A Wilderness Science and Art Collaboration

Aldo & Leonardo, a partnership between Colorado Art Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The project is inspired by the scientific wisdom of Aldo Leopold and the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Our endeavor is an interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and scientists designed to celebrate the lands, resources and opportunities protected by the Wilderness Act. In 2013, we are hosting one-month residencies in six diverse wilderness areas. Artists will work alongside wildland research scientists and gain firsthand knowledge of the wonders, complexities and challenges of our nation's wildest places. The result will be a body of work that creatively illustrates the value of wild areas and honors the scientific efforts to preserve wilderness for the next fifty years.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An Interview with Dr. Ariel Lugo ~ El Toro Wilderness (March 1-30, 2013)

Artists & Scientists Speak the Same Language 
By: Ryan Mudgett

Ariel E. Lugo, director of the Forest Service’s International Institute of  Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico.Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

 In El Toro, Ariel Lugo director of the Forest Service's International institute of Tropical Diversity, and board member of the Society for Ecological Restoration, noted from his experience that the highlight of the month was the changing perception between artists and scientist.

Q: Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

A.L. One intersection that was interesting to discuss with the artists was complexity. I have a lot of respect for artists because they are similar to scientists in the sense we are both creative people and are both trying to tackle complex situations while constantly trying to interpret them through some type of model. The models of course are different but the objectives are the same. I think there is a natural affinity there. So I was curious to find out how they would react to the complexity of a tropical rain forest and what kinds of insights they would have. 

Q: What was the highlight of the month?

A.L.  I took artists on field trips outside the wilderness to see other types of wilderness. My role was to interact with them over the weekend. I participated in the synthesis and introductory parts of the program. 

The highlight for me in the interaction was the perceptions that the artist had about the complexity of nature. I found out quickly in my interactions with them, that we spoke the same language. We both deal with complexity and we are both sensitive to complexity. Another interesting thing is we are equally interested in how humans interact with natural systems. That part really amazed me because we got into some heavy duty discussions about how nature and humans interact and develop novel, or new systems of nature. The depth of the discussions and the topics of the discussions were the highlight because for me, science is only for scientists, but to discover that the artists are  looking at the same phenomenon but from a different perspective was, ohhh, wow, how interesting.

"We are dealing with a living system and living systems change and always respond to our presence. "

Q: As a scientist do you feel like you influenced the artists?

A.L. First of all the artists inspired everyone at the Institute.  At the end when we had the summary which was done at the museum, I was in the audience listening to them, because at the beginning the scientists did most of the talking and then towards the end the artists did most of the talking. This was logical, because we introduced the wilderness towards the beginning and then during the closing stages they were telling us what they saw and interpreted.

When we had our final activity, we had all of our technicians as well as the scientists that had been out with them in the field throughout the month.  This activity gave us all two minutes to say something and I was really taken back by our technicians. They were very expressive of what the experience had done to them to the point that one of our technicians that had a lot of experience in the field and I’m talking in the order of 30 years.  She said that going out with the artists had been the highlight of her career.

That completely took me back and I said to her how can you say this? Were you overstating or what? Or was that really the way you felt? She said  that going out with the artists had been her highlight with the Forest Service. That impressed me because the person that I’m talking about is a very serious technician.

In the final activity I also realized the artist perception had changed because I don’t think we ever told this to them specifically, but they perceived that the Forest Service looks at things long term. They highlighted the importance of looking at things long term and they made a case for observing nature that way. That came out of them! We did not see that coming, it was their changed perception. So I am thinking to myself my god! They really found the heart of the research program and the Forest Service.The one thing that we all agreed within the agency is that our research is long term, this is what gives us value and the ability to understand forests. To have this group of strangers come to us and spend a month with us was truly an amazing thing. But to notice that they came out with a strong ethic of how important the long term is was absolutely remarkable.This really flabbergasted me and then to top it all, after the artists realized what the residency had done to them, they proceeded to ask the scientists how they felt about repetition.

Artists question scientists: "You guys, every week for the last month and year go out and visit the same place to do the same thing. how do you feel about the repetitive nature of your actions do you still have the wonder?"

A.L. - Of course our technicians, who are the ones that actually have to go the woods to the same place every single week, were then able to express that each time they find ways to entertain themselves in the woods.  Each time the forest becomes a new experience just by looking at them differently or by concentrating on a particular part of it so that it maintains the freshness of the first experience.It is never old for us to go to a litter basket, or data collection station, or a river reach. It is always wonderful for us even though we do it every week for the duration of our careers.

I would say that it was a very moving experience for me because I had never thought that our job would ever be visualized by anyone that would think that our work is boring because we are always doing the same thing. In reality we are not because we are dealing with a living system and living systems change and always respond to our presence.  So no matter how many times we visit we still have that sense of wonder that our eyes were capturing for the first time.

The artists, for example, all these artists, their style is to use whatever nature gives them to do their thing, and document their art and leave it behind. For example they were experimenting with pigments that they found in the woods or certain substances and their interpretations became something I have never seen before.  They looked at the forest from different angles and they did wonderful things to highlight parts of our job that we do as routine yet never pay attention to.

So all of that was part of the magic of the month. For the artists it was their first time in our wilderness, for us we rediscovered what we did through their eyes. It was fantastic; everybody here in Puerto Rico was uplifted by the experience.

Q: What was the most absurd situation you experienced at the El Toro Wilderness?

A.L. Well I told the artists that they made me feel stupid because you go out with the artists and they start asking you questions that you can’t answer. They ask you questions like, what is this, what is that? 

There was one woman that I took into the forest, and she asked me so many questions that I couldn't answer, because when you look at a complex system for the first time your eyes, they are looking at everything!  So she would point out to a color, or to a substrate, or an object and ask a question for each thing.  As a trained scientist when you don’t know the answer you have to say I don’t know because we don’t try to speculate. Personally, I am not a super naturalist, I am a systems ecologist. I am looking at the forest and I see functions in a visual process, and as the artists they are confronting you with the pieces of the forests.  So to me I felt dim-witted because I could not answer a lot of the questions that they were posing to me. It was an unusual situation because you always think that you are in control and when they start barraging you with questions that you can’t answer, it can really throw you off. 

Q: What was the most beneficial outcome of your experience?

A.L.  It’s the bliss thing that takes place. Everybody at the Institute felt better about what they do because of the interactions. But what I really treasure is that I made new friends. For example I now have some way to work with these artists here in Puerto Rico and we have the contacts of the people that are outside of Puerto Rico. So basically you have created new colleagues, and new people that are interested in what you do.  This new communication flow is important for the future of all of our emerging goals.


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  2. Really nice post

    Thanks for posting

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