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The Art of Empathy

Many of us feel the destruction of the natural world acutely. ‘Branching Songs’ captures that, aiming to restore beauty and galvanize.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Jun 2021 |

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

When the image of a massive tree on a logging truck barrelling along a B.C. highway made its way around the world recently, I felt a visceral, sick-to-my-stomach sensation that came from seeing something that was once magnificent and alive reduced to dead wood.

Empathy is a weird thing. Often you don’t know it’s happening until you’re right in the middle of it, experiencing the strange sensation of revelation mixed with familiarity. “Oh! That’s what it feels like.” Insert any number of rough experiences — loss, pain, suffering — followed by an almost immediate sensation of wanting to run away from these feelings.

If we humans ever truly opened ourselves up to the things we do to other living beings, we might all spontaneously combust. Animal life is one thing, but if we include the whole world of biodiversity — rivers, lakes, mountains and forests — our crimes beggar description.

Trees are the most recent entities that have moved in the human understanding from inert and unfeeling to something more along the lines of a living, breathing, reciprocal community.

Emily Carr University’s Branching Songs project takes the idea of transmuting our aching empathy for the destruction of living things into something more positive. Its inspiration are the 1,308 trees in Burnaby slated for destruction to make way for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The project grew out of a larger exhibition, Wild Empathy, launched in 2018 and spread around Vancouver, including a hollow tree that kids could climb inside at Science World. Branching Songs is an immersive media experience that’s accessible online, with 360-degree photos and soundscapes. (Earlier work from Wild Empathy, including They Speak in Whispers and Sound of Tree Rings, is on permanent display at the Search Gallery at Science World.)

Unlike other threatened forests that can feel distant to some city dwellers, the Burnaby trees are part of an urban forest next to a major metropolitan area. Despite its proximity to humans, the site is home to many wild creatures. The 1,308 red cedar and alder trees planned for removal make up one of the last remaining densely forested areas in the city.

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Julie Andreyev and Sam Street set up a contact mic performance recording with an old cedar at the Burnaby forest site. Photo courtesy of Leanne Plisic.

Emily Carr associate professor Julie Andreyev, whose own creative practice encompasses ideas of animal agency and consciousness, developed the Wild Empathy program and continues to shepherd it along with Maria Lantin, director of the Basically Good Media Lab. The project drew on research conducted at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

The works that make up Branching Songs incorporate diverse creative mediums to create a sense of kinship, community and investment. Showing people environmental devastation is one aspect but making them feel it — triggering empathy — is more complicated. That’s where immersive experiences like 360-degree photography and soundscapes come in.

Virtual reality has a unique ability to foster empathy between people and the non-human world. But even something as simple as sound can have a profound impact.

The emotional aspects of audio recordings made in situ open up different sensibilities, going deeper than just images. On the Branching Songs website, audio recordings offer an immersion in bird song, ambient noise and the movement of wind through leaves to provide a sense of a place, a lived-in environment and a refuge.

If the idea of destroying someone’s home opens up a world of grief, this kind of empathetic experience can be a galvanizing force. Sometimes the catalyst is huge, like a felled giant cedar or huge pile of logs — shocking in its sheer scale and enormity — and other times it’s a tiny thing, no bigger than your thumb.

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Top: A contact microphone records sounds of the Burnaby forest. Bottom: An old red cedar at the site. Photos courtesy of Leanne Pilsic.

Amazingly, the arrival of nesting hummingbirds near the Trans Mountain site this spring has put the planned destruction of the 1,308 trees on hold, at least until the end of summer, in part due to regulations in the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

The pipeline construction pause is “owed to the hummingbirds and their nesting traditions in those forested pockets,” says Emily Carr’s Andreyev, and it’s significant in a few ways.

“First, it gives time for the birds and other creatures to carry out the projects necessary for their survival. Second, it allows more time for activists to draw further attention to the troubling pipeline project, and potentially get it stopped for good. Third, it clearly indicates that corporate interests should be secondary to ecological and climate interests.”

Pain can drive people to action. The Fairy Creek encampment on Vancouver Island proves how far ordinary humans are willing to go to fight for the rights of the natural world. But it’s love, joy and celebration that will keep them there.

In the current climate extremity, something as ephemeral as a soundscape might seem akin to fighting a forest fire with a squirt gun. But art has some tricks up its sleeve, and one of these is time. Even as the daily news moves on, art keeps emerging, maintaining an immediacy that strikes a body deep.

In combination, art and empathy offer a potent means to help us combat ecological grief. The very act of making something is itself a positive act, creation being the opposite of destruction after all. It’s also a means out of the emotional paralysis that the ongoing decimation of the natural world brings on.

Everywhere you look, there are stories about committed and passionate people doing their best to help the non-human world, whether it’s rescuing whales from fishing nets or the amazing work done by the Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in Vancouver.

And the art will continue, as Emily Carr’s Andreyev notes.

Recently, she and her students returned to the Burnaby trees to record the hummingbirds. “Our intention was to record their vocals and feature them in a composition dedicated to these little warriors,” she says.

“We entered the site with respect, and quietly listened and witnessed. We were able to record their calls, amongst the tremendous biophony of this tiny-forested pocket. We were able to see how important this forest is to migratory birds. One of the hummingbirds came out of the tree, called and greeted me. I felt humbled and understood the hummingbird’s role as a messenger. If we pay attention and listen with care, we can work together as humans and non-humans towards a better future — one filled with respect and wonder for the natural world.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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