Art at the forefront of the environmental crisis
“We are discipline jumpers,” says Cathy Fitzgerald of her work and the related work of her husband Martin Lyttle. It’s a fair warning for a conversation with the two that constantly crosses borders, from closed-cover forestry to arts education, from the climate crisis to meditation.
You could stick labels like “scientist,” “artist” and “activist,” then some on Fitzgerald and Lyttle, but no category would capture the range of their projects.
Fitzgerald says their multi-faceted approaches evolved more or less spontaneously. And she now believes that kind of a plural perspective is essential for all of us. “To deal with the challenges we face in our relationship with the environment, we need to tap into many ways of looking at the world. ”
She argues in particular that our society needs artists at the table as much as it does scientists, citizens and activists to face climate and biodiversity crises.
She also says that artists, and perhaps in particular funders like the Arts Council, need to radically change their perspectives and practices.
This is why she calls her work “eco-social artistic practice”: it merges environmental and social concerns with artistic creation.
Sustainability is classically described as supported by “three pillars”, requiring an economic, environmental and social contribution to function.
Fitzgerald thinks that one of the reasons sustainability is often preached but seldom practiced is that we didn’t engage in it in our imaginations. Culture, she says, is the missing fourth pillar.
The project that brings together all the concerns of the couple is, literally, at their doorstep. Hollywood Forest at Co Carlow is a 1980s Sitka Spruce plantation that they converted to mixedwood forest for over a decade. It is a source of both high quality wood and inspiration for the couple and their vast network of collaborators. It is both a work of art in itself, and the object of many works.
It’s also the living subject of Fitzgerald’s highly atypical doctoral thesis, which in turn spawned his kaleidoscopic e-book, The Hollywood Forest Story. This rich and provocative book examines the small forest from a dozen angles, through various lenses that frame global issues from local experience. It is available on iTunes at https://books.apple.com/ie/book/the-hollywood-forest-story/id1441958722.
There is a central question that Fitzgerald tries to answer in the images, videos and texts of the book but, most importantly, in his practical forestry work.
“If we step out of the gallery and turn to the chilling facts of Earth’s decline … the very real possibility that humanity’s own survival in the 21st century may be in doubt, how do we as creative practitioners do this?” and moral members of society? ”
She is a New Zealander of Irish descent. Oddly enough, she grew up without much passion for either of the two worlds she now moves between and strives to bring together: the arts and environmental activism.
Instead, his great love was science. And when she graduated as a microbiologist, she studied the evolution of microbes on carcass meat as part of research devoted to improving the safety and quality of one of the major exports. from New Zealand.
She thinks, with hindsight, that the flowcharts on which she worked then may have triggered latent artistic instincts. She may also have been influenced by the watercolors, strangely premonitory of her own themes, painted by her grandmother, a pioneer wife in a remote river valley in New Zealand. Her grandmother portrayed not only the raging colors of the garden, but also the dismal desolation after clearcutting ancient forests.
Fitzgerald came to Ireland in the 1990s looking for lab work, but found no employment. Chance encounters led her to collaborate on the text and illustration of an award-winning calendar of rare trees and hedges for the influential environmental group of Jan Alexander Crann. She never looked back.
Alexander introduced him to Pro Silva, an organization that promotes closed canopy forestry. Instead of a clearcut, the wood is selectively mined, a much more sustainable method than the industrial plantation forestry so infamously familiar in our countryside, but still commercially viable.
She quickly joined Pro-Silva’s national committee as PRO and webmaster, a position that reflects her view that heavy use of social media is an essential skill for both artists and environmentalists.
She earned a basic degree in painting from the National College of Art and Design while writing forestry policy for the Green Party and working on Mary White’s election campaigns.
During this time she had met Lyttle, whose own career had followed an unusual course, evolving from the study of geology to forms of sculpture, using locally available stone, which frequently evoke vegetative forms. https://lithicworks.com/
They built a spacious log house and studio in the middle of a small Sitka plantation that had been planted by Little’s father in the early 1980s on the lower slopes of Mount Leinster near Borris.
Fitzgerald was looking for themes for a doctorate. She wanted to find ways to marry art theory with art practice, and link the two with the urgency of communicating the environmental crisis to a much larger audience. One afternoon, walking back through the dark, monocultural rows of evergreen trees around her house, she realized that she had the perfect study site right on her doorstep.
So began an odyssey where she and Lyttle, along with advisers from Pro Silva, professional foresters and volunteers from the local community and beyond – she repeatedly emphasizes the collaborative nature of the work – became the creators of the multifaceted Hollywood Forest Story. .
HIGHS AND LOWS OF A WALK IN THE WOODS
A walk in the woods with Fitzgerald and Lyttle is both uplifting and painful. Their vision of making the forest richer in biodiversity, while still extracting timber, confronted them with the painful challenges of doing environmental work in the shadow of a rapidly changing climate.
They practice forestry “close to nature”, not ecological restoration. So while they are thinning the Sitka spruce, they are not removing them completely. And if some of the species they plant (or which spontaneously regenerate) are indigenous, others are exotics chosen for the quality of their wood or for aesthetic reasons.
As they extracted part of the spruce, the interstices in the canopy acted, in Lyttle’s words, like “chimneys of light” to raise a rich crop of young ash trees. The seeds had been dormant in the seedbed for decades. Dozens and dozens of them shot skyward. A native tree was coming back without any planting.
They were delighted, but their optimism was short-lived. The rapidly spreading plague of ash dieback reached Hollywood a few years later, and it now seems unlikely that any of the saplings will reach maturity.
Still, other species they have planted are doing well. Remarkably, native yew seedlings, possibly transplanted by birds from a local cemetery, appear through the forest floor. However, other climate-related issues, such as an aphid infestation and storms strong enough to cause many trees to roll and destabilize the earth with their roots, are very evident.
Fitzgerald talks about the need for “psychosocial support systems” like meditation to help people cope with the complex challenges that all environmental recovery efforts involve in our time of climate change.
“We have to look at the darkness together without sinking,” she said.
It sounds like a good definition of one of the roles that the arts, at their best, have always had in human society, and a role that she says we need to reclaim.