Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a series on Arts-Based Research in the Anthropocene edited by Amrita DasGupta
Authors’ Note: Off the coast of Louisiana lies an underwater forest dating back 75,000 years to the Pleistocene. The ancient forest has been hidden until a recent hurricane uncovered the stories that lie within the preserved trunks and sediment. We hope to communicate and showcase how the scales of the body and form of tree ring cells change temporally and in scale, as well as, explore the intersectionality of tree-human-body forms (i.e. genderqueer-ness). The triptych will include the three following [re]presentations of Pleistocene wood: (1) a high-quality photograph of Pleistocene wood anatomy under a microscope, (2) a knitted textile work mimicking the cellular structure of the wood, and (3) an object monotype ghost print of the physical knitted work.
Crashing into the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Hurricane Ivan made landfall in September 2004 as a Category 3 Hurricane. As the storm moved across the Gulf of Mexico, it scoured the ocean floor, leaving deep depressions and exposed bars of sediment stretching miles off the coast. The underwater implications of this scouring remained unexplored until nearly a decade later, when a charter fisherman noticed anomalously high fish activity concentrated in an area over 13 kilometers (or about 8 miles) south of the Alabama coastline within Hurricane Ivan’s path. When divers visited the site, they found dozens of tree stumps in growth position on the ocean floor under eighteen meters of water. The trees, which had been buried under ocean sediment and preserved from decay, had been exposed by Hurricane Ivan. Research teams from nearby universities began investigating the newly exposed tree stumps, taking sections of wood and sediment for analysis. Over the course of the decade of research since the submerged forest was discovered, the trees have been dated to be between 56,000 and 72,000 years old. This age situates the trees as growing within the late Pleistocene epoch, a period characterized by its lower sea levels, lower global temperatures, and glacial episodes.1
Ellen is currently working to refine the species identification of wood samples collected from the submerged forest through a histological analysis (i.e., examining the microanatomical wood and cell structures) to better understand the coastal paleo-ecosystems. This research served as the inspirational springboard for the ideas explored in this creative work, beginning when Ellen mentioned to Nick that the microscopic scans of the Pleistocene wood samples looked nearly identical to knitted lace work. After insights into the techniques of lace knitting and ample encouragement from a local knitting group, the piece began to take form. Pairing the piece with theories such as transcorporeality and queer trans ecologies allowed us to explore further mediums and methods of [re]presenting the cellular anatomy.2
We have landed on three artistic [re]presentations of the Pleistocene wood, creating a triptych of the tree bodiesʼ scales and forms. Our hopes for the piece are to highlight the beautiful imagery of the ancient, submerged wood, as well as to probe at the parallel liminal existence of the Bald Cypress and us, as artistic-based researchers and activists. Moreover, as transgender folks are under direct attack in the United States and Idaho, we see these artistic and academic engagements more important than ever.
The first [re]presentation of the tree body situated in the middle of the triptych is a high-resolution picture of the microanatomy of a Pleistocene wood sample prepared for histological analysis. While the species identification is being carried out for scientific inquiry, we, as trans and queer scientists, work to problematize the colonial roots of Western species delineations and challenge these contestations through ʻart as research.ʼ3 The second component, a knitted work by Ellen Bergan, is a [re]presentation of the microscopic visualization of the wood. Earlywood and latewood ring boundaries and anatomical anomalies such as traumatic resin ducts and deformed cells are knitted into the piece, emulating the cell-by-cell (or row-by-row) growth and becoming of the tree’s body. This body becomes both tactile – physically and presently realized through the form of the knitted work – while simultaneously removed from the tree’s life and growth by nearly 75,000 years in time.4 Lastly, on the right is a co-produced printed piece by Ellen and Nick of the knitted work inked and run through the printing press. Through the printed piece, we are bringing together the pressure that the tree has been under for the past millennia with the ways printmaking can render visible three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional form.
We bring our own positionalities to the thick entanglements of our practices as transgender artists. More specifically, Nick (queer, genderfluid artist) creates within the discipline of printmaking which is historically dominated by men and inversely Ellen (transmasculine non-binary artist) creates within the practice of knitting which is vibrantly populated by women craftwork. The intention of the work is to bring to the forefront of our thinking the vibrance of the wood and the parallel vibrance of our art practice as transgender researchers and artists, as well as the affects and embodiments the co-creation of this work entails.5
We hold in tension when creating and thinking about the transcalar and odd temporal existence of the tree body as well as our bodies within research and art practice.6 Further, we find the artistic piece as a way to think more attentively to social science methodologies such as autoethnography, reflexive positionalities, critical gender studies, and multinaturalism.7 Interestingly, a common thread in queer studies is the fluid existence of 2SLGBTQIA+ people and researchers.8 The origin of the wood within the Underwater Forest foregrounds—literally—the fluidity of form and precarity.
We hope this work speaks to both queer and non-queer researchers of different ways of knowing and relating to more-than-human beings. Some of these ways we aim or anticipate the artwork and accompanying writing to reach scholars is through an encouragement to foreground and ideate questions around scale, time, agency, more-than-human worlds, queer ecologies, art-as-research, research-as-art, and changing climates within the Anthropocene. However, this list is nowhere near exhaustive and, equally, we look forward to future discussions around the Pleistocene wood histology. What more can we learn from vibrant matter waiting to be unearthed?
1 Kristine L. Delong et al., “Late Pleistocene baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) forest deposit on the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Mexico,” Boreas 50, no. 3 (2021): 871-892.
2 Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Queer ecologies: Sex, nature, politics, desire. Indiana University Press, 2010; Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker. “Weathering: Climate change and the “thick time” of transcorporeality.” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (2014): 558-575.
3 Patricia Leavy. Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. Guilford Publications, 2008; Kim TallBear, “Beyond the Life/Not-Life Binary: A Feminist-Indigenous Reading of Cryopreservation, Interspecies Thinking, and the New Materialisms.” In Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World, eds. Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal (The MIT Press, 2017): 179–202.
4 Mary Walker Phillips. Creative Knitting: A New Art Form. Courier Corporation, 2013
5 Jane Bennett. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press, 2010; Sara Ahmed. Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press, 2020; Ben Anderson. “Affective atmospheres,” Emotion, space and society 2, no. 2 (2009): 77-81.
6 Jeanne Vaccaro. “Feelings and fractals: Woolly ecologies of transgender matter,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, no. 2-3 (2015): 273-293.
7 S. Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich. “The emergence of multispecies ethnography,” Cultural anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010): 545-576; Bruno Latour. “Politics of nature.” Politics of Nature (Harvard University Press, 2004).
8 Cleo Wölfle Hazard. Underflows: Queer Trans Ecologies and River Justice (University of Washington Press, 2021)