Conversations with a mural

The Hubbard Brook Mural is a depiction of July – a month of illuminated American Beech leaves hanging golden over deep olive shadows, and second-brood Black-throated Blue Warblers projecting their songs across new territory lines. July, for many scientists, is a story half-told, the beginning of a familiar curve, a long-awaited meeting of colleagues. It’s only a brief snapshot from the kaleidoscope of life and color and sound that is the Hubbard Brook Valley, but to us, it’s a familiar scene. Familiarity – that’s why we chose this month. 

Our mural is just one part of an integrated art-science initiative that has been growing within the foundation for the past 10 years. The idea is that artists and scientists can catalyze environmental action through collaboration, employing reason, passion, and empathy to cover more ground in the race to combat irreversible environmental damage. Rational as we may be, we find meaning in nature that is larger than our own survival. To explore that feeling, we turn to art. 

During the creation of this mural, I thought a lot about the combination of art and science in achieving environmental goals. Before this summer, I considered the primary purpose of natural art to capture something ideal. Now, I see it as a means of ensuring an important conversation. Similarly, I always considered the creation and observation of art to be a solitary activity, but after this summer I liken it to the blazing and following of a trail. When you walk on this trail, you know it has been deliberately selected for the story it tells. 

The (short) story

When I arrived at Mirror Lake on the first of June, I expected to swiftly transfer the mural plans I’d designed while living in Ithaca onto the blank panels hanging in Headquarters. But I was blindsided by the incandessence of the valley, the stair-like brooks, and most of all the geology. It all stood in stark contrast with Ithaca’s steep, shadowed gorges, which had inadvertently influenced my design. I’d need to get acquainted with Hubbard Brook in person before even thinking of painting. 

If you’ve never before seen Hubbard Brook in springtime, know this: photos do not do the hues justice, liquid-fire patches of sunlight do not render accurately on pixelated screens. The overall phenomenology of the landscape cannot be felt with due force unless you are up to your ankles in mud, listening to the sweet trill of a blue-headed vireo, and having your blood drained gently by mosquitos. 

But you’ll be in awe, because of radiance, because of millions of leaves shifting and catching sun, because all around you there is a sense of surging and it surpasses language and numbers and vision alone. 

“In June, the forest is not quite ‘jungle’,” says Ian, long-time HBEF site manager, “but well on its way.” On our tour, Ian led me to idyllic viewpoints along the brooks, bushwhacking through unmarked trails he knows by heart.

That first weekend, I went out alone to find the places Ian showed me, hunting for inspiration. But I do not have Ian’s navigational skills or memory, so instead I drove my whiny old Subaru up the winding Hubbard Brook road, listening for the sound of trickling water. When I heard it, I pulled off the road, donned the equivalent of a beekeeper’s suit, and found the source of the noise: Paradise Brook. 

I climbed about two hundred meters down the center of the brook, photographing everything from miniscule lycophyte leaves to massive lichen-encrusted boulders. I stood in the water amidst amber rays cast across the reflections from a cathedral-like canopy. Later, I compiled my photos of identifying rock formations to create a watercolor study that would serve as the final guide for the Hubbard Brook mural. I wanted the angle of the painted brook to match the angle of the first flight of stairs in the Headquarters building as an illusion of perspective.

The bottom left boulders came first. 

Forests of moss sprouted on their backs, and strips of sun slipped between their cracks to cast tangerine rays across a dark pool. Into the pool seeped the blue of an invisible sky, the olive of an imaginary canopy, an American toad mid-croak. 

The vegetation was where things got tricky. That came in July. 

Leaves: living solar panels, tilting and breathing and fluttering and delightfully random. 

But they aren’t random, of course, not if you’re a botanist, and not if you lock your gaze on a washed-out branch in the forest and walk steadily towards it, forcing the smear of green to differentiate with structure and regularity. Being able to anticipate the paths of least resistance followed by water and roots and limbs vying for the sun is a holy grail in painting. To create some order in the chaos, I used repeating leaf shapes for the beech canopy and the hobblebush. Branches and trunks stemmed from the canopy to meet the earth below, and I used multiple deep olive washes to unify and deepen the furthest wall of foliage, and contrast with the illuminated central beech. 

In August, after the major landscape elements were in place, the male warbler appeared, and then the winter wren, just as I’d seen him trill beside the brook that very first week. Color bloomed within the wall of green: violet webcaps, a red-spotted newt, blue bead lily and the dawn and dusk of the fritillary and azure. 

Sunlight – the constant in the kaleidoscope, the final touch – that came in September. 

The (long) story

While painting our mural, I also had a lot of time to think about the role of art and science in human nature, particularly as expressions of creativity rather than as means to ends.

I used to worry that natural illustration would become obsolete as technology grew to be more precise, more consistent, less time-intensive than people. But as I’ve been reminded countless times as of late, representing the natural world with our own hands, our own minds, whether through art, writing, dance, poetry, or music has a value that goes beyond utility. The point is not (only) to create a perfect replica. It is to revel.

I met a talented young artist this summer who reminded me that art is a mood, a frame of mind, as much as it is a means to achieve a goal. I thought of the artists who influenced me – long-gone landscape artists like Peder Mork Monstead and Thomas Cole, but more importantly, those who I had the opportunity to meet and learn from. It is the human element of art that enriches the final product, the additional, immeasurable value of knowing the hands and hours and care that went into it. That is the point.  

Throughout all cultures, from ancient European bestiaries to Darwin’s careful sketches of finch beaks, from 19th century Hudson River School landscapes to time-lapse photography of the night sky, we crave to show others how we interpret the natural world through our lenses, tools of measurement, our eyes, our minds. This creativity, this delight in the beauty and complexity of our world, is human nature. 

I hope that the Hubbard Brook Mural serves as a reminder that the understanding and preservation of ecosystems is necessary for more than just survival, or climate reversal, although these are the most noble goals of an art-science initiative. In studying and protecting nature, the ultimate creative force, we protect our source of scientific and artistic curiosity, our creativity, our delight.  

Both artists and scientists are compelled by a love of the natural world to innovate, to design, to discover truth. May this mural witness many invigorating conversations, as it has for me. We artists and scientists have a lot to share.

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