A Wilderness Science and Art Collaboration

Aldo & Leonardo, a partnership between Colorado Art Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The project is inspired by the scientific wisdom of Aldo Leopold and the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Our endeavor is an interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and scientists designed to celebrate the lands, resources and opportunities protected by the Wilderness Act. In 2013, we are hosting one-month residencies in six diverse wilderness areas. Artists will work alongside wildland research scientists and gain firsthand knowledge of the wonders, complexities and challenges of our nation's wildest places. The result will be a body of work that creatively illustrates the value of wild areas and honors the scientific efforts to preserve wilderness for the next fifty years.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Empiricism & Its Discontents

By Tama Baldwin

--“The proofs fatigue the truth.”  Georges Braque

dogs of kotzebue, # 1

These days leading up to our departure for the Brooks Range are deliciously long, the sun lassoing our heads most of the hours of the clock until our sense of ourselves in time is mostly lost.  I have to force myself to wind down and turn in because something in the body seems to love the light so much it rises and rises into it with no sense of an ending.  We are all feeling a little like those flowers you see every where down south in the big cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks:  all those  buckets and busted up canoes packed bow to stern with snap dragons and lobelia and dahlias and petunias blowing themselves up in little color bombs.  It would be interesting to know how the hormonal processes of those flowers are altered by the absence of darkness—it’s a desperate race to be sure, to flourish as fast as possible before the onset of winter.  In Kotzebue the horticultural predilections of people of European descent give way to the aesthetics of the hunter-gatherer.  Though I’ve seen more than one citizen with a weed whacker over their shoulders heading to some location I’ve yet to uncover the standard practice here is laissez faire when it comes to things like landscaping and lawns, which is an aesthetic I very much prefer.  I would never get away with it in Iowa City, but I’d love to let the yard surrounding my house retreat to its prairie origins just as here the tundra continues to assert itself despite the assaults of graders and pavers and four wheelers and pickup trucks.  I like the tangle of fireweed and bluebells and bear grass and the clusters of daisies that are nothing less than prolific in springing from the most distressed scabs of earth.  I love the dogs that guard the front of so many of the houses, the lot of them incredibly noble in demeanor:  they are lords each over their domains—just as the ravens outside our little red house choked in shrub willows completely own the piles of pipe and Northland storage containers stacked in a lot across the road.

Maybe I am giving the light  more credit than it deserves.  Perhaps the inspiration that keeps me up past my normal bedtime stems from the incredible welcome we’ve received.  Every one involved in this project, from the representatives of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Art Ranch believe utterly in this collaboration we are about to undertake in what the park service swears has been scientifically proven to be—botanically speaking—a “pristine wilderness.”  The conversations around the dinner table have been dense and vibrant, as packed with laughter as debate.  It occurs to me that despite the presence of the twin sirens of the wired world—internet and TV--  the art of conversation is still alive and well in Kotzebue.  Tonight the focus swerved toward one of my favorite topics—how we know what we think we know about the world—and more importantly a debate about the merits of so-called “anecdotal evidence” versus  “empirical proof.”  

The push-pull between the anecdotal and the empirical plays out all the time here.  When the road to the Red Dog Mine 90 miles north of Kotzebue was finished and trucks began to roll their loads of zinc to the Chukchi Sea the caribou who migrate along the coast were affected by the overt presence of human industry.  Those in favor of the mine argued, anecdotally, that there was little to no impact, but the scientists who radio collared and tracked the caribou noted that many of the animals shied away from crossing the road, delaying their southward passage for almost 40 days--a disruption that was nearly catastrophic both for the animals and  hunters alike.  True subsistence existence is already all but impossible now with the changes wrought by climate change and the incursion of mining and drilling, and the Red Dog Mine clearly has only made things worse in this regard.  The caribou who failed to cross  the road would not survive the winter, and those who finally dared to cross after over a month of delay had to burn down their winter fat hurrying to catch up with the rest of the migration.  Those in favor of the mine now say the trucks stop when the drivers see the caribou—thus problem solved—but anecdotes like that sound just a little cartoonishly too easy, and so  I am eager to know what the scientists still studying the issue will have to say when they finish tabulating this year’s migration patterns and numbers. 

The part of the Brooks Range where we are heading next week is rich with cultural history, and each day as we survey looking for new archeological sites  and assessing the condition of existing digs we will be confronted with how we know what we know about the people who left evidence of their lives behind.  No life can be perfectly reconstructed and interpreted from the fragments, and the longer the delay between the social reality of the artifact and the social reality of its interpreter the likelier it is that the story of the object and the person who made it will be lost to time.  The sad truth is that the most durable of things are often the most mundane—bones and stone, mostly, and these tell a story of gut level survival which while important says little to nothing about the interior life of the people who once lived here.  Their descendants, though, have plenty of insight to offer, almost all of it by way of story.  The traditions are oral, of course, and thus  when the empiricist arrives demanding something tangible--proof that what the elder claims was actually how things were--our ability to fill in the gaps or  to flesh out the whole story tends to suffer.   I love the empiricists and their need for their kinds of truths--though maybe it would be better if we could figure out a way for the quantifier to meet the dreamer halfway.   There is always a bead of truth in every story, no matter how speculative, no matter how freewheeling in relation to material reality.  Even lies open a window, albeit obliquely, into a shared reality.  In the mid 19th Century the Inupiat prophet Maniilaq foretold the arrival of Europeans  in far northwestern Alaska and of boats powered by fire and boats that could fly.  The last of his prophecies have not yet come to pass, but in this age of climate change they are starting to feel less and less like fantasy.  The village of Ambler is not yet a teeming metropolis--though with the on-going invasion of Canadian mining interests in this part of the United States it now seems plausible.  I don't want to be there though the day the whale he prophesied arrives that far up the Kobuk River--be it by tsunami or by flooding. 

wing'd boat

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