Monday, July 13, 2015 – Many of Socrates Sculpture Park’s visitors may may have noticed a growing row of sunflowers without realizing that they are watching a carefully thought-out miniature ecosystem. Called Urban Forest Lab Project, by New York-based artist Casey Tang, the project at first appears to be a bit of an oxymoron. Not many would consider the planting of a forest to be a lab project, and even fewer would imagine a small landscape of trees and plants in an urban setting when thinking about a “forest.” However, the ongoing work embraces and confronts each aspect of its name.
In September 2011 Tang approached Socrates with a proposal to turn a small stretch of the park’s land into a self-sustaining garden. Since that initial conversation, Tang and the park have collaborated to make it happen, beginning with preparing the soil for housing a variety of plants. The process began with a soil test, which Tang did with the help of Cornell’s Cooperative Extension, a resource for community gardeners and farmers. Once testing showed that the soil was workable, Tang set off to convert the park’s compact, sandy ground into a nutrient-rich foundation.
On a recent afternoon at his emerging forest garden, Tang immediately began analyzing the state of the soil underneath a patch of stunted plants. He pulled a leather sheath from his backpack and drew out a gardening knife to dig into the earth. He sifted the dirt through his fingers to gesture that the soil at this end is sandier and less nutrient rich. As he moved to the other end of the forest, where the sunflowers have grown to stand over five feet tall, Tang held up chunks of dark soil spotted with white flecks. “This is really good,” he said in reference to the white bits, “it’s a fungus that generates nutrients.”
The small ecosystem that Tang is creating is composed of clover, alfalfa plants, sun hemp, turnips, peas, and a towering array of blooming sunflowers. None of these plants exist without purpose. He calls them cover-crops, which work to enrich the soil. The sunflowers’ far-reaching roots pull sustenance from the soil’s depths, and the widespread clover patches convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into nutrients that can be used by plants.
Tang’s interest in forestry and self-sustaining ecosystems began during his anthropological studies at SUNY Purchase. In the years since, he has focused on how a self-renewing system or society can change the power dynamics between residents and large corporations. After Purchase, Tang spent a summer with Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens. He lived in an eco-village in Massachusetts, and continued to further his understanding of food cultivation. “Because companies own resources, they are the centralized power that people have to go through. People have to labor for the ability to pay for basic necessities.”
Tang specifies that the difference between garden farming and forest farming is that gardens have to be constantly worked on whereas forests, once they are self-sustaining, can reproduce without much maintenance. In preparation for when his Urban Forest is ready for new species, Tang has put together a meticulous list of eighty-seven different plants that he intends to introduce to the forest. Each plant is accompanied by its native origin, edibility, and root type, amongst identifiers. Out of the long list, he is most excited about bringing in sea kale, a Paw Paw tree, and a North Red Toona Tree—all of which bear edible components. “I want this to be a community resource,” he says of the forest garden.“For me it’s about the freedom that comes with being self-sustainable.”