Experiencing Art on the New England National Scenic Trail

By Charles Tracy

The New England National Scenic Trail (NET) has worked with a variety of artists to connect people to the outdoors with poetry, music, photography, films, and more.   

If you visited the NET during the summer and fall of 2017, you would have found Scenic Kiosks created by artist William Van Beckum. Drawing on the tradition of scenic imagery in the American conservation movement, these installations followed the example set by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to encourage tourism, recreation, and conservation efforts.

The images on these kiosks were created by appropriating photographs posted to Instagram by hikers. Each image is made up of 20-50 images from each trail section, creating a visualized record of the community’s involvement with the trail.

The value of the New England National Scenic Trail is monumental. These kiosks are meant to harness the power of scenic imagery in celebration of the NET and encourage community members to share their landscape experience through social media.

In 2013, The National Park Service, in cooperation with the Appalachian Mountain Club and Connecticut Forest & Park Association, presented TO BE AT THE FARTHER EDGE: Photographs along the New England Trail/Barbara Bosworth, an exhibition of panoramic photographs taken along the trail over course of a year. The photographs were displayed at nine different sites – each with its own relationship to the trail – to form a unique exhibition that viewers could experience at their own pace and following their own path. The exhibition included a series of events ranging from hiking with the artist to lectures and discussions, all of which were enthusiastically attended.

As artist-in-residence on the trail, Bosworth thought about what it meant to make pictures “of” the NET – posing questions that led her to other questions, starting with the most basic: What is a trail? How does it come into being; how is it marked; how is it used, and how is it maintained? What flora and fauna are integral to it; what is its geological history? What is its history in terms of human use? Does it serve a function, or do we travel it for less tangible reasons, for its scenery, its views and vistas, its sounds and smells? What is trailness?

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Bosworth’s photographs reflect her own responses to these questions, based on her experiences on the trail, as well as in the lecture halls, natural history museums, historical societies, and libraries that she frequents to feed her wide-ranging curiosity. In her photographs, Bosworth reveals her own interests in the trail, as an artist with a deep interest in geology, and as a photographer whose art flows in the wake of her inquiries into the natural world. She has pursued her questions about where – really where? – it is that we find ourselves. What is around us; how did it get there; what do we do with it; what does it do to us?

In 2012, the National Park Service’s Youth Ambassador Program (YAP) created a music video for the NET. With a storyline inspired by The Matrix, the video has registered thousands of views on YouTube and energized young people across New England to "find their adventure" on the NET. It has also spurred other national trails to produce their own dance videos.

Impressed by the energy and style of YAP's earlier video, "Get Outside and Move," which encourages people to explore parks and trails in their backyard, "we invited them to work with us on the NET," said Charles Tracy, NPS Trail Administrator. "Witnessing the creative process of this team of young artists was impressive. YAP approached the project with professionalism and brought fresh ideas to the table. YAP helped our partnership see that peer-to-peer communication is one of the most effective strategies." The project goals were to generate greater awareness of the NET and to encourage New England youth to get active.

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Building on the success of the video, YAP continues to expand awareness through school visits where the YAP team members show their videos and share their outdoor experiences. The NET's trail partners, Appalachian Mountain Club and Connecticut Forest & Park Association, are also using the video as part of their outreach programs.

In 2016, David Leff became the NET’s first poet in residence. He was selected for his extensive experience as a hiker, conservationist, and nature poet. Leff led a popular series of poetry-based trail hikes and several nature poetry writing workshops, in partnership with the Emily Dickinson Museum and Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. He used his residency to probe the idea of “trailness” -- the notion that connectivity is critical to human affairs and is also represented physically by a continuous footpath -- through a series of haibun, a marriage of prose and haiku.  The Story Map Half a Million Footsteps: Deep Traveling the New England Trail is an innovative and engaging vision of Leff's residency.

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A project led by visiting lecturer Carolina Aragon in 2014 gave Smith College students the opportunity to create compelling art while working to connect a local community with the local landscape.  In Parks to People, a community-based art project, students in Aragon’s Landscape Studies Studio worked with an after-school group of sixth- to eighth-graders from the William R. Peck School in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Their goal was to create art and inspire the public to visit the New England National Scenic Trail and local parks such as the Mount Tom State Reservation. The younger students visited the landscape studies studio at Smith to create T-shirt designs and joined Smith students on a hiking trip to Mount Tom, accompanied by local geology and botany experts. Later, the group worked together at the Peck School on collages, watercolors, postcards and maps that were eventually exhibited at the Holyoke Public Library and on regional transit buses.

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“It was wonderful to work with such an enthusiastic and hard-working group of Smith students. From the very beginning they were very interested in creating a tangible project for the public, while being mentors and teachers to the younger students,” Aragon said. “They taught students about art and composition and developed a great working relationship with the students.”

Have you experience these or other art on the trail projects? Visitors are invited to join the conversation by using the Instagram hashtag #myNEtrail to share their images with other hikers.

Charles Tracy is the National Park Service Trail Administrator for the New England National Scenic Trail.