A Unique Collaboration

Mary Ellen Newport
December 5, 2017

Interlochen Arts Academy (IAA), nestled between Duck Lake to the east and Green Lake to the west, is an Ecology teacher's dream. "In the stately pines" of northern Michigan, IAA educates high school arts students from around the USA and the world. With a full academic and boarding school program, arts students can dive into their disciplines with the finest teachers and peers. I came to the Academy six years ago to head the R.B. Annis Math and Science Division, and to teach Ecology. Through a wonderful series of connections, Wilsonart approached us about a collaboration that will weave their commitment to education about endangered woods and forests with a unique approach to art and ecology.

The collaboration is an answer to a problem: what to do about aging pine plantations on the outer reaches of the 1200-acre campus. These plantations have not been maintained for harvest, so they are beginning to fall of their own accord. Pine needles acidify the soil, making it challenging for native hardwood forest communities to re-establish. And as trees fall and decompose, they liberate all the carbon stored as carbon dioxide (CO2). A recent Forestry Management Plan suggests that the pine plantations could be better managed to capture stored carbon, increase forest community biodiversity and restore the forest soils.

Only at Interlochen Arts Academy, we can make art about restoration of a native forest! With funding from Wilsonart, an Ecology class and a Visual Arts class (taught by my colleague Johnny Hunt) will team up with visiting artists to create landscape art in a 10-acre parcel of red pine and Scotch pine. The science and arts classes will be taught at the same time, so that science students (who are also artists) can collaborate with visual arts students to create an installation that tells the complex story of native forests, managed forests and human endeavor. I can't tell you about the installation - students will design and construct the art over the course of the 2017-2018 school year!

This spring I piloted some of the techniques we will use in the 10-acre woods for the Wilsonart-sponsored project. In addition to guest artists, we will bring in botanists, foresters, soil biologists and invasive species experts to help us with the restoration and creativity process.

The scientific process and good data collection are important, but of equal importance to me as a lover of trees and birds and morels and mayflies is the relationship that students develope to native ecosystems. Young people won't love what they don't know, and they won't fight for what they don't love. Our field work is the way for students not just to believe that everything is interconnected, but to know it through their own experience, through all their senses. We've learned our tree names, bird songs and frog calls. We walk through the forest with intimacy when the "cheeseburger, cheeseburger" of the black-capped chickadee, or the "oh sweet Canada-Canada-Canada" of the white-throated sparrow. There is noting like the smell of a newly felled pine, and the challenge of counting the rings to establish the age of the forest. Students smell the difference between the rich humus under the hardwoods and the sterile sand under the pines. As high school students, they can't always appreciate in the moment how amazing it is to hike through the pine plantation to an on-campus pond to find a pair of loons and young trumpeter swans feeding.

Likewise, that wide-openess will be part of a project to create, synthesize and install art in the woods as the transformation from plantation to natural forest is taking place. While guest artists will come to guide, inspire and provide feedback on what is possible, students will be the ones dreaming and creating art in the woods.

We are looking forward to the 2017-2018 school year and will be posting regularly about the students' experiences and the ongoing transformation of our beautiful red pine forest. In the coming months, also look for videos that will chronicle our progress.

This project was generously supported by Wilsonart and The Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs