Michigan Researcher Lissy Goralnik Explores the Connections
Agate is excited to share a conversation with Dr. Lissy Goralnik, assistant professor of environmental studies and community engagement in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. In her published research and ongoing investigations, Goralnik explores the value and effectiveness of creative collaborations between the arts, humanities and science. In particular, she has focused on outcomes of such collaborations occurring at sites within the National Science Foundation-funded Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. The study referred to in this discussion was detailed in a 2017 paper published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, titled “Arts and humanities inquiry in the Long-Term Ecological Research Network: empathy, relationships, and interdisciplinary collaborations.”*
Agate: Your study focused on the value of arts and humanities inquiry (such as painting, photography, literary prose) occurring on sites associated with the Long-Term Ecological Research Network—sites across the country established for the primary purpose of field-based scientific research. One of the values in such collaborations, you note, is their potential to “cultivate inspiration and empathy for the natural world.” What do you mean by empathy in the context of the natural environment?
Goralnik: Empathy is a type of relationship, one based both on knowledge about and caring for, therefore it involves both cognitive and emotional engagement. It requires deep attention and curiosity, a willingness to set aside one’s own agenda in the act of listening. And it is an entrance to an ethical relationship, demanding of us some kind of responsibility not to just care about but to consider the interests of the other. My colleagues Michael Nelson and John Vucetich describe it as: “A vivid knowledge-based imagination of another’s circumstance, situation, or perspective; a capacity that depends on objective, empirical knowledge…about the conditions and capacities of others.” In terms of the natural world, this suggests a blend of knowing and imagining, or a bridge between science and the humanities. We often limit conversations about ethics or relationships to human others, but we are absolutely in relationship with the natural world, and in ways that transcend utility. Science, the arts, and the humanities can all teach us about this relationship, and they can train us to focus our attention on the natural world and to listen. Perhaps bridging the disciplines can also give us permission to both know and feel at the same time, or to approach the relationship with wonder and attention.
Agate: You write of the connection between a sense of awe and a sense of moral obligation. Most people could describe their sense of moral obligation as it relates to human communities. How would you describe a moral obligation as it relates to nonhuman entities found in nature, such as populations of native plant or wildlife species, natural communities, or whole ecosystems?
Goralnik: To engage the natural world in moral relationship means simply to consider its interests in your decision making—either an individual animal, or a species, or a landscape. This doesn’t mean necessarily that the good of the place is on equal footing with the good of your child; it just recognizes that nonhuman beings and systems have interests and value beyond their usefulness for us. They are not just stuff. They are valuable in and of themselves. How we act to honor this value will depend on the situation and our moral framework.
Agate: You describe what is happening with artists at selected LTER sites as “creative arts in conversation with science in place.” What does that look like? How are the artists engaging with environmental science and scientists?
Goralnik: These collaborations are different across the sites, and different depending on the program or experience. For example, at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, where I have spent a lot of time, the artists- and writers-in residence might be greeted by a scientist upon arrival, or have regular informal interactions with a particular or a variety of scientists at the site during their two-week visit, especially if they visit in the warmer months when there is more active field research. They may also request to spend time with particular experts or arrange for different kinds of interactions. But they are not required to document this process of collaboration or to work specifically on Andrews-related pieces while in their residency.
Alternatively, some artists and scientists arrange their own collaborations in the site, like Leah Wilson, a visual artist, and Fred Swanson, an Andrews Forest scientist, have done. These two have been co-investigating the forest in a series of shared explorations and documenting their experience with reflective journals.
On the other hand, the artist-writer-scientist collaborations at the Bonanza Creek site in Fairbanks, Alaska are more structured, with lots of room for personal interaction beyond the program, as well. The program there is called In a Time of Change (ITOC) and it’s hosted by Mary Beth Leigh, a microbiologist at University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). A few years ago the program would facilitate artist and writer field trips to the Bonanza Creek LTER forest and other field sites, including one year to Denali National Park, where the artists and humanists would go on tours and have conversations with the scientists over several days. They were encouraged to follow up during the year for more information, deeper collaboration, or idea sharing, then after the year there was a gallery show that grew out of these interactions with scientists, each other, and place. Realizing the value of these interactions, the ITOC program has gone even further now, with longer-term experiences and deeper engagement, including a 5-day overnight field trip to a remote field station. The ITOC website explains: “Under the leadership of Leigh, artists met monthly for 16 months [for the Microbial Worlds project]. With Leigh and other scientists, they learned about microbiology through lectures, laboratory activities, and field trips to Toolik Field Station, Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest, and the UAF trails to learn about mushrooms and to view microbes frozen in ice on Smith Lake. Artists were also loaned microscopes in support of their independent research. The artists interacted with over 30 scientists through the course of the program, ranging from infectious disease microbiologists to ecosystem ecologists.”
There are lots of other models across the network. The shared characteristic across the programs is the investigation of place through multiple perspectives. There are probably lots of fruitful ways to explore these kinds of collaborations, and their sustainability and relevance for each site will differ according to site goals and resources. Over time, though, we’d love to be able to explain why and how different kinds of interactions across the disciplines, mediated by place relationships, allow for different kinds of wisdom, awareness, or understanding.
Agate: Are you suggesting that these collaborations engender empathy in ways that direct experiences in natural landscapes alone would not do: in the artist, the scientist, or those who later view the art?
Goralnik: Sometimes we need to be in place and just be. That, too, can teach us to attend to and observe, and many of us who spend a lot of time outside come to this academic work from a deep connection to the natural world, whether that be intuitive or experiential or sparked in some other way. But a more academic approach to place is also meaningful, and we have access to these deep knowledge traditions of focused attention that can teach us to see differently than we might in our pedestrian wanderings. This wisdom can be complementary to our own experiences or can put language to that sense we have that we are in relationship with the natural world. But yes, our work suggests that the process of collaboration between arts, humanities, and environmental science can catalyze empathy in new ways than we might otherwise have access to.
Agate: Your research also suggests that the work of artists in these settings can “spark awareness shifts that can enable pro-environmental behavior.” Can you offer examples of how engaging with the natural world through the arts in these settings has led to positive action related to environmental policy, land protection or conservation?
Goralnik: Without longitudinal studies of the impacts of these collaborations, we don’t know yet. But ethical shifts are drivers of action; indeed, ethical action is aligning one’s values with behavior, therefore as we start to identify the emergence of empathy, we are witnessing a door opening to pro-environmental behavior. With longer term engagements, and with more studies of these interactions, perhaps we will know something more concrete. But there are wonderful stories about these kinds of impacts, including the important role coffee table picture books played in Congress’s decision to pass the Wilderness Act and designate several National Parks. Wonder, awe, beauty woven with some knowledge about a place, or a critter, or an ecological system can be great motivators for awareness and action.
Agate: One of the respondents surveyed after viewing an Alaska exhibit by a collaborative of artists spoke of “the affection for natural processes seen and felt.” That’s an interesting word choice—affection. How would you interpret that comment?
Goralnik: I wouldn’t want to put words in a respondent’s mouth, so I don’t know what he/she intended in choosing that word. But from my perspective, our moral awareness of the natural world often arises from deep love of place, our most sacred form of relationship, which is often catalyzed by particular experiences or some other kind of contact with special places. When writing about place-based education in 1998, John Elder, an environmental education leader, wrote: “Love is where attentiveness to nature starts, and responsibility toward one’s home landscape is where it leads” (11). When I read this participant’s response, I hear John Elder. And it is a response that is deeply connected to their experience of the artwork. Rarely do people walk away from a science paper remarking on love or affection, even if they really enjoy the paper. But field experiences can spark this kind of emotional response, and art—and in this case, art and science together—can certainly catalyze all kinds of emotions, which is one of the really wonderful things about these kinds of collaborations. In the telling of science stories, the creation of beauty, the inquiry about responsibilities, the embrace of the historical perspective, these interdisciplinary collaborations can both open the door to emotion, and also educate about natural processes and relationships in the landscape.
Agate: These are challenging times for science in the public/political sphere. Do you think an infusion of art-inspired awe and empathy might have the potential to change the public discussion on environmental issues like climate change? Is it an especially important time for social scientists?
Goralnik: They are indeed challenging times for conversations involving science, and the creative work can open the door for engagement across audiences. I sure hope these kinds of collaborations can play a role in helping us discuss and address challenging socio-environmental issues in kind and productive ways. Getting folks to the table is a good start.
Agate: What’s next on the horizon related to this work?
Goralnik: It’s been really exciting to see science communities express real and consistent interest in this work, and I hope to see more of this. I participated in a well-attended panel at the Ecological Society of America national conference last year, and another one at the LTER All-Scientists Meeting a few weeks ago. There were wonderful creative contributions at the Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability meeting in Sweden in 2017. Arts, humanities, and environmental science collaborations are a regular focus at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences annual meeting and in their journal, where our paper was published (Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences). More of these conversations across different audiences will push this work in really interesting directions, and I’m excited to see where it goes.
I am also working on an ongoing project in the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest (a LTER site in the Oregon Cascades). We have created a digitally-interpreted field trip trail experience that blends place-based science, creative inquiry (from the artists and writers in residence in the forest), reflection, and both creative and meditative activities to explore the ways deep interdisciplinarity can impact a sense of place or care for the forest for middle and high school learners. There is a strong suggestion in the literature that both arts and humanities and also natural history learning can teach deep attention and observation skills in ways that foster creativity, engagement, and awe. Coupled with science learning, the idea is that this experience might cultivate an empathetic awareness of place. Our team started work on this in 2013; we piloted our curriculum in 2016 and started collecting data last year. Our recently graduated master’s student Sarah Kelly analyzed learning data from the trail and we are working on submitting this paper, about place relationships and care, this winter.
Personally, I’m starting a new project on community engaged art-making using plastic waste, a collaboration with a fine artist and a graphic designer here at MSU. This project will include students, community members, a public event and art installations, which creates lots of opportunities for engagement and dialogue. And our LTER group is working on some comparative research of an arts, humanities, and environmental science show, Microbial Worlds, across different audiences, which should help us better understand the kinds of relationships catalyzed by this work. Stay tuned!
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Lissy Goralnik is an assistant professor of environmental studies and community engagement in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. Her qualitative work bridges environmental ethics, experiential learning, and resilience thinking to explore human/nature relationships in conservation and sustainability contexts. She is particularly interested in individual and community wellbeing; arts, humanities, and environmental science collaborations; sense of place; and change agency. Find more on her ResearchGate page.
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*Arts and humanities inquiry in the Long-Term Ecological Research Network: empathy, relationships, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Lissy Goralnik, Michael Paul Nelson, Hannah Gosnell and Mary Beth Leigh, Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2017, vol. 7, issue 2, 361-373