Kenyon College

The Art of Trees: A Sonic Reflection


The Art of Trees is a research and planning project steered by Gund Gallery staff and a committee of Kenyon faculty, staff, and Gund Associates who are working together to develop a Spring 2021 exhibition that explores trees as the real and metaphorical touchstone for conceiving a new social imaginary, through which we can reinvent our relationship with the natural world for social and ecological betterment.  A team of Gund Associates focused on curatorial practice are synthesizing the committee’s research to structure a collaborative curatorial endeavor and community dialogue about the current environmental crisis. In this series, Gund Associates share aspects and outcomes of their ongoing research.

Now, more than ever, I am desperate to feel present with the natural world. As a dance major who usually spends most of my time moving, I find the endless online time of this semester overwhelming and disorienting. In an effort to remain grounded, I joined “Performing Scores for Sonic Landscapes,” a workshop led by Professor Elliot Mercer*. The workshop was rooted in composer Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening practice. In her book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, Oliveros describes Deep Listening as a “practice that is intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” 

The Pauline Oliveros sonic meditations have been my lifeline to the natural world looming just outside my computer screen. The workshop met for an hour and a half once a week for four weeks, and there were meditations to explore in-between Zoom calls. Elliot led us through a series of sonic meditations, movement improvisations, poetic writing prompts, and performance scorings for both solo and collaborative creativity. Performing the scores on Zoom, we were challenging the limitations of a distanced platform in a now-distanced world. The sounds were distorted or sometimes delayed, and I did my best to embrace this as part of my new sonic landscape. The honesty and spontaneity of the sounds provided a sense of creative intimacy I’ve missed in isolation. 

In between the online workshops, I followed Oliveros’ prompts into the Illinois prairie and listened deeply.

During the early stages of our The Art of Trees research, we read Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wallenbern, a book which uncovers the hidden language of trees. I carried those conversations about natural networks of communication into my meditations, and, for the first time, I felt connected to this hidden language. In my first meditation journal I wrote, “The grass and dirt are in trembling song. The earth is breathing.” 

It is a strange time to go outside and try to connect with the natural world. I am privileged to be in the area I am where the prairie is usually empty and I can walk freely for hours to listen, but it is eerie to leave everything else behind. After running into fellow walkers one day, I wrote, “People’s voices — a harsh alarm and return to the present.” There are several notes like this in my journals. 

I’ve been finding it difficult to reconcile my own peaceful moments with the harsh reality just beyond this nature preserve. I find myself returning to one of the meditations, “Can you imagine the expansive continuity of time that encompasses the whole story of your environment, and imagine that into the future?” 

Tree as metaphor, one of our proposed exhibition themes, includes the idea of “witness trees,” trees that live and witness important human events. They become ghosts of before. Admittedly anthropocentric in conception, the underlying sentiment resonates with me. The environment has a story both beyond and including our own. As I’ve been investigating the present sonic landscape, I’ve been wondering how this part of history will be encompassed into that story. How does the natural world speak differently during human crisis? With less cars on the road, there is a human sonic absence. It is eerily easier to hear the trees shift in the breeze. How does the human world speak differently about “outside” during this crisis? With restricted access to outside, we long for parks, beaches, and sidewalks. Images of the world outside carry more weight than ever before.

In addition to listening, the workshop included movement scores. As we danced in response to the sounds around us, I found myself thinking of another exhibition theme: Tree as Collaborator. We are hoping to include several works where the tree itself collaborated in the act of artistic creation, as well as to present some opportunities for the community to collaborate with nearby trees. One tree in the prairie became my movement safe haven, beautiful and big enough to guard my sense of solitude. I responded to its structure and the sound of the branches breathing with the breeze and the birds chirping from their perch. How much of my movement relied on the tree’s presence? If I take a video with the tree, will the duet read true? 

As we work on The Art of Trees remotely, the proposals and research from before shelter-in-place carry new weight. Our relationship to the outside world feels more urgent. If you can go outside or even just open a window, I encourage you to listen. I hope you’ll find the sounds comforting. Everything the breeze carries is a reminder that you’re not alone.

Willow Green ‘21


*Elliot Gordon Mercer is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Kenyon College. Drawing from his ongoing work with choreographers Anna Halprin and Yvonne Rainer, his interdisciplinary artistic process is rooted in experimental approaches to devising, scoring, mixed-means performance, and collective creativity.


The Gund Gallery exhibitions and programs are made possible, in part, by the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and the Ohio Arts Council.


Feature image courtesy of Willow Green.


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