Developed in association with the Arts Council of Ireland, The Ark A Cultural Centre for Children, California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Little Woodland Heights is an immersive educational environment that explores fundamental tenets of Ecology, Botany, Phyllotaxis and Anthropology, employing music and visual art as translative epistemological devices for mapping scientific data into embodied languages intuitively accessible for primary-age students.
The work is expressed in a facilitation pack, and is delivered in seven development sessions, a field trip and a final performance. Each project is led by a facilitator who works in close collaboration with the class teacher and classroom assistants. This incremental development of the piece provides a vehicle for the ensemble and facilitator to collaboratively evolve a process-based performative score. At the conclusion of the process, the performance takes lasts one hour, including time for introduction and discussion.
The project integrates a network of topics from the Sciences (forest canopy ecology, tree architecture, phyllotaxic pattern, anthropological studies) and the Arts (music composition, performance and literacy, sound art and the visual arts), developed specifically for children aged 8-9 years old (3rd Class in Irish primary schools system), with the structure providing mechanisms for developing complexity according to variable levels of input from the participants.
The research phase of the project was conducted in an artist residency at the California Academy of Sciences, where the project was presented to the scientific community at the first annual Forest Solutions Summit (January 22nd 2015). The first pilot programme was subsequently realised on the 27th April 2015 at The Ark, Dublin and the 28th April at Rathfarnham Educate Together National School (RETNS). The second phase optimised the work for delivery to average primary class sizes through deeper integration of the visual aspect of the programme, and including introductory workshops for 150 facilitators around Ireland as a pre-cursor to National-level training. The two-phase pilot scheme will reach completion at the Irish Museum for Modern Art on October 22nd 2015.
In ‘How Forests Think’, Eduardo Kohn states that “self-organizing dynamics are distinct from the physical processes from which they emerge and with which they are continuous, and within which they are nested.” ¹ In ecological terms then, “species composition and tree size distributions become more diverse with increasing stand age” and “with increasing age stochastic processes play increasingly important roles in creating structural complexity” ². In linguistic form, although beautiful, these ideas are prohibitively complex for primary curricula. Yet the practical lessons of forest canopy ecology offer many simple and easy to understand analogues that can demonstrate the natural logic of emergent pattern. Similarly, such forms find expression quite naturally in musical and artistic discourse – indeed the very structure of music making, or any making for that matter, is itself a clear expression of both self-organising dynamics and stochastic processes, to one conversant in these languages.
Little Woodland Heights provides a mechanism for learning about the living world through the translation of ecological, botanical, phyllotaxic and anthropological concepts into musical and visual languages. This translation process is child-centred and fosters meaningful personal relationships that provide for deeper engagement with the network of ideas embedded in the piece.
Through the translative process, the child learns core tenets of contemporary scientific thought through the development of important musical and visual fundamentals. This symbiotic bond is both a new and an old form of learning; to study tree architecture through rhythmic clave mapping, to explore phyllotaxic pattern through melodic frequency, or to conceive of ecosystems phenologically through formal structure are all ideas unique to the work. Yet to understand our world through careful study of its elements and their relationships, and for these to form a societal practise, is something inherently human.
Both Art and Science are learnt most efficiently, and pursued most keenly, when they provide an immediate social impact for their participants. Thus, collaborative STE(A)M projects provide epiphytic environmental hubs where the children may develop their skills and understanding of the world as a totality.
The way that we learn will become the way that we teach. If our primary aim is to provide the healthiest environment for the development of childhood learning to ensure that future generations are environmentally informed, have a deep sense of cultural vibrancy, and are capable of independent and direct engagement with the living world, then we must look to projects that drive the evolution of education in contemporary society in ways which address this array of themes simultaneously.
In our era of rapid development and global urbanisation, the world’s natural environments, resources and biospheres have become increasingly impacted by human activity. Scientists argue that “the overarching driver of species extinction is human population growth and increasing per capita consumption. How long these trends continue—where and at what rate—will dominate the scenarios of species extinction and challenge efforts to protect biodiversity.” ³ Ecologists seek to discover not only the impact of our actions on the planet, but also the driving forces behind these actions, leading ultimately to questions of a sociological or anthropological nature. In ‘The Ecological Thought’ Timothy Morton argues that “if there is an inevitable experiential dimension of ecology, there is an inevitable psychological dimension.” 4
Critically exploring the dual hypothesis that humans have the capacity to be a potentially destructive force to their own environment, whilst being simultaneously endowed with a unique capacity to understand, change and delineate their own internal decision-making process, the aim of this project is to provide a mechanism for children to experience enhanced ways of expressing the endlessly intricate patterns and forms in nature through translative languages that encourage meaningful and lasting social discourses and durable ethical frameworks.
The project posits the notion that music, and the wider arts, are equally valid ways of understanding the realm of information that the world presents us with; and in terms of child engagement, may prove complimentary to standard linguistic / numerical educational techniques as additional ways of developing and expressing understanding. In fact the Arts and Sciences, as a dual mechanism for understanding the world, are inseparable and symbiotic by nature. As such, the project positions itself within the STE(A)M movement.
In seeking to educate, empower and inform thousands of children, teachers, musicians and artists across Ireland on a national scale, this project attempts to make a difference that is not a mere drop in the ocean, but a rain falling after drought. By providing a network that enables and encourages children to form embodied relationships with aspects of the living world that we find in our own immediate environment, the work seeks to address new perspectives and priorities in the next generation and to inspire a behavioral shift towards more sustainable and deeply engaging ways of living in our world.
Perhaps the best summary of the project and its aims are found in the inspirational words of its scientific advisor, Dr. Meg Lowman – “Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of canopy research – all scientific research for that matter – to produce a sense of the vast and the infinite and to promote our sense of wonder, a curiosity that needs to be fed by experience to be longlived.” 5
¹ Kohn, E. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (2013). How Forests Think.
² Hiroaki T. Ishii, Robert Van Pelt, Geoffrey G. Parker, Nalini M. Nadkarni (2004). Age-Related Development of Canopy Structure and Its Ecological Functions. Forest Canopies, Second Edition
³ Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H.Raven, Callum M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton (2014). The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates ofExtinction, Distribution, and Protection. Science.
4 Morton, T. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2010). The Ecological Thought.
5 Margaret D. Lowman and H. Bruce Rinker (2004). Introduction. Forest Canopies, Second Edition.