A project by ecological artist Dr Cathy Fitzgerald turning a conifer plantation destined for clear-fell into a permanent, species-rich productive forest using new continuous cover forestry methods. Fitzgerald worked with professional foresters and used her perspective as an artist to tell the story of the process and help others envision and enact new land practices with environmental, social and economic benefits for enduring local and planetary wellbeing. The project thus contributes to a broader shift in cultural attitudes towards more ecological ways of thinking and acting for sustainable living.
Over the last century, forestry in Ireland has for the purposes of creating a profitable timber industry promoted an industrial, capitalistic forestry model. Fast-growing, often non-native ‘monoculture’ (consisting of one species) tree plantations are grown commercially at scale. With relatively short-rotation cycles of 40-60 years, the primary focus of industrial forestry is on economic returns. Additionally, with limited community involvement, few outside the forestry sector understand or have experienced what constitutes a healthy, biodiverse forest ecosystem.
Existential challenges to industrial forestry and agriculture are now evident. Global scientific and social data confirm industrial land practices for singular economic aims degrade biodiversity, soil fertility, decrease disease resilience and other indicators of ecosystem viability, and also reduce forests’ potential for social benefits. All these factors are increasingly recognised as essential for enduring local and planetary wellbeing.
Alternative, ‘Close-to-Nature continuous cover forestry’ practices have arisen across Europe in recent decades. These involve periodic selective thinning so that the integrity of a forest is not damaged, and natural regeneration of trees occurs to replace thinned trees. This results in more stable biodiverse, disease-resistant forests with greater soil fertility, carbon sequestration, social benefits and employment potential. However, changes to adopt a more complex and diverse forestry with diverse-sized timbers and broader environmental and social aims rests on a profound cultural shift that requires improved ecological education across society. In Ireland, these long-term permanent forestry practices, spearheaded by Pro Silva Ireland since 2000, are starting to be implemented at the time of writing.
Ecological artist Cathy Fitzgerald has worked since the late 1990s with foresters and others involved with forest NGOs like Crann (Trees for Ireland) and Pro Silva Ireland who are exploring alternative, more ecological, community-oriented forestry for Ireland. She began with modest ideas of combining art and ecology. In 1996, with forester Noel Kiernan, she created original illustrations and text for a calendar to highlight rare Irish native hedgerow shrubs and trees for the Crann Hedgerow Awareness project, and later returned in 2006 to document the outcomes of Crann’s community native forest-planting project in the 1990s in south Leitrim, Ireland, in an exhibition.
Having spent ten years working at a science research institute in Aotearoa/New Zealand, she later undertook contemporary art practice education and doctoral research at the Irish National College of Art and Design. She has been interested in how ecological insights profoundly challenge accepted conventions of contemporary modern art practice and how we tend ecosystems for enduring personal, collective and planetary wellbeing.
The Hollywood Forest Story
In 2000, Fitzgerald inherited a piece of land with her husband, where she now lives and works, which included a pre-existing monoculture Sitka spruce forestry plantation planted in the mid 1980s. In 2008, inspired by situated ecological art practitioners Helen and Newton Harrisons’ work in the USA, she planned a long-term project to explore new ecological forestry practices that turn a monoculture tree plantation into a permanent, mixed age, diverse species forest through selectively removing existing trees and encouraging the natural regeneration of native species. She used the Close-to-Nature continuous cover forestry approach advocated by eastern European foresters through Pro Silva and volunteered as public relations officer for Pro Silva Ireland for nearly a decade, establishing valuable long-term connections with forestry experts.
Close-to-Nature continuous cover forestry management fosters environmental, social and economic benefits over the long term. Encouraging the widespread adoption of these practices thus requires cultural effort to instil understanding of ecological interdependence and the need to adopt new values to guide all peoples’ actions for enduring, thriving forests. Fitzgerald saw independent creative-led collaboration as an inclusive way to re-envision forest management for herself and others, promoting new ecological thinking, values and practices.
The Hollywood Forest Story is an ecological art practice instigated by Fitzgerald but also a collaborative participatory inquiry to seek wiser forest management in response to the environmental and social challenges of the ecological emergency. The Hollywood Forest Story both shares the story that a thriving local forest depends on more holistic ways of valuing and tending them, and demonstrates the social power of long term ecological art practices to engage diverse audiences in new values, ideas and actions for ecological wellbeing. Fitzgerald documents these twin aims throughout in her blog, written with a creative, reflective style that is accessible to non-experts and emphasises a ‘new story’ for enduringly beautiful and biodiverse forests. Her blog posts, articles and academic contributions, with short films and photographic documentation from within Hollywood forest engage online audiences and landowners seeking more ecological forestry methods.
The blog highlights how permanent forestry management advances multiple environmental, social and economic benefits and overlaps with ecological art practice. Fitzgerald shares how some leading continuous cover foresters intuit ecological forestry as both an art and science. Foresters develop artful improvisational skill with dynamic living systems. They recognise how to best ‘sculpt with light’ to encourage seedling growth on the forest floor while also managing forests in the most scientific ‘Close-to-Nature’ way possible. Most importantly, Fitzgerald shares that it is hard to ignore how Close-to-Nature managed permanent forests become increasingly beautiful and valuable as biodiversity and soil fertility increases and that they promote wellbeing for present and future generations.
As Fitzgerald’s ecological literacy of permanent forestry evolved, her confidence to advocate for new ecological forestry increased. She contributed a sustainable forest policy to the Irish Green Party which was adopted and launched in 2013. Fitzgerald also had Hollywood Forest listed on the Irish COFORD forest research database of forests using ‘low impact silviculture systems’ and the forest was inspected by them in 2013. Sector and public pressure has since led to new initiatives for the Irish forest department to move toward permanent, mixed species, non-clearfell forestry, with new government grants for transforming monocultures into forests now available in Ireland at the time of writing.
Nevertheless these are urgent times for the world’s forests. Hollywood Forest has faced serious setbacks, such as the arrival of ash dieback disease in Ireland, the severity of which was increased by industrial globalised forestry practices. This adversely affected ash seedlings and saplings that were the predominant naturally regenerating species arising following the Close-to-Nature continuous cover forestry management. The depletion of the ash tree, the second most common native Irish tree, supporting much wildlife and of immense cultural significance, has been an immeasurable loss for Hollywood Forest and nationally. Warming winters in Ireland due to climate breakdown have also, like elsewhere, seen increases in severe conifer aphid attacks, with some mature conifer trees dying
Fitzgerald used this work as a basis for a Creative Practice-led PhD to explain the potential and challenges posed by situated ecological art practices that creatively increase ecological understanding for general audiences. Since Fitzgerald completed her doctoral studies, she has sought to share the rewards and challenges of bringing creativity and ecology together. Alongside writing articles, giving talks to artists, educators, curators and art researchers, she hosts the online Haumea Ecoversity, offering ecoliteracy and ecological ethics courses for creatives and cultural professionals. Her and her husband’s work to transform Hollywood Forest continues with regular management from Pro Silva foresters and Fitzgerald has since 2017 used the ecological arts practice framework to advise community artists working to restore a nearby wetland for the Creative Drummin – Druimín Cruthaitheach programme.
Hollywood Forest is an example of how small woodlands can drive change in the physical and cultural landscapes they inhabit. While it is the smallest Close-to-Nature managed forest in Ireland, The Hollywood Forest Story's key value is how it has encouraged landowners to embrace more ecological forestry practices.Sean Hoskins, forester for Hollywood Forest, and Public Relations Officer, Pro Silva Ireland
Fitzgerald with her husband inherited ownership of the land that included the existing plantation. This allowed her to bypass many of the difficulties involved in buying and renting to trial new land practices.
Long-term funding models for situated, durational ecological art practices that evolve over years are not yet realised or available through national funding bodies. Given the urgency of the ecological cultural shift needed, Fitzgerald advocates a basic income and sector-wide continuing professional development for essential ecoliteracy, which is not currently available in many art colleges.
As Hollywood Forest’s trees grow, regular thinning provides increasing valuable returns as thinned larger trees provide timber to offset forestry management fees and fuel for all domestic heating. As Ireland, with its ample rainfall has the best tree growing conditions in Europe, in 2022, it is predicted that there will be more timber for sale than is needed for domestic use.
A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network
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