Journal Club

Highlighting recently published papers selected by Academy members

Harvard Research Forest–Fertile soil for scientists and artists

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The Harvard Research Forest might not seem like the most obvious or attractive location for creating nature photography. The trees are wrapped in cables, shrubs enclosed in plastic, and unsightly pipes run from here to there. The forest, in Petersham, Massachusetts, has been a site of ongoing by research by Harvard students since 1907. It was precisely this complication in the landscape that made it intriguing to photographer John Hirsch. Hirsch photographed in the forest tracts (approximately five and a half square miles) from 2009-2012, creating the series And Again. Hirsch says that his photographic work has parallels in the work of the scientists: “Like the work that happens in the forest, this portfolio seeks to find a balance between description and intervention. Ranging from pure document to a more lyrical approach, this project embraces the descriptive power of details present while acknowledging the ineffable quality of time on place.” Overall, he says, “The images impose a set of visual hierarchies that diverge from the structure imposed on this place by scientists and replace it with another.  This project has much in common with those of the scientists: This work is about a desire to understand, describe and predict the evolutions of our surroundings while showing reverence for the possibility of sublime moments in a place.”

The tubes and plastic and cables may seem mysterious at first look, but once explained, they deepen our understanding–this is a forest measuring a forest. As Clarisse Hart, the outreach and development manager at the Harvard Forest explains, the tube-festooned hemlock tree in Hirsch’s photograph is next to one of the two 70 feet research towers, which measure how CO2 goes in and out of the forest. Every 30 minutes, on every day of the year, gas analyzers measure the carbon dioxide as it enters and exits the forest. Hart says the careful measurements have paid off, “More than 20 years of tower measurements at Harvard Forest show a 100-year-old oak forest can sequester more and more carbon as it ages—a result that goes against the longtime assumption that aging forests slow their rate of carbon storage. When carbon enters a forest as carbon dioxide, it is taken up by trees through photosynthesis and processed into tree trunks and leaves. The carbon remains there (sequestered) until those tree parts die and decompose into soil. Eventually, the soil itself decomposes back into carbon dioxide.” The forest-atmosphere exchange is one of many areas of research ongoing at the forest, including conservation, biodiversity, invasive species, soil, archeology, and watershed ecology.

When asked how the scientists might benefit from artists working in the forest, Hart says, “When it comes down to it, ecology is really just telling stories about a particular landscape at a certain time. John is doing long-term inquiry in Harvard Forest ecosystems just like our scientists are. We have one big hemlock forest that we know a lot about: we have mapped and measured every single tree that grows there, we’re measuring how the carbon cycles through the soil and air, and we look back in time, too–we know that a colonial farmer named John Sanderson used that area as a woodlot 300 years ago, and we know that hemlocks first emerged on the landscape 8,000 years ago. And we know that, unfortunately, a tiny invasive insect (the hemlock woolly adelgid) is probably going to destroy that hemlock forest over the next couple decades. But there is always more to say about an ecosystem. We are always looking to round out the story of that hemlock forest–and all our various ecosystems–with new perspectives. John’s work helps us do that, just as an ornithologist or microbiologist might. Some stories about the Harvard Forest landscape are published in scientific journals, others are published in frames on the wall.”

Categories: Ecology | Environmental Sciences | Plant Biology | Visual Science
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