"Learning music through trees, and forests through music."
Developed by composer Nick Roth in association with the Arts Council of Ireland, The Ark A Cultural Centre for Children, the California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Little Woodland Heights is an interactive work for children exploring the world of forest canopy ecology and the function of music as translative epistemology.
The research phase of the project was conducted in residency at the California Academy of Sciences, where the project was presented to the scientific community at a Forest Solutions Summit on 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), with the second pilot phase realised at the Irish Museum for Modern Art on October 22nd 2015.
The work is an immersive educational environment that explores elements of ecology, botany, phyllotaxis and anthropology, employing sonic and visual information as translative epistemological devices for mapping scientific data into embodied languages intuitively accessible for primary-age students.
Eduardo Kohn proposes in 'How Forests Think' 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...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 "timid and green advance" 3 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.” 4 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.” 5
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 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. ” 6
1 Eduardo Kohn. University of California Press (2013). How Forests Think.
2 Hiroaki T. Ishii, Robert Van Pelt, Geoffrey G. Parker, Nalini M. Nadkarni. Elsevier Press (2004). Age-Related Development of Canopy Structure and Its Ecological Functions. Forest Canopies, Second Edition
3 Michel Serres. The University of Michigan Press (1995). Genesis
4 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. Science (2014). The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection.
5 Timothy Morton. Harvard University Press (2010). The Ecological Thought.
6 Margaret D. Lowman, H. Bruce Rinker. Elsevier Press (2004). Introduction. Forest Canopies, Second Edition.