Forest Music in the Halls of Science

For two years, from 2008 until 2010, I worked as the Aboriginal initiatives manager in the Forest Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia. Forests equally inspire both hemispheres of our brains. However, the halls of academia are typically imbalanced toward the tangible and technological, rather than the ‘mere’ meditative or musical. The forestry textbooks begin their introductions with the statement “forestry is both and art and a science”. I found this statement intriguing and I always searched in the table of contents to find the sections and chapters devoted to the art in forestry. But there were none. Later, when I asked for more clarification about these art-references in forestry textbooks, the foresters I asked just smiled and said they didn’t know. The practice of forestry ‘was allowed’ to be called an art in the introductions to old forestry textbooks. And forest scientists allowed themselves to be ‘a bit kooky’ at times. But this was the extent of really involving themselves in the art of forestry. Fine arts and forestry performances was for children or passionate environmentalists – it was not in the calculations of the men and women of science.

I thought it would be quite easy to define an introductory course in the fine art of forestry simply by making the sketching of trees and shrubs, for species identification, a required course. How we could have engaged both hemispheres of our brains then! Or we could have made hand-built clay sculptures of old growth tree stems. Or, we might have learned and sung the forest songs of the Musqueam First Nations on whose lands the University now occupied. What conversations and designs about the integrated uses of forests, for wildlife, fisheries we could have created with the Musqueam! But this was not to be. The beauty in the art in tending the forests and forest uses was acknowledged to be somehow important; but these intangible (non-economic) benefits of spiritual rejuvenation, protecting wildlife and acquatic ecosystems, and the integration of ‘all our relations’ in healthy forest ecosystems was mostly ignored. Of course this is not surprising because until the 1980s in British Columbia at least, forestry was considered to be primarily an engineering and economic ‘science’ applied for the liquidation of old growth forests. With reforestation still a poorly enforced industry requirement, all that is growing back in BC forests is by the grace of nature. It wasn’t until the 1990s that forest ecology was accepted as a required course in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of BC. The study and appreciation of all the relationships between biodiversity, trees, people was counter to the project of liquidating old growth forests.

From my music background and from my work with the Northern Secwepemc peoples I knew the importance of whole forests for maintaining our spiritual wellness and integrity and the interactions of all forest components. Every important discussion about forest uses in Northern Secwepemc territories began with a song and prayer. A walk through the forest with an elder felt to me like a walking meditation, while engaged in a systematic discussion about acceptable uses. Sadly, all of the forest scientists that we walked with in Northern Secwepemc territory were not well-schooled in this art of engagement with whole communities and forests. But things are changing. Persistence and a more systemic understanding of the art of forest stewardship is beginning to be taught and learned in the Forest Science Centre at UBC. But systems thinking falls short of systems doing and being. And so the students have little or no direction in the fine arts of engaging their body-mind and spirit in their work. Learning how to be conscious of our communication, technique and rhetoric- a skill that is fundamental in fine and performing arts, is still missing in forestry; but we are learning it as we begin our reconciliation with First Nations.

I loved to volunteer at community gatherings at the First Nations House of Learning at the University of British Columbia. Cooking and setting up chairs at community events was one way I could engage with students and to discuss Aboriginal community initiatives. And later, when it became known about my music skill at piano and singing I was encouraged by organizers to ‘warm up the crowd’, at larger community gatherings and celebrations. Despite the ongoing colonial history of forest management in British Columbia, it felt good to be both a musician and a forestry representative at the UBC First Nations community gatherings. With our combined music and through our hopeful discussions, came a measure of reconciliation.

I realized that nothing prevented me from playing my flute in the atrium hall of the Forest Science Centre. Although the fine art of forestry is undefined and unsupported it can with some moderation, still be practised. The acoustic space of the atrium with its high ceiling and tall laminate pillars is a model of an open forest. The flute sounded haunting and ethereal. It was not intrusive or imposing at all. Soon, some of the ‘forest’ dwellers (students, staff and some faculty) emerged on to their ‘perches’ of the surrounding balconies and began to smile fondly at the tacit meaning of this ‘forest’ music). Here we discovered that the intangible becomes tangible; but only as quiet gifts and through awareness and practise.