A wide, painted scene depicts a forest with mountains rising in the background, a small log cabin at right, and cows grazing in a clearing in the foreground.

Paper Buck, The Forest Is Its Own Archive (detail), 2020. © Paper Buck. Photo: Tom Little

In Dialogue: Paper Buck and Nicole Heller

The dialogue below comes from a discussion between Paper Buck and Nicole Heller, Associate Curator of Anthropocene Studies at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The conversation appears in the forthcoming catalogue for Counterpressures, the 83rd installment in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Forum series, published by Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. This excerpt has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nicole Heller: As I understood your work, you’re exploring constructed narratives about wilderness and conservation that have been shared through stories in your community, through the history of landscape paintings, and your own experience looking back on these stories. You found them to be untrue, and the art or the stories have covered up violent displacements of both indigenous peoples as well as the original forest. At the same time, the art and the stories serve to. . . they work to unify a community, right? They can bring people together around an idea or specific actions.

How is the social construction of art and science relevant today, and are we just in the process of creating new constructed images and stories of nature that serve current political projects?

Paper Buck: In the piece that I have at the Carnegie Museum—which is from a series that’s still in process, the Settlerocene series, and the piece is called The Forest Is Its Own Archive—in choosing the term “Settlerocene” for these works, what I was wanting to draw attention to is the role that settler colonialism has played in the construction of ideas of ecology, environmentalism, the Anthropocene, and in concepts that we associate with how we manage and think about ecological interrelationships.

A painted scene depicting a forest with mountains rising in the background, a small log cabin at right, and cows grazing in a clearing in the foreground hangs on a white wall.
Paper Buck, The Forest Is Its Own Archive, 2020. © Paper Buck. Photo: Tom Little

The project that I did was looking at the life of a forest I grew up beside, which is called the Cathedral Pines of Cornwall, Connecticut. It’s a forest that, across the 20th century, was spoken about as an old-growth forest. It was talked about as the largest old-growth forest in southern New England. But when a tornado hit that forest in 1989 and it became a forest ecology research site, forest ecologists and historians realized through their research that in fact the forest had been cleared during the initial settlement of the town.

That was significant to me because there was a lot of mythology and local lore and this sort of reverence for the New England pioneer and early American culture that was associated with this place. It’s called the Cathedral Pines. I think about that term, “cathedral,” becoming associated with forests in the early 19th century, when industrialization started to have a huge impact across the Northeast. At the time, you have the Hudson River School painters painting landscapes that appear to be idealized images. But in some of those cases, like in the case of Thomas Cole, he was actually moving further and further away from the Hudson River Valley, which was being completely clear-cut, dammed, deforested. He was painting these idealized landscapes to try to draw attention to concepts that associated wildness with patriotism.

At that time, we are literally, explicitly talking about a white settler nation. It’s not an inclusive nation. It is built on the exclusion of many people that are part of the populace from citizenship, from any sort of rights, and at the same time it’s aggrandizing the American landscape. So I was just really interested in the revealing of this myth: that this forest that my small town has connected to its sense of self and its identity as an early American, small, bucolic village, that it’s actually a total social construction. It’s interesting to me because it unveils the affect and the perpetual social impact of these mythologies.

In the foreground of a vast mountain landscape, men carrying dead game on sticks hoisted over their shoulders approach a cabin in a clearing where women and children work and play.
Thomas Cole, American, b. England, 1801–1848; The Hunter's Return, 1845, oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; 1983.156

I’ve been interested to connect with indigenous communities in the region that I’ve been studying, the sort of mid- or upper Housatonic Valley and Hudson River Valley, and the Schaghticoke Tribe is a tribe in that area. One of the satchems of the Schaghticoke First Nations is a man named HawkStorm, and he’s doing some interesting collaborations with agroforestry projects that are trying to create viable food ecosystems that are integrated with broader ecosystems and industrial farming. Even organic industrial farming still produces a form of land degradation, in that you’re not establishing complex systems of ecological interrelationships.

I think that it’s important to think about the ways in which we do have perspectives available from all human cultural histories, but in the United States particularly indigenous communities who are present here, conceptualizing human communities as part of the land and as part of the ecosystems.

NH: Have you had any experience where you’ve been able to reflect that back to scientists in Connecticut or to your community?

PB: I think I’ve mostly been learning from scientists at this point and then trying to put the ideas that I’m picking up from scientists in conversation with the ideas I’m picking up from community organizers and indigenous organizers.

The site that I was talking about, the Cathedral Pines, it did become a forest ecology study site. I’ve worked with a botanist named Peter Del Tredici. We did a hike through the Cathedral Pines on the 30th anniversary of the tornado of 1989, last summer. We were looking at the forest in terms of the forest’s succession process or regrowth process, looking at how [it] is changing as climatic conditions change. There’s a hiking trail that goes through it and I have hiked it many times regularly over the last 25 years. This forest, for most of the last 25 years, has been a mature, white pine forest where you’re seeing distant hilltops through the trees. Most of the foliage is crowning at the top. You have these long, tall trees, so you do get this sense of an open cathedral. But just a couple years ago some weather event happened and a couple of the large trees fell down, and a very quick-growing species called black birch just took the opportunity to come into the hillside and it completely filled this hilltop. Now it’s a sea of saplings.

I was just curious: what is happening that in the space of one year this old-growth ecosystem has completely changed its composition? We know that black birch species across New England are becoming a very dominant species. If you look back into the 19th-century documents of white pine forest growth in forests similar to this, they will always predict that oak will be the thing that will come in after you have a clearing of the white pine, and that’s because 150 years ago the climatic conditions made it so that oak was able to reproduce. But we see all across New England that oak species are not reproducing at the same rate, and these quick-growing black birch species are taking over. The interactions between different species are really complex.

Painted elements extend the details of a photograph of a tree trunk into a wider landscape.
Paper Buck, The Forest Is Its Own Archive (detail), 2020. © Paper Buck. Photo: Tom Little

NH: These complex dynamics. . . in ecology, we call what you’re talking about a state system shift. It can happen, like you said, with a disturbance event like a tornado or a fire, and then the new system that grows back is totally different, which can be very unsettling when you have a sense of place and who you are as a people is kind of wrapped up in the way the landscape looks.

People, indigenous people, their role in the landscape, their role as stewards of biodiversity, was completely ignored for a long time. When I learned ecological science in the ’90s, I learned that indigenous people basically had no effect on the ecosystems, which is absurd because we know now that all around the world different indigenous communities use practices to steward biodiversity and have been a key part of creating biodiversity. I think it’s essential to recognize that and enable more people to have a role in taking care of ecosystems today, because those same practices of stewardship can help maintain biodiversity in the face of climatic change and these other changes.

The conservation community has been slow to allow those partnerships. They’re doing really well now, but at first it was not intuitive. The conservation community was a bit like, “No, no; we know how to do this. We’re not really going to open up access or share the responsibility to care for these lands because we have our methods based in western science that don’t actually include a lot of stewardship.” So it’s been really interesting to see the way that indigenous communities are starting to be allowed to be at the table, starting to be able to bring their knowledge practices to bear on conservation, and how much the community is realizing that that’s really essential to resilience.

It’s this justice project at multiple levels, because it’s sharing power, recognizing the history of those relationships, and allowing people to express their culture, to have relationship[s] with the landscape, and that’s a part of how many people express who they are. I feel like this constellation of issues is actually the core. Remembering and relearning and inclusivity [are] a key part of it. It doesn’t address all of the issues, but it starts to address some of these issues.

Cows stand in a field that is surrounded by a forest.
Paper Buck, The Forest Is Its Own Archive (detail), 2020. © Paper Buck. Photo: Tom Little

PB: Absolutely. I think that indigenous justice and decolonial ideas, conversations, politics, are all starting to be received by broader sections of society. It’s interesting because at this point we’re realizing how critical it is to have a relationship to tending the ecosystems that we’re part of. Some scholars and activists avoid the use of the term “stewards” because it does still set up that kind of power relationship, so I’ve heard the idea of “tending” as one term that’s interesting to use because it’s the same term you might use to care for a loved one or a human, or it’s beyond a power relationship.

So much of this knowledge is critical to figuring out how to live in a way that’s actually attuned to the environments that we’re in. Settler logics tend to be very homogenizing and apply similar principles across very different situations. But at the same time, we have to be careful that we go beyond inclusion, to figuring out how to redistribute power relations, really taking seriously ideas of decolonization. We don’t want to just bring indigenous people to the table but then continue systems that disempower those nations. We really need this fundamental sea change in the entire process of conceiving of tending the land and who’s involved in imagining that.

NH: I like that, “tending” versus “stewardship.”

I hadn’t quite clearly thought of this before, but an art project like the work you’re doing could actually situate a dialogue and bring different people to the table—bring scientists in a community to the table, bring historians, indigenous communities, all kinds of people, and then allow them, together, to look at this constellation of issues and think more expansively; where the scientist isn’t being asked to bring facts to the table but instead look more deeply at how knowledge is built, what are the assumptions, what are the stories that we share or maybe don’t share. I think that’s a really neat way in which an artist can kind of help to build that alliance, because I agree that alliance is really critical. I hear this from people I work with in indigenous nations here in the United States. Communities tell me that they want to work more closely with scientists and they feel that there’s a real alliance there, but there’s a disconnect. There’s a chasm. There’s lack of trust. I think that art really has a real role, almost not as a broker, per se, but to help build alliances.

A figure with a rod slung over its shoulder approaches a cabin in a clearing at the foot of a mountain.
Paper Buck, The Forest Is Its Own Archive (detail), 2020. © Paper Buck. Photo: Tom Little

PB: Absolutely. My hope as an artist is to foster, to amplify social discourse and to amplify conversations happening within social movements for the audiences that I might be showing my work to. I have made some intentional efforts to try to situate my artwork in non-traditional art spaces as well as traditional art spaces.

The project that we’ve been discussing is primarily and initially conceived as an artist book publication. For me, writing and the research that informs the writing has been a really interesting way to bridge my interest in community organizing and an art practice because I am able to put these disparate elements in conversation through my own narration and storytelling, and draw from very diverse sources like historical archives as well as interviews with contemporary activists.

That’s my hope—that I can genuinely engage the full breadth of interests that seem relevant in a context and then, hopefully, be able to share that back with the world in a way that encourages other people to create that type of complex contemplation, decision-making, self-organization.

Additional Information

Counterpressures is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art until January 3, 2021.

Associated Artists of Pittsburgh would like to thank The Fine Foundation for supporting its role in the exhibition and catalogue.