Ground Truths: "Boots on the Ground"
Boots on the ground: in many ways this is a clichéd phrase that, with its evocation of military action, brings to mind images of war, soldiers, defense, and attack. As such, it fits a popular narrative of fire in the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest as an adversary that we must defeat–an evil presence escaping out of the woods that demands active fighting.
The complete story of fire in our region is, of course, much more complicated: modern wildfire is both too hot and too fast, seeded as it is by decades of the fuel loading that has resulted from federal- and state-supported suppression policies, and a necessary part of the lifecycle of many of the region’s ecosystems. Having boots on the ground in our contemporary firescape is thus also much more complicated than the military connotations of the phrase suggest. As many of the contributions to Ground Truths attest, being in the thick of things–or grappling with fire from within, as opposed to witnessing it from afar–is essential to understanding not only what fire is today, but what it means to the various communities that live with it in our region.
Kate Lund’s contributions to Ground Truths began when she was in fire: while studying as an art student, Lund spent eight summers working as a wildland firefighter with the United States Forest Service (USFS). As she explains, she used firefighting to “fuel” her artistic practice, collecting “images, objects, and sensations over the course of each summer in the landscape.” That collection is on vivid display in Are You Sure We are Going the Right Way, Downdraft and Microburst–gestural renderings and sculptures that not only evoke her experiences of fire operations but carry within them remnants of the urgency and distress of being in the field. Microburst, for example, makes use of expired and cast-off tents and outdoor firefighting equipment to conjure the way that wind moves during a fire. Fencing, nylon, and tent poles hang together to situate the viewer within the actual wildfire’s wind–“short, sharp bursts of air strong enough to mow down 200 foot-tall trees in a matter of seconds.”
The work of David Paul Bayles and Frederick J. Swanson similarly originates in situ. A western Oregon photographer and a retired Research Geologist with the USFS’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, respectively, Bayles and Swanson have made dozens of site visits over two and a half years to the landscape blackened by the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire to better understand wildfire and its effects on our region. As they eloquently explain, “seeking truth involves boots on the ground while looking for clues in the clouds,” as “that’s what trees do.” Bayles and Swanson use a variety of scientific and artistic methodologies to try on a tree’s perspective, working together to combine the photographer’s eye for form and color with the scientists’ focus on biological and physical processes. Their meditative treeness, or quiet on-the-groundness, is clear in the two styles of photographic work that feature in their Ground Truths contributions: Typologies (groups of images of single subjects) and Chronosequences (photographs that track change over time). “Truth may be lodged in the tread of our boots,” they note–a sentiment made visual in the rootedness with which we must observe the treetops in their Typologies: Canopy series and its observations of the forest’s resilience. The Keefe family shows us the intergenerational ramifications of fire field work. As their artist’s statement explains, the Keefes “study fire from a variety of disciplines and perspectives”: Rob as Director of the University of Idaho Experimental Forest (UIEF), Maggie as a watercolor painter, and their nine-year-old daughter Alice as a collager. Maggie’s paintings pull directly from Rob’s work in the UIEF, capturing the results of prescribed burns that prepare the site for regeneration and low-intensity fires that burn the understory to reduce grass and shrub fuels. The prescriptive titles of Upper Hatter Rx and West of Cabin Rx signal the tone and intent of these paintings; the Keefes explain that “prescribed fire is one of our most effective tools for reducing wildfire in the Pacific Northwest,” and these paintings “show the use of good fire in forests on the Palouse Range.” We see this “goodness easily in the latter painting, which depicts a fire manager walking calmly amongst a stand of healthy trees and signals the harmonious relationship of the prescribed burn and landscape via the fuzzy border between flame and grass. Alice also captures the “goodness” of prescribed burns in her collage–a bright and cheerful work that illustrates what this fire means “to her soul” as she remembers “seeing the flames for myself disappear as they burn down the pile.” Her collage, evoking the safe and the domestic in its doily base, offers us the same challenge as her mother’s paintings: what if we understood fire to be not “wild” and destructive, but peaceful and familiar?
Finally, work from two field schools once again highlights the power of being boots on the ground. Members of the Overlook Field School, funded by the Fuller Initiative for Productive Landscapes, spent five weeks in the summer of 2021 visiting post-fire sites in the Willamette National Forest, most of which had burned within the past thirty years. Their focus was on “recovery,” which they explain as “analogous to resilience, restoration, and regeneration . . . a return to a previous state–perhaps a new normal.” The temporary landscape installations recorded in their Recovery booklet track not only these forest explorations but also the exceptional conditions of their field work, including the record heat wave of their first day of field school and the wildfires that dominated the final design stage. Their work is thus triply-site-specific, in that it studies wildfire in place, takes inspiration from the environment in which it is produced, and demands that exhibit visitors, too, inhabit this specific location. Similarly, the collaboration between Sophia Hatzikos and the students of the Oregon Episcopal School enrolled in the I.M.P.A.C.T. (innovate/make/act/collaborate/tinker) course activates situated public art to generate new knowledge about climate change and the wildland firefighting industry. Inspired by site visits to the Lake Oswego Gallery without Walls, particularly the nearby tall trees and the next door firehouse, the students repurposed fire hoses originally used in wildfire suppression during 2020 and 2021, now destined for the landfill, to create Lift, Coil, Zip. The three hose towers, which cleverly summon visual and formal connections to tree rings and silver birches, intertangle contemporary forests in the Pacific Northwest and the fire suppression efforts that have created and maintained them. They ask: how much does our experience of the region’s forests rely upon the wildfire-fighting industry and its policies of suppression? Where does hose end and tree begin? And what might the landscape look like in the absence of either?