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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

By tory tepp

well, finally a moment to come down the mountain, taste of civilization again and attempt to put words to the past three weeks. it may be as difficult as the adventure itself to describe. being a technological neanderthal and a Luddite to boot does not help me to stay focused at a computer for very long. but perhaps a steady stream of alternating coffee and IPAs will help me stay focused.

as i stated in a blog post a long time ago, i ventured in to this endeavor with a sick and heavy heart. and the work that would result from this residency would be influenced not only by the direct experience of the residency itself but by all the concentric spheres of ecological relationships, both environmental and esoteric, that i passed through en route and harbored within. as such, my long standing penchant for the profane and debauched had not only caused the ruin of my romantic relationship, but had fairly blackened my heart with self-loathing, weariness and despair and this was my state as i hit the road west. i knew from the beginning that this journey, this residency, this ordeal, was going to have much needed effects upon my condition. it must. now, i realize that certain philosophical vices can not be removed from a man's soul, and who would want that?! but what i sought was a purge to let the light and the air back into my heart, a healthy balance to the brooding devil's bastards that have taken up a permanent residence in my orphaned soul. the reason for all this personal vomitous will become clear as the words unfold and my project takes shape.

the road
picking up my best friend, alexis, a canadian musician, in tampa we proceeded on a tour through the american south and southwest that spanned a wondrous array of landscapes, geographic and cultural. from the bright, fertile estuaries of both florida coasts to the steamy and mysterious bayous of southern louisiana and the requisite lurkings throughout new orleans, we roamed the night. from the hipster havens of austin, (silly) to the texas hill country to the tucson desert we braved the heat. we passed the imperial dunes, a sight which one would not believe existed in america. we thoroughly toured the salton sea, stopping in bombay beach to get the real story about this post-apocalyptic landscape as we drank pabst with the flies and the handful of denizens brave enough to inhabit the place. we rested in palm springs 115 degree heat before pushing on to the wholly unique landscape that is los angeles. the road lasted two weeks and was a slideshow of highway 10, with healthy doses of darts and drink and remarkably low levels of depravity. my friends level head, we were no longer young punks!, and a very debilitating lack of funds saw to that. the journey proved to be a good buffer and counterpoint to my ascent into the sierras. it was a chance to ween myself off  the stifling solitary behavior i had entrenched myself in, as well as a therapeutic bit of time spent with a best friend who is in the same boat in many ways. and, of course, the landscape was this grand build up to the crowning of the journey, the sierras.

into the wilderness
from this point on words not only lack the proper ability to convey the experience but the copious visions of majesty and glory and beauty is just too redundant to constantly and poorly express. a short book could possibly encompass all the travails and laughter and pain and transformations that occurred on the eight days we went into the wild with a pair of u.s. forest service rangers. i will encapsulate a few moments as best i can. 

it was clear from the get go that the idea of throwing a couple of artists into this environment, this situation, with seasoned rangers was pretty insane. i can say this because i am an artist, but from my experience, artists are generally whiny pussies (sorry grant). i always say, "it's artists who give art a bad name". so looking back at the adventure its tempting to ask, what were you guys thinking?! but instead i look back with a sense of pride at having survived with flying colors and a truly humbled sense of being. Easily one of the most grueling and difficult few days i've ever had, we managed to hang in there and accomplish all we set out to do, both personally and with the rangers.

on a personal level, the purge had truly begun in a torrent of sweat and blood. everything that wasn't strapped down by formative dna was ripped out by the loss of cabin pressure. the simple act of struggling and moving through this landscape had a restorative effect on the heart. its as if the massive trees and the stoic chunks of rock have an inherent resentment of a troubled soul and gradually scrape away at the grime of one's heart saying, you human, you have no sense of time, no true morality, how your petty troubles have clouded your vision and clogged up your heart. and the constant motion through them scrapes and polishes a stone heart, opening it up to its own natural lucidity. and what the trees and the stones don't grind away, the streams, creeks and lakes wash clean. after a weeks worth of de-testicalizing, icy waters i felt as clean as the day i was born and childishly receptive, primitive and bestial.

in geographic terms our hike proceeded as follows. we hiked up the bear creek trail camping at roughly 8500 ft for two days. this gave me the opportunity to gobble up some of my food. in my quest to purify i packed fresh foods, not understanding the criticality of weight to such undertakings. but the nutrition was worth the weight and i looked upon it as part of my penance. we spent the next three nights at roughly 9500 ft. this location was dear to me for we bathed in a waterfall and that area of the creek was home to a faerie island that i marveled at for days and may become part of a larger creative writing. during this stay, duane....

ok, i have forgotten to mention my partner throughout this whole adventure, duane. no doubt you will get a clearer sense for the man, the artist, through his own project and writings. but for my part, there could not have been a better partner for this journey. we shared a tent as complete strangers. duane's supreme wit nourished us all with endless and almost bruising bouts of laughter. his gifts as a teacher, his wide well of knowledge thoroughly buttressed the entire experience. his companionship along the way was another important medicine to my process of healing and discovery. coming from a world and living a life that only bukowski could be proud of were all the skeletons to come dancing out of my lurid closet, duane is an inspiration as a man and i am happy that he is my friend. 

so, we took the day off from work, yes work, i'll detail that more in a moment, we took the day off to have a hike of our own. it was on that day that we had a true experience of the land through which we roamed. we got off the beaten path and traveled up a low maintenance trail to lake italy and beyond. this was a 12 mile hike to an altitude of 11,600 ft or so. we were above the tree line, we were undaunted, we were awed. lake italy was one of the most serene and stunning lakes i've ever seen. we were at the top of the world and all was still; white alpine columbine, trickling snowdrifts, the lake copper green to deep indigo to violet, a few sparrows, grasshoppers and butterflies, the skeletal remains of glaciers starved by global warming. one's vision was crystal clear, barely the air to get in the way of your eye looking out and god's eye looking in. this hiked marked a turning point for us both as a moment of freedom and control over our experience of the mountains.

our final hike was to lake marie, approximately 10,500 ft. by the time we reached and pitched camp i had pushed my body about as far as i ever had and i was empty with weariness like a vessel waiting to be filled. and it was this afternoon off that my project, which had been percolating with every drop of sweat up the mountain, coalesced and began to fill my empty being. it was an afternoon of supreme luxury and gratification, to rest and lie under the sky in complete confidence of ones creative faculties. i could go on and on about the resplendent majesty of lake marie, but by that point, lake italy had already seduced me and i was content with that love affair. 

it so happened on that night, the final of our ascent, that i woke up in the middle of the night to piss. i might say that i had great difficulty sleeping every night, as though i were unable to get enough air due to fright or panic. it wasn't until the final night of the journey that i slept with my mummy bag unzipped that i suddenly experienced a deep and oxygenated sleep. turns out my mummy bag may have been too little for my beer bellied frame and the constriction was choking off my dreams in a b-movie embrace. nonetheless, i rose to pee off the cliff, the moon, near to full and practically a sun, had set. the entire milky way was reflected in the surface of lake marie, shooting star and all. it was the mark of the time to return down the mountain. skies so clear and alive with stars must be seen to be believed. and to do that you have to be on top of the world. and we were there. 

the final night we force marched almost all the way out camping where we took out lunch the first day on the way up. here was a series of falls and pools. amazing. i kept thinking as i hauled ass down the pacific crest trail to the bear creek trail that i was trudging through the ardennes, trying to get to bastogne before the germans had our guys surrounded. my fire shovel became my rifle and i marched without a single break, at least until i came to my beloved faerie island, where i stopped to finish making a map of the sweet little place for future reference. the final day and hike out was a different story. we had just dug out about 40 pounds of 12" spikes that we had to pack out. as i wanted to use them in my project i resigned myself to pack out about 25 pounds worth of rusty metal. the last half day was more like the bataan death march.

but made it out we did, with nary an injury or incident, blisters, blown shoes and beer deprivation notwithstanding. ok, thats the mean timeline for the adventure. and by our return my goatness had fully returned. i first thought about goatness while doing a residency in death valley. its when one takes on the erratic and nonrhythmic gait over a rocky and treacherous landscape in order to assume a steady movement forward. of course, after being sequestered in the wilderness for a while, goatness takes on any of a number of logical meanings. but i often like to think of it in terms of public art making as well. the terrain is never routine, never structured and even. one has to traverse the realm of public space in much the same way, allowing the feet to instantaneously adapt to the rocky terrain at all moments, despite the inclination towards rhythm, in order to safely and efficiently move across it. i won't go into the baser aspects of goatness here, aside from that feeling of moving through the landscape smoothly and poetically because you are no longer separated from your environment by civilizing, human constructs and costumes that prohibit, hobble and encumber.

rangers and the wilderness act
it was an interesting experience working with the rangers. and i will admit i had expectations vastly different from the reality of the situation. much of this could not be helped by any party and there is nothing negative in any way to convey. but for the sake of detailing the full experience, such discrepancies must be noted. foremost among them is the fact that the high sierra residency wasn't able to actually have a scientific component to it, which was startlingly and sorely missed. in working with the rangers, our work, and theirs, was basically relegated to the role of maintenance which can be broken down to landscaping, janitorial and security. the bulk of our work was firepit obliterations, picking out micro-trash and trail clearing, including several tree removals by way of a fantastic cross cut saw that was exhilarating and tedious. from my vantage point, aside from field education and regulation enforcement, the rangers were there there to maintain a wilderness theme park. the work we engaged in was hard and brutal and frustrating because much of it seemed contrary to what one would think of as obeying wilderness and nature. but it was about the wilderness act which is about preserving these areas as best we can for our enjoyment. we quickly realized that there was little to be gained from this work and that's when we went in search of our own wilderness experience. duane will have very eloquent things to say about all this i'm sure. i kind of just left it behind as not necessary or useful to my project. it is what it is. as long as humans have there grubby fingers in anything there is no use trying to theorize about its preservation or its pristine state.

the rangers as i experienced them were some of the healthiest, calmest and durable folk i've ever met. theirs is a devotion to a lifestyle, a life spent in nature, yet not necessarily about nature. they seemed completely in love with the environment in which they work and lived and their skills were about surviving within it. i think i was expecting the rangers to be more of a druidic sort, or stewards of the forest type. but in reality most of my queries about trees and wildflowers and particular ecosystems went unanswered. no slight to the rangers at all. their duty was altogether different from the kind of knowledge i was hoping to associate with. but it was refreshing to live with people when all niceties and all simple amenities are gone and you're all just filthy, hungry and tired little tribespeople chuckling under the stars at the secrets you're sharing and discovering together.

the nuclear winter
we came down from the mountain just in time. thunderstorms the night we emerged spawned 14 fires due to lightning strike. the aspen fire, which still burns and has burned 14,000 acres to date, became a major threat. smoke from the fire, a mere 15 miles away, drifted over and covered the land completely. ash drifted like snow and all sounds muted under the ominous mantle of smoke and threat. the effect on one's lungs was immediately apparent on day hikes, which in hindsight were probably a bad idea. but, when in rome... for seven days this oppressive nuclear winter like shroud hung over the entire region. its effects penetrated into the psyche as well. feeling triumphant from our journey and successful in to purging the disease from my heart, my exuberance was somewhat checked by the inability to work outdoors or roam. 

it was during this time that duane transformed the cabin into his workshop. as he was planning to do a performance on his next excursion into the wilderness, he had five days to assemble his costumes and his props. i won't presume to state his business, but the cabin became a constant flurry of fabric and sewing activity. since it was crucial for me to construct and merge my project within this landscape, i opted not to go on a second tour in favor of making the piece. so i spent the next few days gathering my materials from the the landscape and preparing all the necessary elements for the crucible.

alas, on the the day duane departed, the heavens opened up with rain and hail. and on the next day i saw blue skies again. whether the fire was being handled or the wind simply shifted, i know not. all i know is that the cabin suddenly shifted from duane's workshop to mine and i went into full production mode. in my enthusiasm i set off on a trek to blayney meadows to gather wildflowers, a 16 mile trek that i was so nonchalant about i didn't take enough water and was a gasping wreck by the time i limped up to the cabin. and so, i'm underway.

the project
at the onset of my explorations here in the sierras, i became immediately enamored with what i believe to be the greatest profusion of wildflowers i have experienced anywhere. the deeper we hiked into the mountains the greater was my astonishment. each little stream was inhabited by a profusion of plants lusting for the damp fertile soil. the leopard lilies scented the entire air and were a boon on the hike when suffering under the pack. in the meadows a completely different society of wildflowers flourished. everywhere you looked tiny flowers clung to bare rock, hung over streams or burst from decaying tree trunks.

at first my infatuation was leading me towards some sort of cataloging and presentation of these splendid creatures. but during our expedition my thoughts began to focus. at this point some sort of scientific collaboration was clearly out the window. yet working with the rangers was not without merit. it occurred to me that this whole thing, the wilderness act, the rangers and their life, america's love of such places, it wasn't about science, it was about romance, a deep, mystical romance where all things are one, and all love is one. this combined with my ongoing condition and rehabilitation, my purification, my opening, became the impetus behind my ongoing project. i carried a heart of stone through the wilderness, metaphorically as well as literally. my heart was ground down, polished, cleansed by the rushing waters, the stone, the branches of trees and the winds from the heavens. and as a trees decays over time to produce the very soil from which the wildflowers spring, so my heart was ground down to a fertile pile of dirt and starlight where the flowers of my love, of self, of another, of all, are beginning to grow into fabulous new forms and creatures. and so the project is unfolding, a love poem to the wilderness, a poem to my lover. i will write more of the process and development of the piece as it progresses. it is called "our wilderness heart".

have i rambled? i thirst. tap beer, gasoline and then back under the yoke of endless woodburning of poetry under the clear mountain sky. thank the gods, to be an artist!


  1. will come back to finish reading but want to say thanks for posting! so cool to read about all of you people out there already doing this wilderness residency thing!

  2. Absolutely lovely sentiment and writing. "heart ground down to a fertile pile of dirt." whew. heady stuff.

  3. Love this - makes me all the more excited to get to my residency next month at Canyons of the Ancients. What you write about the cleansing/purifying aspect of wilderness really resonates with me - that one can be so filthy and yet so purged by being out and hiking. It does strip away so much of the crap of every day life doesn't it!

  4. Ha! I agree about artists!.. sorry all but biologists are the coolest people to walk with...
    I like the writing -thank you!