3D printers. Here, kids will find a lot of enchanting things to see and think about.

As the exhibition team — including natural resources archivist Ruth Vondracek, geologist Fred Swanson, stream ecologist Brooke Penaluna and historian Sam Schmieding — began envisioning their forest under glass, they soon discovered that, like the living, breathing ecosystems they sought to convey, the story of Northwest forests couldn’t easily be contained within the display cases in the gallery. So they let it spill into the wood-paneled room in the form of giant photos and into freestanding showcases set up on the polished bamboo floors.

The exhibit’s three-dimensionality echoes the spirit of an ancient grove — tangled and branching, gigantic and miniscule, inching toward the sky over eons, one woody cell at a time, or catching a ray of light, for a transitory moment, on a translucent wing.

The pastiche of forestry and creativity — of spiritual artistry and physical artifacts, heart-deep compositions and bone-dry management texts — reflects the multidisciplinary views of the exhibit’s collaborators: the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center, the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word.

You can view the exhibit on the fifth floor of the Valley Library, 201 SW Waldo Place, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the academic term, and noon to 5 p.m. during academic breaks. It will run through October 2016.

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