To Understand a Tree is a multi-disciplinary project that focuses on the dignity of a living tree, its network of eco-systemic relationships, and the ubiquity of the material of wood in design and daily life. The project is hosted by the Arts Afield program at the MacLeish Field Station of Smith College, a 260-acre research site in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts (land of the Pocumtuc, Nipmuc, and Abenaki people), where I am an artist-in-residence.
The project connects material practice and object making to questions of forest ecology, climate change, and other-than-human relationships. My project and research collaborator, naturalist Kate Wellspring, and I have been working with an approximately 100-year old northern red oak tree and its immediate forest habitat since June 2019, observing, contemplating, and documenting the tree, the surrounding ecosystem, and other life forms at the site. Site-visits, presentations, and conversations with guest artists, ecologists, students, and many others have been an integral part of the project. Concurrently, I have been making sculptural and functional chairs from dead and downed trees, which were felled by storms or killed by invasive insects. I’m working in the traditional technique of “green woodworking,” which fosters intimate material knowledge through the use of simple hand tools and close engagement with the individual characteristics of each log. In the process, I work to center a biological understanding of the material as well as a structural one, contemplating and tracing the tree’s previous life history, as I shape its next phase as a chair.
As an artist who works with wood, my interest is in the ancient relationship between humans, trees, and forests, and how this relationship might be deepened and transformed in an era of climate crisis. I’ve undertaken extensive research and exploration of the forest ecology of the region, and the history and philosophy of human relationships to plants: the ethics of harvesting across cultures, including indigenous philosophies, rights-of-nature perspectives, and concepts of relationality with non-human life forms. I’m particularly indebted to the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. This research has moved me toward a consideration of the tree as an autonomous subject rather than simply an object, a fundamental shift in my thinking. This reflects a desire to move beyond the alienation and objectification inherent in the current system of extraction and sale of lumber, and toward a relationship of respect and reciprocity toward trees, forests, and other non-human life forms. Public and pedagogical engagements, central to the project from the beginning, allow me to enact a personal form of reciprocity with the forest, which has become important to my self-conception as a woodworker. Although the project embraces a slow and contemplative pace, it is underscored by the urgency of climate crisis and other threats to forests around the globe.