If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody? —John Muir
Just off of College Avenue in Somerville, Mass., a cheerful yellow barn houses a virtual indoor playground.
Inside, Christopher Frost sifts through proposals for various projects, each decorated with sketches and collages. Beneath the angular shadows of a plywood tree, its branches filled with undulating birdhouses, a slate etching of Thoreau looks out stoically across the studio. Frost hums through the guitar solo of “Hotel California” as he works.
Frost studied sculpture in Maine and Paris, but, really, he’s more of an experimenter. His art combines paint, wood, resin, light, and words. He takes found objects, from toys to branches, and turns them into his artistic inspiration. The results usually evoke thoughts of play.
“I don’t feel like I have a specific style, but people say there’s a common thread that runs through [my work],” the 50-year-old artist muses.
His work moves between boundaries, bringing the inside world outdoors and the outside in, drawing on natural narratives such as geography and botany. He describes his outdoor work as site-specific and incorporates the history and physical characteristics of the artwork’s intended location into his process.
“I don’t like my work to take away from its surroundings,” he says, his gray-blue eyes falling on a delicious row of red-topped, ceramic mushrooms he’s working on for a project near Walden Woods, in Concord, Mass. “They should work together and complement each other.”
Frost wanders downstairs to his workbench. He sifts through a seeming pile of rubble and pulls out three colorful rock forms. The rocks are made out of blue-dyed resin, cast from the forms of stones he found on the New England National Scenic Trail (NET), and embedded with LED lights. Each stone connected to a solar panel hidden in a tree near the trail, providing the power that kept the rocks glowing softly from dusk until dawn. Emblazoned on the rocks is a portion of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Mountains Stood in Haze:” “So soft upon the scene / The act of evening fell / We felt how neighborly a thing / Was the invisible.”
The rocks are the remains of Hespera Stones, a 2012 sculpture installation on the NET commissioned by Charles Tracy of the National Park Service. The stones were placed along the Holyoke Range, in Skinner State Park near Hadley, Mass. The installation remained onsite for a year, part of the NET’s Artist on the Trails program, which has featured the work of both artists-in-residence and commissioned artists. Frost says the goal for his project was subtlety—reflecting the words and emotions of Dickinson, who lived in nearby Amherst, in a physical object that blended in with its surroundings.
“I know hikers are hiking because they want to be out there to enjoy nature and be surrounded by that tranquility and vastness of nature, so I didn’t want to put something out there that seemed out of place, loud, and disrespectful,” he says. “I didn’t want to use a color that was so drastically unnatural in that setting. Blue is an all-around perfect, natural color but also would stand out.”
“I consider any pieces outside to be public,” says Frost, whose CV includes projects for Forest Hills Cemetery, in Boston; Bradley Palmer State Park, in Hamilton and Topsfield, Mass.; and Maudslay State Park, in Newburyport, Mass. “Public art is a way to address issues important to a natural setting, whether [that’s] conservation or destruction,” he says. “It can also act simply as a way to better observe the environment around you. It can force you to see details you may have not seen before.
For Frost, working outside provides a level of freedom. He describes the desire to touch the great works in a museum; to run one’s hands down the canvas of a Picasso to feel its peaks, valleys, and eddies of oil paint, or stand in solace next to Auguste Rodin’s Thinker. An outdoor setting allows for uninhibited exploration and sensory immersion. “It’s not a gallery setting, and there’s no guard telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s out there. It’s the public’s.”
“It feeds a part of us that is really vital. We suffer when we don’t have a connection to the natural world.”
The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it…. So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find anything so surely good and noble to strive for. —John Muir
Under Charles Tracy’s watch, the 215-mile NET—already a picture-perfect New England landscape of river valleys, forests, and the echoes of Colonial America—has become its own gallery.
Tracy has been working with the National Park Service for 28 years, acting as both a landscape architect, and more recently as the NET trail administrator and the National Park Service’s arts partnership specialist. The Artists on the Trail program has hosted six individual artists, including Frost, and two additional group projects. Works have ranged from photography to sensorial walks—even a hip-hop music video.
“I saw that art is a great way to introduce the trail to new audiences and get people to think about the trail and experience the trail in different ways,” Tracy says. “Nationally, with the National Park Service, we are increasingly working with artists to have another lens to look at our parks and national trails.”
For Artists on the Trail, Tracy selects individuals interested in engaging visitors with the outdoors. As he notes, there is no one way. “I’m interested in exploring as many medias as possible,” he says. “I think different types of art connect to different types of people.” For his part, Frost describes Tracy as an enthusiastic and encouraging patron, with an obvious love for art, the environment, and the park system’s access-for-all mission.
Although Tracy refers to the art installations as a means of creative engagement, they are inherently public art. While for many the phrase “public art” may call to mind heroic memorials or expansive murals, public art can take on any medium, scale, and range, from temporary to permanent.
Through their public placement, works like the Hespera Stones evoke sensory and emotional responses. The art and its viewer are outdoors along of NET, occupying the same space, the same ecosystem.
“I’m interested in the impression it leaves, or the memories it leaves, on the people who experience it,” Tracy says of the art he chooses for Artists on the Trail. What he doesn’t want is for that art to leave an impact on the landscape. Before placing even a temporary work, he must consider the natural and cultural resources affected, as well as the potential visitor experience. “I approach art projects as I would any other project on the trail,” he says.
In other words, the guiding force behind Artists on the Trail is conservation. The projects are meant to be introspective rather than intrusive, to promote a sense of personal engagement. “If people feel a stronger connection to the land and environment, my hope is that it would increase personal stewardship,” Tracy says. “If no one goes out there, there is no stewardship. So the first step is really to get people outside.
“One of the things I’ve learned from artists: Trails are great for getting from point A to point B, but trails are also a great place to stop and look.”
THE PARKS AND THE TRUSTS
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. —John Muir
In the summer of 2015, a project similar to “Artists on the Trail” came to the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. In an alcove of Fort Warren on George’s Island, one of 34 islands in Boston Harbor, Amy Archambault’s Traverse sat dappled by light beaming through the musket holes in the wall. The contraption of chairs, drawers, bungees, sleeping bags, strapped to two blue keels created a jury-rigged escape unit, as part of the Isles Art Initiative.
“I was interested in the functionality of the fort as a prison,” says Archambault, a 30-year-old resident of North Chelmsford, Mass. Fort Warren held Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and was the site of multiple failed escapes. “Prisoners tried to escape through the musket holes and gather stuff to make boats,” she says, a narrative and location that sent the tone of her piece.
“It’s such a curious environment, and people almost play in it. The art and the space came together in this really beautiful way,” she says.
From a historical standpoint, artists have been creating art in National Parks and on other public lands since the 19th century. Members of the Hudson River School—Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, among others—created an iconic style of American landscape painting while focusing on the Catskills and venturing further afield to paint Niagara Falls and Acadia National Park. In the words of Durand, “one studio which you may freely enter and receive in liberal measure the most sure and safe instruction…the Studio of Nature.”
In May 2016, The Trustees of the Reservations, a Massachusetts conservation and preservation organization, announced its own outdoor public art initiative. “Art and the Landscape” will feature site-specific works by the Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant at the Trustee’s Old Manse, in Concord, and by the Copenhagen-based artist Jeppe Hein at World’s End, in Hingham. Durant’s piece will be be on display for four months, from July through October, and Hein’s will be installed in August and remain up for a year.
“We hope these installations will create transformative experiences for our visitors—inspiring them to come visit one of our properties for the first time, or perhaps see it in a new light and gain a deeper appreciation of its significance,” Barbara Erickson, the Trustees’ president, said in her announcement.
As highlighted by both the Harbor Islands and the Trustees, Tracy has seen a growing interest nationally among land managers and conservation groups in staging public art projects. Another opportunity provided by the National Park Service is an Artist in Residence program, similar to the NET’s Artists on the Trail. Tracy says that these projects help to tell untold stories, including those which may be difficult to tell.
The power of imagination makes us infinite. —John Muir
Back to the beginning—where inspiration comes from. For Christopher Frost, the Somerville artist, childhood memories and musings fill the loft of his barn studio. A spray-painted cardboard crown and sword lie on the edge of a table otherwise cluttered with colorful 3D studies from his time in China. Nearby sits a wooden box of velvet cushions, the future home of what Frost calls the ultimate stick gun—a version of the boyhood classic cast in bronze and plated with nickel.
“Sometimes it’s just nice to make art for art’s sake,” he says. “You can’t get too caught up in it.”
Frost’s primary project at the moment—whose working name is Traces (Along a Forest Hymn)—incorporates four elements: a log, a branch, a maple leaf, and a stone. He plans to cast them in bronze and then silverplate them, similar to the stick gun. Each piece will be emblazoned with a single word on one side and imprinted with his name and contact information on the reverse should the objects be found in their future hiding spots.
The work is inspired by the Hudson River School and the seminal New England landscapes its members painted. “Along a Forest Hymn” references a poem by William Cullen Bryant, a school patron. Frost points out that the school had a strong influence on 19th-century conservation whose principles guide his own work. In honor of that tradition, the text on these new objects will read: Preservation, Salvation, Sanctuary, and Inspiration.
Frost says with a hint of frustration, that he has applied for funding for the work but has been unable to secure it as of yet. Instead, he’s just going to do it.
He intends to hide them in the wild, within an environment where you’d expect to find logs and branches and stones. He hopes that these pieces will become a permanent part of the landscape. “The outdoors is cool,” Frost says matter of factly. “I love the idea that, as a viewer, if you’re just walking along and you stumble upon something, it’s like finding a little treasure. I’ve done pieces out in the middle of nowhere, and you just hope someone stumbles upon it. I love that idea of exploration.”
“What a great feeling,” he says, mostly to himself.
This post was originally published by AMC Outdoors.
The East Coast region is home to 73 National Wildlife Refuges, providing habitats for hundreds of animal species: furry, feathered, and finned. Since 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt named Florida’s Pelican Island the first refuge of its kind, the NWR designation, first and foremost, has protected and restored wildlife populations and habitats. But these refuges are also great places to hit the trail and spot critters. Here are eight of the best hikes in National Wildlife Refuges in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.
Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge
With views of Petit Manan Light, the second-tallest lighthouse in the state, Petit Manan Point stands out among the 55 islands and four mainland parcels that make up the 250-mile-long Maine Coastal Islands NWR. Petit Manan’s gently sloping Birch Point Trail takes you through blueberry fields, forest, and salt marsh on the way to an overlook of Dyer Bay. The shorter, though more rugged, John Hollingsworth Memorial Trail leads to the ocean and features interpretive signs about Maine’s history. Look out for bald eagles, which are known to nest on Petit Manan Point, as well as arctic terns and endangered roseate terns along the shore.
Distance: 4 or 1.8 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the eastern shore of New Hampshire’s Great Bay, this former Air Force base is now a vital stop for migrating birds and a year-round home for peregrine falcons and osprey. The area also hosts the state’s largest concentration of wintering black ducks and bald eagles. Take the Ferry Way Trail for a 2-mile round trip to a scenic overlook of Great and Little bays. Or, for a shorter option, hike the 0.5-mile Peverly Pond Trail, passing a stream and a series of vernal pools. In the summer, watch for white-tailed deer and their fawns, as well as families of wild turkeys.
Distance: 0.5 or 2 miles round trip
Info: Outdoors with Kids Boston (AMC Books); Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide, 3rd ed. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge
The Oxbow NWR spans nearly 8 miles of the Nashua River, from Harvard to Ayer, Mass., and passes through a variety of habitats, from old fields to oxbow ponds. The Still River Depot Road location features a remote 2-mile hike following the Riverside and Turnpike trails and Tank Road. The route is dotted with the work of beavers, and you might even spot the threatened Blanding’s turtle. Please note that the refuge was once a military training area and there is a remote possibility of unexploded devices, so stay on the trail.
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Info: Outdoors with Kids Boston (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
Home to the rare New England cottontail rabbit as well as harlequin ducks, piping plover, and more than 200 other bird species, Sachuest Point offers especially strong wildlife watching. Combine the Ocean View (1.5 miles) and Flint Point (1.2 miles) loops for a trek along the Atlantic Ocean and Sakonnet River. Three observation platforms and multiple points of access to the shore provide spectacular spots for you to witness sunrise and sunset.
Distance: 1.2 and 1.5 miles round trip
Info: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge
With its 316 acres of salt marsh, forest, and grassland, the Salt Meadow Unit offers a glimpse of the eight-unit, 60-mile McKinney NWR for which it serves as headquarters. As the 1.1-mile trail winds from meadow to marsh, you’ll pass a restored log cabin and the remnants of the home of the property’s donor, Esther Lape. Also watch for great egret, osprey, and fox from the trail or from the observation platform overlooking Gatchen Creek.
Distance: 1.1 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Connecticut, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Green Village, N.J.
An hour’s drive from Manhattan, Great Swamp contains the only federally designated Wilderness in the metropolitan New York City area. Hardwood ridges and cattail marshes host more than 19 miles of trails of varying difficulty. Within the Wilderness Area, you can even explore off-trail. Park at Myersville Road and hike the Orange Trail to the center of the refuge. It’s a good idea to wear waterproof footwear or old sneakers due to the frequently muddy conditions. A variety of migrating birds seek refuge here, in the midst of suburban New Jersey.
Distance: 3.2 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near New York City (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge
Heinz NWR, the nation’s first federal urban refuge, is less than a 30-minute drive from the heart of Philadelphia and accessible within a 2-hour drive of 35 million people. The 1,000-acre property features 10 miles of trails winding through freshwater tidal marshes. Starting at the Cusano Environmental Education Center, follow Haul Road and the Trolley Bed Trail to the Dike Trail for a 5-mile loop that passes an observation deck and crosses a dike. Keep your eyes open for beaver, mink, and river otter. If you’d like to get off-trail, Darby Creek can be paddled at high tide; check the tide chart in the visitor center.
Distance: 5 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia (AMC Books); Outdoors with Kids Philadelphia (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Patuxent Research Refuge
Divided into three tracts, Patuxent offers a total of 45 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Within the South Tract, follow Fire Road Trail before turning onto Laurel then Cash Lake trails, traversing boardwalks and floating bridges along the 2.7-mile route. Look out for bright red scarlet tanagers flying past, as well as eastern red bats sleeping in hollow trees. Patuxent is the only National Wildlife Refuge with a research mission focus, home to the U.S. Geological Survey’s research center. The Central Tract, which is home to rare whooping cranes, is only open for special tours, while the North Tract features the 20-mile, car-friendly Wildlife Loop, as well as 20 miles of trails.
Distance: 2.7 miles round trip
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Washington, D.C. (AMC Books); U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Daniel Case, Susan Charkes, Gene Daniell, Kim Foley MacKinnon, Beth Homicz, Carey Kish, René Laubach, Stephen Mauro, Steven D. Smith
This piece was originally published by AMC Outdoors.
Even forests struggle in the search for eternal youth. In an effort to protect young forest and shrubland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed setting aside more than 15,000 acres of Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine to create the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. Managed by USFWS, the refuge would help preserve dwindling saplings, wetlands, and fields—habitat that is home to more than 65 species of wildlife, including cottontail rabbits, bobcats, snowshoe hares, box turtles, and monarch butterflies.
“It’s a type of habitat that has been declining over the years as young forest grows into old and pastures grow into trees,” says Charlie Vandemoer, manager of Rhode Island’s National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Animals impacted by this habitat loss include the New England cottontail, the only rabbit native to the region. According to the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative, the species has lost more than 80 percent of its habitat since the 1960s. USFWS has also seen a population decline in 12 of the region’s 16 shrubland birds, including the American woodcock and the golden-winged warbler.
These diverse species require diverse terrain. To balance a complex set of needs, USFWS is proposing an unusual model: Rather than spanning swaths of contiguous land, Great Thicket would consist of 10 disconnected parcels. Additional conservation land, such as the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, would be managed with young forest in mind.
Where did all of our shrubland go? In part, it’s a success story. Thanks to conservation, once-young ecosystems have grown into more stable environments. Unchecked, however, forests will continue to mature, displacing more wildlife species. “To maintain a shrubland habitat requires a hands-on approach,” says Meagan Racey of USFWS. “It’s constantly growing unless there is some natural process that turns back the clock. Young forest requires regular maintenance and a management plan.” To mimic natural interventions, such as wildfires, in Great Thicket, USFWS would employ techniques including cutting and prescribed burns.
Not all areas within the refuge would need direct intervention. Wetlands, which sustain shrubland, call for a more passive approach. “In that case we would be protecting the land and letting that maintenance happen naturally,” Racey says.
Recreation access would also be determined on a site-by-site basis. “A big part of quality of life for folks is having open areas where they can hike, bird-watch, or go out with their kids,” Vandemoer says, citing Rhode Island, where more than 300,000 people visit refuges annually.
USFWS is currently reviewing public comments on the plan, collected earlier this year, and will announce next steps later in 2016. Acquiring land and easements could take 30 years or more at an estimated cost of $84 million to $129 million.
“Some people might ask why go to all this trouble for wildlife,” says Vandemoer, who answers his own question with a quote from Aldo Leopold: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
In other words, the cottontail is just one species, but it interacts with many plants and shrubs. “It’s really a community out there, so it’s very important to keep these species protected.”
This piece was originally published by AMC Outdoors.
Chronicling my journalistic endeavors.
All ocean conservation/biodiversity posts are my own original thoughts. All other posts are my work for other publications.