Into the woods

It is brutal out there – hot, humid, a typical day in South Louisiana in the height of summer – but 13 New Orleans students attending an artsy environmental camp don’t care. Donning insect repellant, sunscreen, hats and everything else adults deem important, they await their journey into the forest.

Before heading out to measure developing hardwoods, Dave Baker, a botanist, grills the students. He throws out familiar names such as American elm and water oak. The campers stumble over the Latin terms Ulmus americana and Quercus nigra. Baker corrects their pronunciation and leads them to their environmental classroom – the forest that surrounds A Studio in the Woods, a lower Algiers retreat dedicated to forest preservation and artistic pursuits.

The group enters a canopy of green. Palmetto, yaupon, cypress, fungi and fern dominate this universe. Baker pulls out a measuring tape.

 “I’ve got No. 34,” he says.

 “It is a water oak,” a student says.

“What size was it last year?”

 The student reviews a chart. “10.6.”

“This year it’s 11.7. That’s a lot.”

It’s week three of the campers’ four-week program and Baker is giving the students hands-on training in the identification of native trees and plants. They learn the difference between cottonwood and hickory trees and royal and shield ferns. Studio teachers underscore what the children learn in the field with photographs and informative rhymes such as, “Sedges have edges, rushes are round and grasses have nodes.”

These aren’t lessons that rural children would go to camp to learn, but these 6- to 12-year-olds are urbanites. Their reality is concrete and air-conditioning. They live in Gentilly, New Orleans East and Uptown. During the school year they attend such schools as Langston Hughes Academy Charter, Lusher Charter and Dwight Eisenhower Elementary.

Sometimes the younger ones cry. For them, the forest is a scary place. But at A Studio in the Woods, they learn that the forest is a nurturing place. They also learn how to use its treasures in art.    

Lucianne Carmichael, one of the founders of A Studio in the Woods, teaches them how to use flora to make images in tiles. They press leaves into clay and fire them in a kiln.

 “When you’re finished,” Carmichael explains, “it will be a scientific artwork because it’s a record of a leaf. Once it’s on a tile, it will last thousands of years.”

Lisa Sirgo, a third grade teacher at Langston Hughes, and Laura Richens, an art curator at Tulane University, lead the campers in bark rubbing, making musical instruments with gourds and writing poetry.

Take “Hackberry,” a collaborative effort of sensuous imagery, as an example:  Sandpapery, warty,/Reaching, stretching, growing,/Gateway to a thriving forest.

This haiku reveals that the tree’s presence is a sign of a healthy forest, Sirgo says.

 It also captures the beauty of the place. Joe and Lucianne Carmichael, who bought the land 40 years ago, built a house, a pond and artist studios in the middle of the forest without disturbing the visual impact of its natural habitat. Because the structures are built of wood in the same natural hues as the trees surrounding it, their presence comes as a surprise. The windows and doors are open to the elements, without artificial heat and air, making the people who live within them as much a part of the natural environment as the owls and warblers that live in the forest. The overall effect is storybook material.

“If fairies exist, they totally live here,” says a camper’s parent, Elizabeth Townsendguard. “It’s such a magical place.”

Maggie Kates, a fourth-year camper, agrees that the camp is special. She likes the art projects most of all, she says, but she knows all the plants by sight or touch. “Camphor,” she says, rubbing a cutting brought to her by another student.

When the couple bought the 7.66-acre tract in 1969, it wasn’t called A Studio in the Woods. It was a wooded area across from the Mississippi River that once was part of a bottomland forest that stretched for thousands of uninterrupted acres. Populated with oak, elm and sweet gum, the trees prospered in peat soil deposited by river floods. Its natural role as a hurricane buffer was disrupted in the 1700s when it was cleared for sugar cane production and then later by housing developments such as English Turn.

The Carmichaels fell in love with the spot when they picnicked there in 1968. They completed their house about a decade later. Joe Carmichael, son of a self-sufficient ranching family, lobbied for better financing for New Orleans schools during the week and created things with wood in his spare time. Lucianne Carmichael, long-time principal of McDonogh 15 Elementary, worked with clay. During their years of employment, they devoted most of their lives to educating New Orleans’ children. After retirement, they dedicated their time to art. Eventually, their passions merged into one – a preserved forest used to educate students and inspire artists.

They began inviting community groups to the site for workshops in painting, photography, ceramics and environmental subjects. In 2001, they formed a nonprofit organization called Friends of A Studio in the Woods to support a visiting artist program. Every year several visual, literary and performing artists are selected from an applicant pool to live on-site for six-weeks.

When the couple donated A Studio in the Woods to Tulane University in 2004, its focus widened to include environmental research under the management of Baker, the site’s environmental curator. Since then, Baker has fought invasive species, such as the Chinese privet, with a chain saw and herbicide. Clearing out the invaders opened the forest for the growth of 209 new native trees, he says, whose birth and growth he records and measures.

The work has paid off, Baker says. “I’d say this is the prettiest forest on the peninsula.”

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