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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


Loop Road; tundra and water pools.
By Andrea Spofford

The sky here varies in shade, ranging from vibrant and glowing blue, to steeled gray, to off-white, to even more shades in-between. The first day I was here we were convinced that it might be snowing, despite the fact it wasn't cold enough. Mosquitoes dropped downward from the sky so heavy and white that it wasn't until we went outside we realized they were not snowflakes, just heavy-bodied mosquitoes drifting with the wind, never rising. I have never seen such large mosquitoes, but they are slow, and though dense at times they cannot fit through a head net. It is how they frenzy my ears that is most notable, and how Hannah Atkinson described a previous trip--the way she wiped mosquitoes from her face as one would wipe water--that truly illustrates their thickness and size. I mention these mosquitoes, and my snow confusion, because of the sense of disorientation I have felt here, as if I am off-kilter slightly, though this is not a negative thing. I realize, rather, as I wander Kotzebue that this place is challenging in a most beautiful way.

Kotzebue Evening Sky

A few days ago we walked a ten mile loop (though the distance is debatable) outward from town, guessing from a distance which ridge line would bring us back into sight and which we would eventually cross on our return. Right now I can hear the kenneled dogs barking and howling--a few yap in excitement but their cadence together is striking. Out the window is a dog sled atop two shipping containers, a common sight in Kotzebue, and though this one lacks a pile of caribou antlers, the way the wood loops into the handlebar above the cargo bed is not only aesthetically pleasing, but intricately artistic. There is much craftsmanship here, and yesterday Norma told us about a boat builder working into the early morning; she found him by following the sound of his electric sander.

Chukchi Sea, Kotzebue
In a roundabout way I suppose I am trying to talk about time and the way that time is different here. In a sense, there is no time. Fishing boats leave in the late evening and return in the early morning; families picnic along the shoreline around two a.m.; walking home from dinner after ten feels safe because the sun loops around the town and the light, even when dim, is still gray. We are trying to leave for the backcountry on Monday and if the weather permits we will take two flights into the Noatak Wilderness. I met a man yesterday at the AC who came to Alaska to find his fortune; he wanted to go to the wilderness too, to fly along the river and hug the mountains and be fully outside of this town. The disorientation I feel, though, in some ways comes back to this idea of "leaving" town for the wilderness. The light itself--knowing when to go to bed, when to wake up--is enough to confuse my body, but the man at the AC pinpointed something else we've been discussing a lot here: where does wilderness begin? On Monday we are flying northward, but there are signs of wild-ness all over: fireweed flourishing in backyards and along roadsides, willows bursting through fences, the tundra only a few feet out of town, and the way houses are built atop small stilts to accommodate permafrost. I do think there is a distinct difference between where we are today and where we will be come Monday, but I also think our conceptions of what is "wild" are worth reexamining. For years I lived in Northern and Southern California with Mount Lassen, the redwoods, and later Joshua Tree, Sequoia National Park and King's Canyon as my backyard. I lived in Colorado on the Front Range and have spent numerous seasons in the Rockies, and exploring the Southwest is a trip I always say yes to. These are only a few of the places that are so connected to who I am as a person and to my experiences of the world. Right now I am wondering about this connection and my vehement assertion that we are created by these landscapes, whether we realize it or not. I consider how few people know of this vast landscape in Northwestern Alaska and how strongly those who do love and care for this place, a dedication that is not controlled by a specific notion of time, but rather a malleable awareness of it--the idea that this landscape is both influenced by and at the mercy of encroaching time. I wonder why it took coming to Alaska to articulate something as simple as this: the landscapes that create me are not a separate wilderness from me. And I wonder how to help others see this place as I am seeing it: exuberant, overwhelming, and stunningly beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. and what if the way in which we engage with one plant, our awareness of the sky each day, our feet walking the earth... was also a way to engage the wilderness each day... is the wilderness beneath the cement, in the cracks still, of the cement we lay...