Mark Twery is a supervisory research forester. Like many scientists, Twery studied mathematics in college. Unlike many of his counterparts, however, he dropped math to chase his inner passion for theater and the performing arts. After graduating from college, Twery worked in theater but changed gears again, but this time for woodworking, and he studied forestry. Several years ago, Twery learned of the many similarities that artists and scientists share. Today, he works on the Northern Research Stationin Vermont and loves the part of his job that involves teaching children about forestry and the environment through dance.
Tell me about your journey that led you, a theater technician, to science.
I was always interested in the arts. I started college as a math major but I lost interest and got involved in theater. I spent a semester during my junior year working as a stage carpenter (building sets, designing lighting and creating props) at a theater in New York City.
After finishing college, I spent a summer working on the inaugural season of the Oberlin Dance Collective run by Oberlin College. I returned to New York City to the theater where I worked during college and worked there for two years. One day on a trip home to Virginia, I went outside and I heard a strange noise above my head. I looked up and saw a cardinal singing. I am a birder but did not recognize that bird song. That’s when I decided that I had lived in the big city for too long.
I left my job in New York and found my way to Boston where I worked in a small custom woodworking business. It was good work, but I didn’t earn enough and again I began getting tired of living in a city. I returned to school at the University of Massachusetts intending to study wood technology but instead I ended up in a forestry master’s program. It seemed like a good way to merge my interest in the outdoors with my need for more intellectual pursuits.
So where has your forestry career taken you?
My master’s degree at “UMass” focused on the effects of beech bark disease on forest composition. When I finished there, all the jobs that looked really interesting required a Ph.D., so I went to Yale and studied the effects of defoliation by gypsy moth. When I finished, the U.S. Forest Service offered me a job studying forests affected by gypsy moth. Over the 23 years I have worked in the Forest Service, I have channeled my creative interests into designing software to help foresters develop management plans that address the wide variety of demands people place on their forests.
How did dance reenter your life?
My wife and I often attend arts events here in Burlington, Vt. A few years ago, a dance company called the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange came here for a show and we went to the pre-performance talk for one called Ferocious Beauty: Genome. The show was about genetics, science and biology. Lerman, the originator of the project, spoke about how artists and scientists use a common process and how we have a lot to learn from each other. The idea appealed to me, so after the presentation we started talking about what we could do together.
A few months later, I invited Dance Exchange to present their work at the annual meeting of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. The parallels between science and art were shared and the scientists were dancing in their seats.
Tell me about how you started teaching children about science through dance.
Since that conference in Baltimore, I’ve been working with Dance Exchange to develop the Moving Field Guides project, which involves using the arts to teach students about nature. We (scientists/naturalists and dancers) take city elementary school students to a park and talk to them about ecology. Meanwhile, the dancers observe gestures made by the naturalists and students. At various points during the session, we pause and the dancers talk about what they’ve seen and will initiate a movement into dance. For example, it can be a gesture such as seeds floating off into the wind, or bark sliding off a dead tree or stepping into a pond and pulling your foot back. We try to capture what the kids are experiencing while they learn about nature.
We once took kids from inner city Baltimore and by the end of the afternoon, they were performing their ecological dance for their teachers and parents. The kids don’t spend a lot of time outdoors and we wanted to take them to natural areas and blend what they learn with dance. Just like riding a bike, associating learning with movement of their own body helps them remember what they learned that day.
Who is involved during a typical Moving Field Guide day? Is there music?
There are about 12 to 16 students, and we like to see four dancers and two naturalists, usually without music. It’s a mix of dance and ecology. We use outdoor sounds like birds, wind rustling tree leaves, or a wave lapping in the pond. The dance that summarizes the experience lasts a few minutes – short enough to remember but long enough to include quite a bit of content.
Do these students seem to have a higher interest in science after participating in Moving Field Guides?
Sometimes. We worked with an after-school group the last time we did this in Baltimore. The sessions covered two days and on the second day, a second-grader who had participated on the first day came up to me and handed me a drawing of a tree. It’s been on my office wall ever since.
Did you ever think you would be working in dance and forestry?
That’s one of the things I really like about what I am doing now. It really is true that artists and scientists follow the same steps of observation, analysis, interpretation, and communication. It feels like I’m going full circle in my career by connecting visual and performing arts with forestry, ecology and the environment. The scientist’s job isn’t done until other people know about the work they’ve done. It is the same with dancers and painters. There are tremendous parallels.
The Faces of the Forest is a project of the U.S. Forest Service Office of Communication to showcase the people, places and professions within our agency, which is responsible for 193 million acres of forests and grasslands in 44 states and territories. If you know someone you would like to have profiled here, send an email with the person’s name, work location and a bit about them to Faces of the Forest.