Braiding perspectives on the Tanana

Network News Fall 2008, Vol. 21 No. 2
Top Stories

Bonanza Creek's artist-scientist field trip brings "Reflections" to life

Seven scientists and seven artists spent a day together in late August 2008 exploring the Tanana River floodplain ecosystem at the Bonanza Creek LTER near Fairbanks, AK. Among the artists were a poet, two landscape painters, a photographer, textile artist, singer-songwriter/educator, and a dancer-choreographer.

They were accompanied by LTER plant, microbial, and ecosystem ecologists, and an Alaska Native graduate student who was studying Fairbanks surface water quality. The eclectic group's goal was to weave together observations on their connections to the local ecosystem and the impacts of climate change upon it.

It was a crisp, sunny late summer's day in interior Alaska when the group embarked down the braided Tanana River. Navigating the riffles and sand bars recently rearranged by the previous month's 100-year flood, the group observed the substantial reshaping of the shoreline and, in some instances, the incredible depth of new sediment deposition left behind. Alternating stands of alder, black spruce, white spruce, and bright golden birch drifted by on either shoreline.

At the first stop on a sandbar ecologists shared their knowledge of plant successional patterns and pointed out the pioneering willows on a possible trajectory toward tall white spruce on the opposite bank. In turn the artists asked a barrage of challenging questions and exchanged memories of landscape and vegetation change over years of family picnics, painting, and photography on the Tanana River.

After a riverside lunch, the artist-scientist group hiked on to a huge grassy meadow laid bare by a recent wildfire. The afternoon sun warmed the thick amber grasses, and gentle wind breezing through them created subtle music. We alternately stood, kneeled, sat, and lay in the grass basking in the sun, careful not to harm young pine seedlings planted in an experiment nearby

Waves of ecology, art, and native knowledge flowed through the conversation, converging upon a common concern: All of us observing with different tools but seeing the same thing--intense humman activity creating a rapidly changing climate. Could braiding together these diverse artistic and scientific perspectives communicate the possible consequences to the wider world? Perhaps multiple ways of seeing could enliven public curiosity and concern for the natural world and foster personal and policy decisions that promote sustainability.

The Tanana River field trip will lead to a public event that will integrate performing and visual arts and scientific presentations, as well as a dance piece developed by local Alaska Native middle school children. This was the second annual artist-scientist field trip held at Bonanza Creek. The first focused on climate change and wildfire and led to a unique free public event entitled, “In a Time of Change: A Performance by Writers, Artists and Scientists” in March, 2008. The event featured poetry readings, a play, original songs, visual art, and an original modern dance piece based on plant succession, rounded off with scientific presentations by LTER ecologists.

Mary Beth Leigh and Terry Chapin, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks