About Ecological Reflections

The mission of Ecological Reflections is to bring the environmental sciences, arts, and humanities together in long-term attention to places and their cultural and moral meanings, as these change over time and generations.

The organizers of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon speak for the network as a whole in their beliefs that:

  • Humanist writers should pay close attention to a particular place—to the mountains, rivers, people, and the forests of the Andrews and its environs—because a close study of place will reveal broader truths that go beyond that place.
  • We should study that place for generations and learn to perceive the temporal dimension—the presence of pasts and futures—through informed observation.
  • Storytelling and poetry, observation and experiment, myth and mathematics are all authentic windows on the world.
  • There is an unusual richness and joy in the community of art and science, in the coming together of insights from many different perspectives and disciplines.
  • There is wisdom to be gained; that the more we know about the natural world and the place of humans in the world, the greater our insight into how we ought to live our lives.

But there are countless answers to the question of why Ecological Reflections is an important and helpful framework, as illustrated in the many diverse sites and programs profiled here.

Connection to Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network

Most of the sites profiled here are part of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. The National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program began funding research in 1980 after a series of workshops and planning meetings in the late 1970s. The value of, and need for, long-term ecological studies had been recognized for many years by ecologists. Rationale for development of the LTER program included explicit recognition of the low rate of change of many significant ecological processes, the importance and prevalence in most ecosystems of rare events and episodic phenomena with long return intervals, the tremendous interannual variability of many ecological processes, and the value of long-term databases for providing the context for shorter term studies.

The LTER program was designed to support a multidisciplinary approach to addressing long-term questions in a wide variety of biomes in North America and beyond. Both site-based and coordinated research among the network of LTER sites (numbering 24 in 2002) are enhancing our understanding of ecological phenomena and processes operating over broad spatial scales, as well as long-time scales.

All LTER sites conduct research in 5 general “core” areas established at the start of the LTER program. These core areas focus on understanding and documenting:

  • Patterns and controls of primary production
  • spatial and temporal dynamics of key populations
  • Patterns and controls of organic matter accumulation in surface layers and sediments
  • Patterns of inorganic input and movements through soils, groundwater, and surface water
  • Patterns and frequency of disturbances to the system

Within the broad areas, sites are free to focus on the biota processes most relevant to their specific site. For example, LTER research at Konza Prairie focuses on fire, grazing, and climatic variability as essential, interactive drivers of ecological processes in mesic grassland ecosystems.

LTEResearch—especially its emphasis on long-term, place-based inquiry—was used as a template for Long-Term Ecological Reflections.


The concept of a network of Long-Term Ecological Reflection sites was first advanced at an intimate retreat hosted by Gary Paul Nabhan on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson, Arizona, in August of 2010. This first effort was intended to honor and build upon the Spring Creek Project’s Long Term Ecological Reflections program, which began hosting writers-in-residence in 2004 at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Those present at this first gathering envisioned a network that might extend beyond Long-Term Ecological Research sites to include sites where early naturalists like Leopold, Thoreau, and Shreve took field notes, photos, and sketches—and to sites with deep oral histories from current and past residents.

A second meeting was held at the Aldo Leopold Center in September of 2010. Curt Meine, of the Center for Humans and Nature, hosted the meeting.

A third meeting, formed largely by representatives of LTER sites with already existing or significant interest and potential for such programs, was hosted by the Spring Creek Project at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in May 2011.

Since these early years, this loose-knit network has grown to include more than two dozen sites.

Why Art and Science?

In “Interview with a Watershed,” a piece that came out of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, author Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “It’s a hopeful thing when scientists look to the land for knowledge, when they try to translate into mathematics the stories that water can tell. But it is not only science that we need if we are to understand. Lewis Thomas identified a fourth and highest form of language. That language is poetry. The data may change our minds, but we need poetry to change our hearts.”

Indeed, art and writing creates a bridge between scientific research sites and the public. Through public exhibits, events, publications, and other forms of outreach, arts and humanities activities have been shown to increase public engagement with the research and ecological issues at these sites, changing people’s perceptions and behaviors.

Scientists and artists have also expressed a mutual benefit to working alongside each other. Time and again, immersion in one of these sites has shaped the trajectory of an artist’s or writer’s work. Scientists report asking new questions, seeing their research sites in new ways, and being invigorated by the public outreach potential advanced by working with artists and writers.

Further Reading