Trees on Their Own Terms

New research into forests at the Arboreal Inquiries Symposium.

By Zach Mortice

Forests are many things to many people—repositories of carbon, factories for our atmosphere, near-sentient biological networks, and totems of climate change salvation, to name a few recent claims. But how can we understand forests separately from the way humans see them? An online symposium later this month will present new scholarship and open-ended investigations into the life of forests, with rapid-fire presentations covering diverse topics under the broad canopy of trees as ecological and cultural subjects and actors. Issues will include the public value of forests, carbon sequestration, digital representations, and more. “Arboreal Inquiries Symposium: Recent Explorations in Forests + Design” will take place on March 31, 2022, starting at 9:00 a.m. CDT.

The symposium’s holistic approach to forests views them as assemblies of many types of living beings with their own agency. It’s an interesting way to “understand change and uncertainty,” says Jamie Vanucchi, a co-organizer and the director of landscape architecture undergraduate studies at Cornell University, as individual species in these complex matrices are vital indicators of anthropogenic evolution.

Organized by Vanucchi and Karen Lutsky, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, the symposium will consist of 11 short presentations, mostly by landscape architecture faculty. Each will present forests as venues for design inquiry, if not definitive action. The symposium will “seek to center exploration and questions as opposed to seeking design ‘answers’ or treating the forest as an issue to be ‘solved,’” Lutsky says.

Topics will include morphological questions of forest spaces and inquiry into forest materials. Presenter Aidan Ackerman, ASLA, of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, will examine how forests are represented in digital technology; Chad Manley and collaborator Daniel Irvine will explore forests in narrative.

Additional presenters include Nicholas Pevzner of the University of Pennsylvania; Paula Meijerink, ASLA, of the Ohio State University; Kamni Gill of the University of Manitoba; Nate Heavers, ASLA, of Virginia Tech; Suzanne Mathew of the Rhode Island School of Design; David Buckley Borden, ASLA, of the University of Oregon; and Emily Knox, ASLA, and David Hill, ASLA, of Auburn University.

With this exploration Lutsky and Vanucchi aim to illustrate that while forests do not exist separately from human impacts, direct management and active design intervention are not always called for. Forests, Lutsky says, are “not necessarily something we’re interested in acting upon, but something we’re interested in relating to.”

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