In the verdant expanses of the 995-acre Shaker Forest in Enfield, New Hampshire, the past whispers its tales, reminding us that the world around us is shaped by stories often ignored or forgotten. The pioneering AR application, Entangled Ecologies, seeks to bridge this gap, by unveiling the deeply interwoven tapestry of historical, ecological, and cultural imprints that mark this land. With the gracious funding from the NEH Digital Project for the Public Grant, this project brings history to life and offers an innovative platform for blending digital advancements with the profound tales of our environment.
Initially conceived by Dartmouth’s Damiano Benvegnu, the project is currently being led by Joline Blais at UMaine and her Dartmouth colleague John Bell.
The Shaker Forest comprises a hill that is completely timbered except for Smith Pond, a 64-acre lake at its peak. The size and location of the property make it a distinctive conservation area. Several mature American chestnut trees—rare in New England due to the early 20th-century chestnut blight—have been discovered on the property. In the last few years, loons have started nesting again on Smith Pond. The current abundance and diversity of flora and fauna may give the impression of a place where no human has ever set foot, but there has historically been a significant human presence and impact on the land.
For example, the Mas-kwam-okk (or Mascoma) Trail, crucial for the Abenaki People, carves its way through the land, silently bearing witness to the myriad footsteps that once tread its path. And the Smith Pond is an artifact of a Shaker community dam. To help tell this entangled story, the project’s collaborators include the Enfield Shaker Museum, The Upper Valley Land Trust, the Cowasuck Band of the Abenaki-Pennacook, SabbathDay Lake Village, and Thomas Weasels, author of Reading the Forested Landscape.
By moving AR beyond the confinement of walls and urban setups, the app enhances the organic beauty of the forest, unfolding stories of the Abenaki peoples, the Shakers, modern day hikers and conservationists, and others who have interacted with this land. The app makes a database of information, oral histories, and teachings accessible to visitors to the forest not as abstractions on a website, but as digital enhancements to the natural world around them. Visitors who find the etched tokens in the forest can reveal a 360° layering of sights, sounds and sensory data that will enable them to journey through time, unveiling layers of history and interwoven narratives that have left their mark on the land.
The application’s ethos revolves around three core humanities themes:
1. Entanglement of Narratives: Human and Natural histories are not separate spheres but entanglements of multispecies practices and narratives
2. Sources of Knowledge: How human knowledge is construed and managed as well as what are the sources of this knowledge are crucial questions for the environmental humanities
3. Presence of Interactions: Even when we are alone and focused on ourselves, our presence implies a multitude of past and present interactions
For visitors to the Shaker Forest, Entangled Ecologies offers a chance to explore and deeply connect, and to know that beneath the silent watch of ancient trees, histories are whispering, waiting to be discovered, reminding us of the profound interconnectedness of our world, where every narrative is a thread in the grand web of life.