I just returned from five days in the forests of upstate Michigan at the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. Au Sable is a residential field study program for under graduate and graduate students studying field biology, environmental studies and earth care. They do this around the world: in the Great Lakes forest of northern Michigan, the Puget Sound in the Pacific North west, the Everglades in south Florida, the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, and in the lowlands and mountains of South India.
Dr. John Wood, a stream biologist, urban environmentalist and interdisciplinary scholar, invited me to present to their Academic Council. The Council consists of biologists, geologists, and chemists that are affiliated with universities a and colleges around the United States and Canada. After some thirty years of specializing in biology based environmental studies they are exploring interdisciplinary relationships starting with the visual arts.
I was invited to present my work and to talk about contemporary visual artists that are working with issues that pertain to environmental stewardship, either directly or indirectly. We looked at the work of Fred Tomasellis, Terry Winters, Leslie Shows, Kim Stringfellow, Janine Haard, Joel Sternfeld to name a few, and of course, Andy Goldsworthy. I also talked about the historical development of Western concepts of nature, landscape and the human occupation. We looked at the relationship of the prevailing narratives of science, religion, commerce and the arts and how they work to define our idea of landscape.
Art Making. After the slide lecture and discussion I sent the scientists out into the landscape with a visual assignment. I assigned two words to the group and asked them to photograph the landscape in response to these words: Sacred and Profane. In the process of defining these words we talked about Emile Durkheim's definition of the Sacred and the Profane. We contrasted this definition to the way that Christ casts these words in the New Testament Gospel texts.
The group had two hours to photograph. They returned and I had two hours to sort through their images, select and arrange them, put them together with Yo-Yo Ma's Appalachia Waltz. It was a simple exercise but rich in its implications. In it we have the visual insights of those who are deeply invested in the landscape. The result was a potent reminder of Annie Dillard's the lover and the knower.
The results of the time spent with this community of scientists proved to be rich and deeply rewarding. It appears to have amazing potential. We will be offering a visual arts course next May at the Puget Sound site.