How do we know how a forest lives and dies?

Pictures from the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest

How do we know how a forest lives and dies? I don’t know. I grew up in aspen and spruce forests in the Central Rockies and it wasn’t a question we asked. Forests just blew over or burned up. Dead logs were to build wikiup forts with. I was watching birds and worrying about nuclear war; hints of global warming were too terrifying to even whisper about. What we did ask: “Who lived here 100 years ago?” and, “Who keeps stealing Smokey the Bear?”

In the Cascades east of Springfield, Oregon a large tract of doug-fir, hemlock and cedar was set aside in 1948 to see what could be safely taken from the forest and what needed to remain in it. In the 1980’s, Oregon State University forestry professor Dr Mark Harmon went to work on the question of exactly how trees live and die and feed the forest (a 200-year study). The HJ Andrews Experimental Forest is now a massive ecological research project.

In 2015, Dr Harmon and Hester Coucke from the Arts Center in Corvallis, Oregon invited artists to tour the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest and produce work for an exhibition called Rot: The Afterlife of Trees. It ran January and February 2016 at the Arts Center, and will continue in March at Portland’s World Forestry Center.

I caught the tour in early September. After a very dry summer, the other artists, and one artist-spouse, Harry the Horse Logger, were suited up for rain. And it rained. I opened an umbrella and cinched it to my hip-strap so I could draw as we walked.

A very large old-growth doug-fir had fallen during the last winter. Everyone climbed up onto it and grabbed hold of Dr Harmon’s tape measure in 25 meter intervals.

Dr Harmon and guests measure the freshly fallen doug-fir.

Dr Harmon lectured and told stories as we moved from study log to study log. Many of the logs had been laid in place over 20 years ago and several had cookies cut out already. Standing by one very alive and parasitic stump, Dr Harmon explained the fabulous internal communication system of plants.

Deep plant anatomy

At another log, he broke down the basic differences between brown rot and white rot. He also mentioned that, millions of years ago, during the Carboniferous period, lignin-consuming fungi were not nearly as developed as now: weak fungus account for the massive layers of forests preserved into our earth-wrecking fossil fuels.

Brown Rot and White Rot

Apparently, early in Dr Harmon’s research, East Coast scientists didn’t feel their forests had anywhere near the vibrant morticulture of the Northwest. A simple walk in the Eastern woods showed Dr Harmon this was untrue, but, to allow his colleagues a confirmation of their beliefs, he doctored his initial photos.

Dr Harmon’s tales of messing with other scientists on the East Coast.

(yes, of course he showed them the real thing shortly afterwards.)

As our tour continued, Dr Harmon clarified how capillary action works in big trees. He spoke of the great variation in decay rates and nutrient release between different trees and even their individual layers.

Regarding sapwood

The research in the forest is ongoing. Large cookies are cut from the logs, set on boards, wrapped in plastic, then lugged, water and all, way back up the hill to the truck, then to the lab for pulverization and study. The researchers wore grommeted, oil-cloth vests to carry documents and gear.

Researchers Becky and Jay carefully wrap a cookie for extraction

Some experiments in the HJ Andrews forest are able to go for a very long time, others, just have to be attempted and abandoned.

What happened when they attempted to isolate study logs

And at the artist-palette fungi, I loved this bit:

Oh beautiful, adaptable fungi

Dr Harmon is cool, calm, funny: he is a scientist. And so when asked about global warming effects in the forest he keeps it clear that they don’t know yet what all will happen. What is noticeable so far is that systems are running earlier in than in the past. This might be alright if all the systems shift their schedules evenly, and together, and continue the syncronicity they’ve maintained for so long. However, there’s no reason to assume they will. It remains to be seen what happens in the forest if they go out of sync.

This is where it begins to get scary

We helped carry the big wood cookies back up the hill. Did I help? Maybe not, my hands were full already. I asked to stay behind a little longer and paint at the base of the giant fallen doug-fir.

I finished painting about the time researchers Becky and Jay ended their day and I followed them back out to the HQ.

Fresh Corpse, 8" x 10", oil on panel

Home in the studio, I drew from the site sketches and from my notebook figure sketches until correspondences began to fall into place. The abandoned soil test site with its corrugated roofing had immediately felt like a hideout or tunnel entrance. I had drawings of kids in the woods near Silver Falls making exactly the sort of expository gestures one does when one is creating whatever sort of game or cell or secret organization one is creating.

Every Cell Is Connected To Every Other Cell, 16" x 20", oil on linen

As for painting the big log itself, I went with a drawing of a horse at work; not because of Harry the Horse Logger, that was just a great (and forgotten) coincidence, but because the history of domesticated horses is one massive anchor on my concept of how we got to where we are now, and whether or not we are capable of dealing with it.

If They No Longer Correspond In Sync, 14" x 36", oil on linen
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