Bumbling up a dirt road through the pines, a doe and two spotted fawns hop through and continue on into the forest. In this somewhat remote part of the Sierra sits the Sagehen Creek Field Station with a babbling creek and fish observation hut, weather stations, rooms with meeting tables, university theses, maps and art to help propel research and invoke emotion to help preserve the environment.
“Art is about meaning … we’re not a sculpture garden but we do want to encourage people in how they think about this place,” says Sagehen assistant manager Faerthen Felix.
Believing that art and science go hand in hand, Sagehen has hosted 10 artists in residence and is working with Sierra Nevada College’s Master of Fine Arts students on art projects.
“Art is about meaning … we’re not a sculpture garden but we do want to encourage people in how they think about this place.” – Faerthen Felix
Since its inception in 1951, Sagehen’s mission has been mainly to study fish and other native species of wildlife in the area. As an early adopter of fish behavioral studies, the university built a small fish house with underground glass windows to observe the trout swimming from Sagehen to Stampede Reservoir.
sage“One [SNC] student flipped the fish house so that it looks like the fish are watching the people inside, like the creek was their living room,” Felix says.
Mary Grace Tate’s Fish House/Human House installation has signs with facts about humans facing toward the creek so the fish can read them (assuming trout can understand English) and is also meant to give human guests the feeling of being watched. As if on cue, a small fish swims up to one of the signs and stares at it head on, either reading its text, laughing at the pictures or staring at us. Read more about the Fish House at forfish.net.
Felix and I walk around the rest of the property as she points out how science and art are entwined at Sagehen.
“Science is great at analyzing and collecting data, but we needed public empathy,” Felix says about the Sagehen Experimental Forest expanding in 2005.
Six years later, the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art approached Sagehen to commission a 50-year experiment that involved growing several species of plants, study Sagehen Creek’s water flow and study climate change. By opening the doors to the Nevada Museum of Art, Sagehen saw that to best engage the community is by pairing art and science in a way that leads to fundamental discovery and social change.
“Science and art is the same, but the process is a little different,” says Felix. “Art currently doesn’t have the same credibility as science but they are solving problems in the same way.”
There’s an area of the creek behind the fish house where an artist performed an interpretive dance and stones with ancient symbols carved in them lie in the bed of the water. We go into a grassy meadow with weather stations and a giant pillow filled with alcohol that measures water content in the snow.
As we walk around Sagehen, Felix points out the Invisible Barn, a structure that is a few feet in front of us but that I almost missed entirely.
“Whoa,” I say, almost running into it. I only see wooden beams holding up the hollow edifice that blends in the grove of trees. A reflective façade gives the illusion that you are staring straight through it. To the naked eye, all you see is trees. Felix was instrumental in finding the Invisible Barn, a structure that has gained worldwide attention for its clever architectural design.
“We got some pushback from environmentalists … they were afraid of the Invisible Barn killing birds with the glass,” Felix says.
The barn is bird friendly, using a highly reflective brand of mirrored film made of aluminized polyester that allows migratory birds to see and avoid the structure.
The Invisible Barn was installed to provoke questions about human’s presence in nature, as well as delight guests with its innovative design. Plans are to have the piece at Sagehen indefinitely.
To visit Sagehen north of Truckee, guests may hike into the area, camp at Sagehen or book a group tour at sagehen.ucnrs.org.