Southeast of Atlanta, not far from Interstate 20, is a quiet, almost surreal green space called the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve.
The area is home to a granite outcrop, much like Stone Mountain except on a smaller scale. Around Arabia Mountain, you’ll find clearings of exposed rock ─ wide, open surfaces of flat granite where it looks like nothing could ever grow.
But it’s in these seemingly empty spaces that composer Stephen Wood found inspiration.
The Diamorpha Smallii is one of the few things that actually flourishes among all this granite, and it’s found almost exclusively in Georgia living in small pools of water in rocky areas.
“It’s developed itself to be livable in this extreme environment specifically,” Wood said. ”It’s pretty amazing, and it’s beautiful to look at. So that’s why I was so drawn to it for musical inspiration.”
It inspired him to write a piece of classical music, “Diamorpha Smallii: A Granite Phenomenon,” which he composed after observing the Diamorpha’s entire lifecycle from September to April.
While it may sound strange to write music about a plant, for Wood it seemed natural to blend art with environmentalism.
“I came to the realization that it was something I had always done,” he said. “The first piece of music I ever actually wrote was about the pine forest behind my dad’s house.”
Over the past few years, Wood has found a way to bring these interests together through partnerships and programs with nature preserves. This includes local parks like Arabia, which is located in DeKalb County, where he’s organized performances. He’s also worked with national parks through artist-in-residency programs.
“There’s a growing sense of empowerment of what we can do in national parks, and art is part of that,” Linda Cook, a superintendent at the Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut, said.
There’s actually a whole community of artists, like Wood, who are bringing art into local and national parks all around the country. What they do varies a lot from park to park ─ everything from quilting to sculpture.
According to Cook, the connection between art and national parks goes back to the beginning of the park system. Thomas Moran’s landscape paintings of Yellowstone helped inspire Congress to designate it as the first national park in the late 1800s.
But back then, artists, like Moran, were using their art to introduce the natural wonders of the West to the entire nation. Cook says artists today are talking to a smaller audience, and their concerns are often local.
“There’s a lot of microscopic as well as larger social issues that artists can focus on,” she said. “It could be social justice, in terms of land encroachment, clean air, clean water …”
Basically, they’re taking on contemporary issues that threaten parks today.
This might sound a lot like what rangers do ─ that is, help the public understand a park’s environment and how to preserve it. But the idea behind these programs is that maybe an artist can help the public understand their environment in a new way with skills a ranger might not have.
At DeKalb County’s park at Arabia Mountain, Ranger Robby Astrove agrees. He’s actually worked with Wood to bring more artists into the park.
“I think there’s a lot of exciting opportunity to explore and really push the envelope on what we know and feel and understand and what we can share with people,” Astrove said.
For smaller parks, figuring out new and different ways to connect to the public can be especially important. Astrove said that in the case of Arabia ─ even though it has been around for a long time, some people still don’t know about it. He hopes art can be a gateway.
“I think it’s going to draw in an audience that wouldn’t be the typical nature users,” he said. “They might not come on a nature hike, but they’ll come and see a photography exhibit.”
One challenge, though, is funding.
Art and environmentalism aren’t exactly lucrative fields. The Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve can’t support art projects financially, which is the case with most parks, local and national, Astrove said.
But that doesn’t really faze Wood.
“One of the great things that brings rangers and scientists and artists together is we all want this to happen regardless of the funding,” he said. “We view this as really important.”
One day Wood said he hopes to start a nonprofit to help artists get funding for wilderness-inspired art and performances that reconnect the public with their environment.
You can hear Stephen Wood’s music performed live 2 p.m. Sunday at the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. It will be part of an “art hike” organized by the Arabia Mountain National Heritage area.