Telling the Story of Nature: The Artist as 21st Century Naturalist

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I am caught between two realms. In one, I am telling the story of the world through song, dance, the graceful stroke of brush on paper, and I am more attuned to texture than density. The fine lines of the imagination interpret my experience of time and space—my remembrance of every plant, animal, stone, river, and person—and it is this creative montage of memories that tells my story in vivid, descriptive images to a roomful of rapt listeners. This is the artist in me, and he lives to feel the world.

In the other realm I am a strict observer, recording precise measurements of distance, height, weight, color, and every other discernible feature that can be tied to a metric. I see forests, rivers, deserts, and oceans as systems connected by function and process. This is the scientist in me, and he lives to describe the world, and create a logical plan to survive in it.

But this is also an illusion. The artist and the scientist within me live in the same realm with very fuzzy boundaries, and both are essential to forge a resilient relationship with the world we live in. Gregory Bateson understood this essential balance with precision: “Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity.” To be exclusively one or the other is clearly dangerous, though we seem to toy with that danger far too often. A much wiser choice would be to move beyond the paralysis and avert the insanity by allowing the scientist and artist within us to collaborate and co-create, rather than be in conflict. I spend much of my time trying to maintain this balance.

Fortunately, science and art have made a kind of peace in recent years, and most scientists are increasingly comfortable with artists taking their hand to help us feel our world. However, the emphasis is almost always on using the arts as a vehicle to increase our awareness and appreciation of nature. Art becomes a communication tool, a way to help tell the story, and principally in a manner that will resonate for the emotions. No doubt this is important, and perhaps essential—scientists are typically terrible at telling their story to anyone except other scientists, and artists have a much easier time giving us characters, plot, and conclusions with meaning and heart. But this is also far too limited a role. There is an immense missed opportunity when scientists dismiss the work of artists as irrelevant to their own, acknowledging perhaps that art helps promote our appreciation of nature, but believing it contributes nothing to scientific process. There is far more going on in the world of the artist, and much of it can become the seedbed for great science.

Artists who are inspired by nature and natural process—and this encompasses an enormous number of practicing artists—are working principally from arbitrary, but careful, observations of the natural world. They see patterns in the lines of a leaf, the geomorphic contours of a river channel, the transformation of a glacier into atmospheric moisture. They see and report on the story behind the process through poetry, dance, paintings, and song. They are our new naturalists, and we would be wise to pay closer attention to the results they are generating. This is not a particularly new phenomenon. Artists are practicing natural history in much the same way that artists have for millennia, as excellent observers and recorders of the subtle qualities of an ever-changing Earth. The work of ancient Chinese poets, European landscape painters, and contemporary artists and writers such as Andrew Goldsworthy, Terry Tempest Williams, Maya Lin, Gary Snyder, and Diane Ackerman fall gracefully in this tradition. Their observations show us pattern and process in nature, but in a way that is not constrained by reductive scientific rigor. What any good field biologist knows is that observational data, whether statistically significant or not, can lead to interesting ideas. It can form the foundation and premise on which rigorous scientific thinking emerges.

Hara Woltz knows this intimately. “For me, art expands the language of science,” she explained, while showing me images from her fieldwork in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. Hara is the perfect role model for our emerging artist-scientists. With an undergraduate focus on art, and graduate studies in design and conservation biology, Hara settled comfortably into her New York City studio and began crafting ways for her art to do much more than just help scientists to tell their story. She has become an intricate part of the story, and the science is incomplete without her. Her work takes many different forms, from immersive sculptures to delicate multi-layered drawings. Since 2014, she has collaborated with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History to help conduct research on bio-cultural resilience in remote Pacific communities of the Solomon Islands. Hara joined a team of scientists and local collaborators to help envision how communities can best respond to shifting threats such as climate change, population growth, and overharvesting of resources. Her primary role within the project has been to integrate visual arts into the research processes and products. Drawings were integrated with field data to help develop and collect ideas that communities can continue to build on to manage their forest and marine ecosystems. “The process becomes as important as the product.”

The drawings are captivating, and it is almost impossible to take your eyes away from them. The relationships between people and forest, fish, soil, and sky are immediately obvious, and the drawings make me want to know more. They allow me to feel the warm tropical sun that drives the lives in these distant islands, and they give a very grounded resonance to the numbers from the field data that fill in the rest of the story.

Art and science together allow us to bridge culture and nature, Hara Woltz, Solomon Islands

In 2018 Hara was invited to participate in an exhibition, Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, at the Storm King Art Center, a sprawling blend of art and nature in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her Vital Signs work is an interactive weather station whose ten elements refer to the disappearance of Arctic ice and the way scientists study its decline in a shifting climate. The cylindrical shape of each element mimics the storage tubes used to house ice core samples collected by paleo-climatologists to determine climate history. As the dark blue area on each cylinder grows, the white surface diminishes by 13 percent per cylinder, which corresponds to the predicted decrease in Arctic sea ice. Likewise, each cylinder gets taller in reference to the predicted 33 millimeters of sea level rise per decade. These changes in color, height, and surface material from one cylinder to the next make visible the accelerated increase in dark oceanic water due to climate change, which results in further melting of arctic ice sheets—a phenomenon called the Arctic amplification effect. Vital Signs invites visitors to engage with the collection of data and experience the temperature differentials between the dark and light areas as well as the volumetric change in ice melting by interacting with each element. Mirrored aluminum tops the middle cylinder, reflecting the faces of visitors and sky above. Standing in the presence of this work allows me to feel in my bones exactly what we are doing to our climate, and how it enters my life with every turn of the Earth. It is telling the story of nature with a depth, intensity, and personal resonance that will never happen with charts, graphs, or equations.

 Hara Woltz, Vital Signs, 2018, Storm King Art CenterThe place of the artist in contemporary science is certainly not limited to the realm of the visual image or the written word. David Dunn is a contemporary sound artist whose work is inspired by natural processes as diverse as the underwater calls of aquatic invertebrates and the communication processes of forest elephants. But immediately beneath the surface of his work is a process that provides yet another blur in the distinction between art and science. More than fifteen years ago, David turned his attention to the soundscape of a tiny invertebrate roughly the size of a grain of rice—the invasive engraver bark beetle (Ips confusus) that was devastating the southwestern conifer forests on the hillsides outside of his New Mexico home. It began with his curiosity about the kinds of sounds these beetles might make as they ravage their way through the forest. David did not start out with the intention of producing rigorous scientific principles. His intent was, at least in part, to capture the songs in the destruction, almost as a sort of funeral march for the forest.

Dunn built customized vibration transducers assembled inexpensively from scavenged greeting cards and discarded appliances to create listening devices that he inserts between the outer bark and interior phloem where bark beetles attack and colonize (like most artists, he doesn’t have much of a budget and must get creative with his tools). His first discovery was nothing—the sounds produced by the beetles are generally not audible to the human ear or conventional air microphones. They are quiet in their conquest. This forced David to run his recordings through a laptop and then amplify them until they were audible and clear enough to follow. Like most artists, David doesn’t tire easily, and he kept up his beetle-mania with continuous observations for years that have now stretched into decades.

Dunn is an artist and makes no bones about it. The first of his beetle recordings, The Sound of Light in Trees, may not be sitting on top of the pop charts, but it is captivating in a weird way, particularly to biologists—and to him. He kept listening. Over the years, his meticulous and patient observations and recordings of engraver beetle behavior continued to grow into terabytes of sound recordings. And after a few years of patient listening, he began to see a pattern revealed in the songs and sounds composed by the marauding insects. Maybe the music of the beetles is telling us what they like and what they don’t, David mused, and in the process perhaps they are giving us some ideas as to how we might improve our overall relationship.

A half dozen years into the deepening dialogue between artist and beetle, David’s work caught the attention of Richard Hofstetter, a forest entomologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Hofstetter and his colleagues in the forestry department listened attentively to the circuitous symphony of bark beetle lives captured on David’s recordings and quickly realized this iconoclastic artist was truly on to something. They pushed him to explore ways to go deeper with the research, and the artist and the scientist united to find ways to stop the beetle’s destructive behavior. In 2017, they received a patent for a device that uses sound fields as a sonic weapon to disrupt the feeding, communication, reproduction, and other essential behaviors of the beetles. In their collaboration, the artist and the scientist may have brought us a solution to a previously unsolvable problem that was rapidly wiping out millions of acres of North American forest.

David was never surprised by this unexpected collaboration. “Artists can ask the pithy or embarrassing question that needs to be asked, or that quickly cuts across disciplines, or politics, without paying a professional price. All we ask from the scientists is that that they listen, and then join the conversation.”

Hara Woltz agrees. “For me, the most interesting aspects of these collaborations are the unexpected dialogs. And then, where that dialog might lead my own work and the science. The unanticipated germinations. I struggled for a very long time thinking that I had to decide to do one or the other, and in the same breath convincing myself that it wasn’t possible to do both simultaneously. I was wrong.” Hara now views herself as a visual artist whose scientific training feeds her artistic work. “Science is fully integrated into my work and deeply informs my responses as an artist.”

The work of Woltz and Dunn is exhilarating, but it only represents a fraction of the rapidly growing alliances between artists and scientists. We will and should see much more of this, especially as we accept that our relationship with nature is deeply personal and requires stories that resonate with every realm of our body and mind. Yes, the work of artists is essential to increasing public awareness and environmental education. Artists can bring attention to the plight of our natural world more quickly and with greater profundity for a lay audience than most scientific announcements. We need more of this, and we are getting it. There are art galleries devoted entirely to photography, paintings, and other fine arts that are focused on interpreting and evaluating human relationships with nature. We now have conservation scientists as action heroes in films. The streets in our cities are filled with murals, posters, and sculptures that remind us to pay attention to earth beneath our feet. This is now an essential element of our twenty-first century, and we need to hear this story daily. It must become part of the mainstream background, and our artists are getting us there with their gifted arrangements of color, texture, sound, and light.

But the work of artists goes deeper than simply “messaging.” The arts can bring people to the sciences, and artists can serve as the impetus and origination of critical scientific thinking. And the two realms never need to be in conflict. Practitioners like Woltz and Dunn are showing us where science needs to go, and how our unraveling of nature’s stories can get so intertwined that the art and science cannot be easily separated. Artists taking risks and being good observational naturalists can give direction to rigorous field science. They can also help interpret and provide meaning for the results of science, which then makes this an interesting team effort. Many more artists may be inspired to join these efforts if we invite them on our journey. The message to practicing field scientists is very clear. Invite an artist on your next field trip to a coastal wetland, forest inventory, or coral reef survey. Better yet, put one on your project team. You might be intrigued by the results.

  • Jim Tolisano

    Jim Tolisano is a conservation biologist, writer, and New York University professor. He recently completed a memoir, Beginner’s Map, and is now completing work on a new book exploring nature conservation in practice.

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