Co-creating with Nature

This week, Gaian art fellow Jon Schroth describes his journey to create Cycles of Gaia, an ecological calendar for southern New England.

For some time when I was a child, my family had a poster-sized calendar on the wall next to our breakfast table, presenting the entire year on one page. It was very bland, but very functional. A 3-wide, 4-tall, grid of months, with each month divided further into a grid of days. In the boxes, we kept track of our activities. During that year, my father made a promise to my two siblings and me: in rotation, each month, he would take one of us out individually for a special treat. We set the rotation that mine would align with my birthday month of March, and then occur every three months. I realized that visually, the entire right hand column of months on the calendar was mine! As we proceeded through the year I sensed time cascading down those four rows. Still today, when making plans or considering dates in relation to a year, I instinctively picture their location on a 3 by 4 grid of months. 

The ecological calendar, weaving the life cycles of 20 native species of New England.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been working with The Gaian Way to design an artistic calendar to visually represent time as the local ecosystem experiences it. Inspired by a similar effort in Puerto Rico, the calendar looks at twenty common tree and shrub species in southern New England,1 and depicts a year of their collective activity as colorful rings of leaves, flowers and fruit, as well as the primary forces that drive them: daylight and precipitation.  

The first distinctive difference one notices from the familiar grid calendar is the shape. Instead of conceiving of a year as a block of time, cut off from a linear strip, and then discarded, this calendar presents the year as a circle, with no defined beginning and no end. The energy of one year clearly flows into the next, and a season is never entirely left behind, for as it passes, it also becomes visible on the next rotation’s horizon. 

Functionally this calendar is also quite different. A brand new copy doesn’t provide a blank slate of empty days to fill with personal schedules. The year already is quite busy with activity, some seasons bursting full of it! Rather than tracking our own important engagements, the calendar charts the plans of twenty familiar friends with whom we share space every day, but often forget have busy lives themselves. Still, as a wall calendar, I hope it does serve as a reminder that we are invited to attend all of these events, and even to connect our lives into their rhythm. 

Collaborative Art 

I create all kinds of art, but most of my focus has been animation. I’ve always been drawn to the medium because images that incorporate the dimension of time feel more alive. I suppose that designing a calendar follows in that same vein. Furthermore, this process turned out to be a curious collaboration with the living subject of the piece itself. I brought a general format for the layout to follow, but nature really determined the shapes and color palette. I began by illustrating twenty of the most prevalent forest plants in my region, without yet knowing what they would form when presented together this way. After diving deep into phenological research, informed by large spreadsheets of dates and numbers, I began to populate the calendar with my illustrations and to see what took place. It felt like permaculture gardening. Rather than starting with a complete vision, sketching a guide, and refining details until the image conformed to the plan, instead I had to submit, observe, and see what nature provided. With limited direction of my own hands, I watched, to see what would sprout up. 

How the calendar developed over time.

The placement of every mark of color on the black canvas is guided by a multitude of real, living organisms. Harvard Forest has been meticulously recording observations of these organisms for the past thirty years, and making the data available to the public. The data consists of a dauntingly long list of discrete observations. Each entry notes what a specific individual plant is doing at a specific moment in time. I combined their list with a similar list of observations recorded in the Budburst app by amateur naturalists from the broader region. With a great deal of help from a computer, I processed tens of thousands of these instances of time experienced by individual plants, and combined them to find the regional averages for the entire species. Combining further, I put all twenty species back together into three bands of a circle, and the thickness of each band was determined by how many species in the group collectively hold leaves, flowers, or fruit on their branches at a given time during the year. Lastly, the illustrations were placed inside the undulating bands. The unique shapes of each species mix to form a harmonious pattern, and in response to the summer’s outstretched rays of sun, they seem to surge together, and then recede as a single entity. 

The key, showing leaves, flowers, and fruit of 20 species, as well as daylight, precipitation, and marks for the wheel of the year.

I hope that the resulting image captures the visual essence of a year in this particular place. That it hangs in classrooms and kitchens, offering a target for the wandering gaze, and providing a form to help shape our imagination of time. That it allows viewers to step up close and locate the day, or a specific plant on the circle, and then to step back, and to see each moment as an important part, of a continuous stream, of the diverse, vibrant life we are all part of. 

Speaking of Classrooms 

As the acorns ripen this fall, the poster will be freely distributed to elementary, middle, and high schools from the five states in the bioregion. Today we officially launched a SustainableCT campaign to raise funding to accompany the poster with educational materials so that teachers can more deeply integrate the calendar with locally relevant, ecocentric lessons in their classrooms. We will work with educators over the spring and summer to create a curriculum, lesson plans, and teacher training videos. Please support this effort, and with a $20+ donation you will receive your own Cycles of Gaia poster!2 


1) Or more accurately, the Northeast Coastal Zone, Level III Ecoregion 59, according to the EPA’s Bioregional map of the United States.

2) U.S. only due to postage costs.

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