Art at the frontline of the environmental crisis
The Hollywood Forest in Co Carlow is a source of quality timber and an inspiration for an artistic couple and their network of collaborators
Eco-social artist Cathy Fitzgerald in New Zealand’s Te Urewera forest. She argues that our society needs artists at the table as much as scientists, citizens and activists to cope with the climate and biodiversity crises. Photograph: Martin Lyttle
“We are discipline-jumpers,” Cathy Fitzgerald says of her work, and the related work of her husband Martin Lyttle. It’s a fair warning for a conversation with both of them that constantly leaps boundaries, from closed-cover forestry to art education, from the climate crisis to meditation.
You could stick labels like “scientist”, “artist” and “activist” and then some on both Fitzgerald and Lyttle, but no single category would capture the range of their projects.
Fitzgerald says their multifaceted approaches have evolved more or less spontaneously. And she now believes this kind of plural perspective is essential for all of us. “To confront the challenges facing us in our relationship with the environment we need to harness many ways of looking at the world.”
She argues in particular that our society needs artists at the table as much as scientists, citizens and activists to cope with the climate and biodiversity crises.
She also says that artists, and perhaps particularly funders like the Arts Council, need to radically change their perspectives and practice.
This is why she calls her work “eco-social art practice”: it fuses environmental and social concerns with artistic creation.
Sustainability is conventionally described as supported by ‘three pillars’, needing economic, environmental and social input if it is to work.
Fitzgerald believes that one of the reasons sustainability is often preached but rarely practised is because we have not engaged with it in our imaginations. Culture, she says, is the missing fourth pillar.
The project that brings all the couple’s concerns together is, literally, on their doorstep. The Hollywood Forest in Co Carlow is a 1980s Sitka spruce plantation that they have been converting into a mixed woodland for more than a decade. It is a source both of high-quality timber and of inspiration for the couple and their extensive network of collaborators. It’s both an artwork in progress in itself, and the object of many artworks.
It’s also the living subject of Fitzgerald’s very untypical PhD thesis, which in turn spawned her kaleidoscopic eBook, The Hollywood Forest Story. This rich, provocative book looks at the small woodland from a dozen angles, through diverse lenses that scope out 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 book’s images, videos and texts but, above all, in her hands-on forest work.
“If we step outside the gallery and turn to face the frightening facts of the Earth’s decline…the very real possibility that humanity’s own survival in the 21st century may be in doubt, how as creative practitioners and moral members of society do we proceed?”
She is a New Zealander, of Irish ancestry. Curiously, she grew up with no great passion for either two of the worlds she now moves between and strives to bring together: the arts and environmental activism.
Instead her great love was science. And when she qualified as a microbiologist she studied the evolution of microbes on carcass meat in research dedicated to improving the safety and quality of one of New Zealand’s key exports.
She thinks, in retrospect, that the flow charts she worked on then may have triggered latent artistic instincts. She may also have been influenced by the watercolours, oddly prescient of her own themes, painted by her grandmother, a pioneer wife in a remote New Zealand river valley. Her grandmother depicted not only riotous garden colours but also the bleak desolation after ancient forests had been clear-felled.
Fitzgerald came to Ireland in the 1990s looking for laboratory work, but found no job. Chance encounters led her to collaborate on the text and illustration for an award-winning rare trees and hedgerow calendar for Jan Alexander’s influential environmental group Crann. She has never looked back.
Alexander introduced her to Pro Silva, an organisation that promotes closed-cover forestry. Instead of clear-felling, timber is extracted selectively, a much more sustainable method than the industrial plantation forestry so grimly familiar in our countryside, but still commercially viable.
She soon joined Pro-Silva’s national committee as PRO and webmaster, a position that her reflects her view that intense use of social media is an essential skill for both artists and environmentalists.
She took a basic degree in painting at the National College of Art and Design while drafting forestry policy for the Green Party and working on Mary White’s election campaigns.
Meanwhile, she had met Lyttle, whose own career had followed an unusual route, evolving from the study of geology to forms of sculpture, using locally available stone, that frequently evoke vegetative forms. https://lithicworks.com/
They built a spacious wooden house and studio in the midst 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 casting around for themes for a PhD. She wanted to find ways of marrying art theory to art practice, and linking both to the urgency of communicating the environmental crisis to a much broader public. One afternoon, returning through the dark, monocultural rows of conifers around her home, it struck her that she had the ideal study site right on her doorstep.
So began an odyssey where she and Lyttle, together with advisers from Pro Silva, professional foresters, and volunteers from both the local community and much further afield – she repeatedly stresses the collaborative nature of the work – became the creators of the multifaceted Hollywood Forest Story.
UPS AND DOWNS OF A WALK IN THE WOODS
A walk in the woods with Fitzgerald and Lyttle is both uplifting and distressing. Their vision of making the forest more biodiverse, while still extracting timber, has brought them face to face with the painful challenges of doing environmental work under the shadow of rapidly changing climate.
They are practising “close to nature” forestry, not ecological restoration. So while they are thinning the Sitka spruce they are not removing them altogether. And while some of the species they plant (or which regenerate spontaneously) are native, others are exotics chosen for their timber quality or for aesthetic reasons.
As they extracted some of the spruce the gaps in the canopy acted, in Lyttle’s words, like “chimneys of light” to draw up a rich crop of ash saplings. Seeds had lain dormant in the seed bed for decades. Dozens and dozens of them shot skywards. A native tree was returning without any planting at all.
They were delighted, but their optimism was short-lived. The rapidly spreading plague of ash die-back reached Hollywood just years later, and it now seems unlikely that any of the saplings will ever mature.
Yet other species they have planted are doing well. Remarkably, seedlings of native yew, possibly transplanted by birds from a local cemetery, are popping up across the forest floor. However, other climate-related problems, like an aphid infestation, and storms strong enough to cause many trees to churn and destabilise the earth with their roots, are very evident.
Fitzgerald speaks of the need for “psycho-social support systems” like meditation to help people cope with encountering the complex challenges all efforts at environmental recovery entail in our climate-change era.
“We need to look at the darkness together without going under,” she says.
That’s sounds like a good definition of one of the roles the arts, at their best, have always had in human society, and one she says we need to reclaim.