Carnegie Mellon University

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A Field Guide to the Anthro-Silvan Interface

posted on 2024-05-30, 20:46 authored by Margaret UrbanMargaret Urban

Westernized cultures often focus on immediate needs and desires, blind to the consequences of their actions beyond the here and now or their place within the planet’s ecological systems. The climate crisis results from this mindset, and this attitude must substantially change if its worst consequences are to be averted.

 A Field Guide to the Anthro-Silvan Interface is significant at multiple levels.  Through an interdisciplinary examination of the relationship between humanity and trees or forests, it argues that this interaction provides a leverage point to affect a transformation in human behavior and mindset and systemic change. 

One of the foundational principles of Transition Design is expanding the temporal frame. When viewed as more than raw material, trees and forests— silviculture and forestry—may help industrialized cultures see and consider time and expand their temporal frame. Growing trees requires long-term consideration and planning, with foresters and administrations accounting  for a generation or four in their planning and decisions. This dissertation is significant in its use of case studies to illustrate how this extended view exists  within arboreal contexts across cultures, periods, and continents. Two interconnected research practices form this dissertation. The first builds from historical and contemporary case studies, autoethnography, cultural  studies, environmental history, and transition theory to define the anthro-silvan interface. Further, this definition establishes a classification system for the  complex, multi-faceted, and multivalent interaction between humans and trees  according to nature and intent. Categorization and analysis are significant as they allow for pattern recognition and comparison of approaches and mindsets between widely differing works, disciplines, and cultures. 

The second part of this dissertation is research through design grounded in  theory hybridized from psychology, anthropology, aesthetics, and phenomenology. It explores sensory augmentation to perceive the hidden workings of  trees and experience the lives and timescale of trees. Trees—so different from our own that they blend into the background as “not alive”—have a unique ability to challenge assumptions about the non-human and shift away from an  anthropocentric understanding of time and the natural world. The result is a  tool to develop empathy and compassion for the non-human, significant for  potentially fostering environmentally conscious attitudes and behaviors and affecting a change in mindset 




Degree Type

  • Dissertation


  • Design

Degree Name

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Jonathan Chapman Gideon Kossoff Noah Theriault

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