Hemlock Hospice opens to the public on October 7, 2017 at noon, and will be up for more than a year (through November 18, 2018). We have a website, a schedule of events for the opening reception, and are putting the finishing touches on the last of more than a dozen sculptural pieces emplaced thoughtfully throughout a new interpretive trail within the Prospect Hill Tract at the Harvard Forest. A substantial outreach effort is leading to press coverage, interviews, seminar invitations, etc., especially in the art world. Scientists, though, generally are a bit more muted in their response or apparent interest. Why might that be?
In pursuit of an answer, I explore here the importance of empathy in field research.
empathy, n. “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, June 2017. Accessed 10 September 2017
Throughout the eastern United States, one of our most iconic forest trees is dying. Eastern hemlock (a.k.a. Tsuga canadensis; Figure 1) is being sucked to death by a small insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (a.k.a. Adelges tsugae). As a scientist, I study how our forests may respond to the loss of this “foundation” tree species.[i] As a human being, I cry, I mourn, and I look to the future for hope.
To reconcile the desire for knowledge and the emotional tearing that affects many of us who study eastern hemlock and all of us who are living with these fading trees,[ii] I have partnered with two artists—David Buckley Borden and Salua Rivero—to develop Hemlock Hospice: a collaborative, field-based installation that blends science, art, and design that  respects eastern hemlock and its ecological role as a foundation forest species;  promotes an understanding of the adelgid; and  encourages empathetic conversations among all the sustainers of and caregivers for our forests—ecologists and artists, foresters and journalists, naturalists and citizens—while fostering social cohesion around ecological issues.
Starting today, and over the next several weeks, we’ll be installing Hemlock Hospice in and around the oldest stand of eastern hemlocks in the Prospect Hill Tract at Harvard Forest, and I’m using this space to keep track of its background and progress. I’ll also be presenting an overview of Hemlock Hospice in a five-minute “ignite” talk at the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland Oregon, August 6-11, 2017.[iii]