Waldsterben: SAD, Sudden Aspen Decline

This installation was commissioned by the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo Colorado to celebrate their 40th year anniversary in 2012 and was part of the exhibition, “Fairy Tale: Origins, the Art of Interpretation.” The installation included 40 cheesecloth panels, painted on both sides to simulate a “day” side, and when turning around after entering the exhibition, a “night” side. I covered the floor with a mix of pine needles and mulch made from dead aspen forests that had been “harvested.” Within the installation, masks made from broken glass hung at two different angles, forming either dove-like or wolf-like shadows. Two looping sound tracks played in the gallery: one of forest sounds, and another of choral music.

The basis for the composition of my panels is a print by early 20th century artist Gene Kloss, titled “Aspens” in the permanent collection of the Sangre de Cristo Art Center. Throughout history, artists have been inspired by nature, and looking at how nature is interpreted by other artists provides an important foundation for new work.

Statement for the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center

Forests are favorite settings for fairy tales. We suspect that as soon as someone sets off for a walk through the woods, something is going to happen. There in the wild, nature can work its transformative power, manipulating the duality of human nature. Transformations can turn out badly though since there are few guarantees for good triumphing over evil. The tensions inherent in this conflict provide the suspense in fairy tales, as well as in everyday life. A 21st century fairy tale full of suspense surrounds the survival of one of the oldest and largest living organisms on earth, Aspen forests. Aspens are connected by a single root system that creates a forest of clones, each tree genetically identical. One example covers over 100 acres and is estimated to be over 80,000 years old. But increasing temperatures and drought triggered by human-caused climate change is killing them . This phenomenon, labeled Sudden Aspen Decline, (SAD), describes the death of an estimated 20% of Colorado’s Aspen in the past decade. Projections of total Aspen forest death in the West are up to 60% by 2060, and up to 90 percent by 2090. Recent studies however indicate that SAD in Colorado has stopped spreading, creating hope for a happy ending. As an artist, I am inspired not only by the iconic beauty of Aspen forests, but also by their epic story of struggle and survival. My own daily actions make me either a villain or protagonist in this tale, and remind me to strengthen my “hero” nature in the daily battle between doing what is either good and beautiful or bad and ugly.

Waldsterben: SAD, Sudden Aspen Decline

Statement for the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition

“Waldsterben” is the German word for “forest death.” It was widely used in the 1970’s to describe the catastrophic wide-spread forest death in Western Europe caused by acid rain and air pollution. Today, similar mortality events are happening across the planet. In the Rocky Mountain West, increasing cycles of heat and drought have triggered forest die-offs that include almost a quarter of aspens.

Unlike other forests, aspens are single organisms. The whole forest is one plant with a shared root system. Each tree in the aspen forest is a “clone” or genetically identical to every other tree belonging to the same root system. When stress from a changing climate causes the root system to fail, the whole forest dies.

The death of aspens is surprising since they have survived many tens of thousands of years. The oldest example is estimated to be over 80,000 years old and covers over 100 acres. They are one of the largest and oldest living things on our planet.

Statement by Dr. William Anderegg for the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center

“As the emblematic tree of the American West, the trembling aspen holds a special place in our cultural and natural environments. Aspen forests support an incredible diversity of plant and animal species and provide numerous economic benefits to Colorado’s tourism, timber, and recreation sectors. Following a severe drought in the early 2000’s, a rapid and widespread die-off of aspen stands began to occur around the West. Scientific research has revealed that this die-off, known as “sudden aspen decline,” was largely driven by sever drought and high temperatures. Sudden aspen decline provides a disturbing example of how climate change has begun to alter our cherished western landscape.” – Dr. William Anderegg

Dr. Anderegg also provided a statement for the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition and gave a gallery talk for the GOCA 121 exhibition.