Weaving a Forest

Weaving a Forest seeks a material language to represent a forest as a living multi-species organism.
  • The image shows the visualization that this project will be working with.

KDL Research Lead/s: Anne Burdick, PI
Start Date: January 2022
Status: ongoing

Weaving a Forest is one of several Living Systems projects that uses design and materiality to reframe multi-species relations as inseparable. It is in the very early stages and aims to bring together computation and the fiber arts to model what forest scientist Suzanne Simard calls the “wood-wide web,” a mycorrhizal network—fungi and tree roots—that carries nutrients and messages between plants. ​The project asks how data about a living network might be embodied through weaving, braiding, knotting, knitting, and stitching with fibers. By using Simard’s forest research to create a collection of test samples and fiber works, the project will explore how tangible connectivity might elicit new understandings and generate new form languages for botanical study. 

According to forest scientists, a forest can be seen as a single organism. A stand of trees may appear to be a collection of individuals but below ground they are interconnected through fungal networks that carry nutrients and messages among a tightly knit community of plants. They are interdependent; ecologists have shown that isolated trees may struggle to survive.

Simard, who runs the Mother Tree Project, brought the idea of the “wood wide web” to the public in a compelling Ted Talk in which she evokes empathy for these living systems, bringing them to life as beings that care for one another by sharing food and warnings of danger. In her talk and papers, she uses a network diagram to visualize the evidence she and her team collected, making visible this powerful plant-to-plant connectivity (Beiler, et al. 2010).

In data science, a network diagram is generated to study connections within groups. Its standard form, used by Simard, is a node-link diagram comprised of balls and lines, basic components whose appearance does not change, regardless of whether the data being represented is social, biological, cartographic, or linguistic.

As design researchers who create visualizations of complex ideas, we want to investigate whether there might be another way to represent a living entity, a form as powerful as Simard’s storytelling.

Weaving a Forest attempts to find a visual language that can turn such geometric abstractions into perceptible relations. It does so by asking how a network graph (the underlying data structure) might be embodied through interwoven fibers? How might interacting with, literally feeling, the tensile strength of a dense network illicit empathy and understanding? How might we capture the public imagination with regard to plant-human affinities? If the western scientific tradition, such as Linnaean classification with its dried plant specimens and botanic gardens, emphasizes differences, what is its alternative? How do we conceptualize and communicate kinship between species?

By bringing science, math, and the environment to life through women’s handiwork, the project also aligns with the Institute for Figuring’s Crocheting a Coral Reef. We hope to bring a collection of “woven forests” to a similarly broad audience while also possibly allowing scientific researchers to see their work in new ways.

Work cited: Beiler, et al. “Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts,” New Phytologist (2010) 185: 543–553, doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.03069.x