Art Matters

It is early morning when I set off along the woodland path. The routine is familiar; the experience is anything but. It rained overnight. Yellow-green leaves from a row of birches are strewn in front of me, creating a playful pattern of colors and shapes beneath my feet. Just yesterday, the morning sun cast broad intermittent shadows, like flags, in this same spot. On these daily walks, I lose myself in an ever-changing ecosystem conditioned by the life forces within it, both human and nonhuman. I am part of the natural world. It is part of me.

Photo: Nick DonnoliMy longstanding fascination with nature began in early childhood on a family trip to a remote area of New York’s Catskill Mountains, where we experienced firsthand the majestic union of blue sky, verdant forest, and crystal-clear lakes. Subsequent experiences have further shaped my knowledge and appreciation of nature’s significance, none more so than my tenure as executive director of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), an interdisciplinary center of environmental research, education, and outreach. I am no longer a casual observer of the natural world and my observations are more complicated now.

While enthralled as ever by the beauty of creation, I am burdened knowing that forces of disruption are at work throughout our planetary system. Beneath the blades of grass that cushion my steps, many species of plant life are competing for water and nutrients to sustain their growth. The tree canopy overhead, which shelters bird life, simultaneously has an important role to play in the global carbon cycle. And though welcome to winter-weary eyes, the early arrival of spring blooms threatens to be out of sync with the cycles of pollination and the migratory and mating patterns of native songbirds.

Understanding the complexity of natural systems on both macro and micro scales is central to the work of PEI, which serves as a hub for broad constituencies of faculty, researchers, and students with an interest in environmental topics. Established nearly twenty-five years ago, PEI has fostered outstanding scholarship in the sciences, with notable contributions to advances in understanding Earth’s climate system and the bio-geo-chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, while developing new fields of study, including bio-complexity and eco-hydrology.

An increasingly important and exciting dimension of PEI’s work centers on the environmental humanities with opportunities to explore environmental themes and the challenges that confront humanity through historical narratives, literature, philosophy, world cultures, and the arts. This relatively new area of focus and commitment recognizes that to be complete, any conversation about the environment necessarily must go beyond the mechanics of ecosystem function and the hydrological cycle to probe the myriad ways in which human beings conceive of and relate to nature.

It is within the context of PEI’s environmental humanities initiative that, nearly four years ago, I first learned of the Art Museum’s plan to organize a groundbreaking exhibition of American art with the goal of examining the role and influence of artists in chronicling our relationship to and understanding of the natural world. When Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment opens this fall, it will include works of art depicting themes and images that connect us to both the grandeur and fragility of our national landscape and to the rich but imperiled abundance of our country’s biodiversity. Through the lens of American art, the exhibition invites us to consider our changing interactions with the environment—a shifting of historical and personal narratives from times of inspired observation and discovery, to periods defined by exploitation and our own era of contested concern and responsibility.

As I anticipate the opening of Nature’s Nation, I am reminded of the great potential of art to create a shared experience in which our eyes are directed to what is lost to sight or routinely overlooked, challenging our priorities and values. This exhibition further provides a robust suite of opportunities for the Princeton community to engage with important environmental themes of accountability and responsibility through lectures, courses, and public programming. At this critical juncture in Earth’s climate history, it is incumbent on us to marshal not only the tools of science and engineering but also the insights of the humanities, including artistic expression, to forge a fruitful relationship with nature. It is essential that we carefully consider all of these dimensions as we look to ensure that future generations will enjoy the wonder of a morning walk and an enduring connection with the natural world.

Katharine Hackett
Executive Director, Princeton Environmental Institute