Decades of experience with the conflicts concerning management of forests of the Pacific Northwest, especially old growth, reveal that these societal issues cannot be addressed with science alone – at their core these are issues of personal values. Towering, ancient forests and the incredible complexity of ecosystems populated by thousands of species are sources of inspiration distinctive to each person. There are many ways of understanding the forest, communicating about it, and deciding how we should engage with it in the future.
The Andrews Forest LTER program has teamed for nearly a decade with the privately-endowed Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word to undertake a humanities counterpart for long-term ecological research — sustained, place-based inquiry concerning meaning and change in the forest. This is more than science journalism, it is basic inquiry by creative writers, philosophers, religious scholars in places where researchers conduct their basic and applied science. The LTER approach to place-based, field research has been a powerful model for engagement with the humanities; we call it Long-Term Ecological Reflections. A wonderful body of work is emerging — poems, essays, blog posting, photoessays displayed on the Andrews Forest webpage and in appropriate print and electronic media. More than 35 writers have been in residence at the Forest and we have held five, weekend “field symposia”, gatherings of ca. 20 accomplished thinkers from diverse fields to ponder issues such as the meaning of “watershed health” and the roles of arts and humanities in consideration of future scenarios of environmental change.
What have the writers discovered? We expected to hear awe and wonder at the beauty and complexity of the forest and streams; and this has been expressed in powerful ways. The writers also speak in terms uncommon in the vocabulary of science: the love of the place reflected in the many expressions of science underway (“each aluminum tag, magenta flag\each rope reaching into the canopy” Graham 2006); the humility and hope expressed in undertaking a study that will vastly outlive the scientist beginning it (Pyle 2004); the symbol (installation art?) of an experimental installation showing commitment to learning; the restorative personal energy one can find in how science honors death and cycling, such as in the form of a 200-year log decomposition experiment.
This bridging of science and humanities has been very stimulating and rewarding. Quite a few other LTER sites are engaging the humanities and arts both as forms of outreach and as basic, primary inquiry at their sites. Just as LTER has grown over thirty years into a large, vibrant community of scholars carrying out work that the founders of LTER could not have imagined; so, too, the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program is on its way to expressing profoundly important new terms of engagement with the natural world.