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.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Final Days of the Residency on South Monomoy

By Elisabeth Nickles

South Monomoy

The lighthouse during a storm
My last week of the residency I spent a total of six days on Monomoy at the south end of the island staying in the house adjacent to the historical lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1849 and it was an important warning of the shoals and currents that surround southern Monomoy. It was last used in 1923. Besides the lighthouse and remaining house and shed, Monomoy is left to the elements, to the winds and winters that are constantly changing its shape and habitat. It has suffered little from the effects of man, except in a few creatures and plants that proliferated with the population of humans. 

The island was not always disconnected from the mainland, people fished and a small community existed in the mid 1800’s. The Monomoiyicks hunted and fished regularly during the summer months. The abundance of food is evident in the many fishing boats that harvest off of the coast of Monomoy.  Perhaps Monomoy's extreme conditions protect it and make it difficult to be used for permanent settlement. In the past, there was a lighthouse keeper and his family making sure the lighthouse remained lit.   

An edge of the lighthouse with surroundings
The privilege of being on Monomoy on July 4th is that I felt a pride in my country in a way that was so connected to the land, and a deep appreciation for the people that set aside this area. I could spend the day thinking about evolution over time that created an ecosystem full of flying creatures, lichens, tidal pools and ponds. The day was mine to explore a new place, with no distraction. To have my job be “to look” and “to experience” was a gift on a day that represents our independence and national pride, making it the best Fourth of July I have ever experienced. 

Inside the lighthouse facing east

Inside the lighthouse facing west

Lighthouse facing East 

Exploring the Southern end of the island, one gets the sense that existence is existing  in that the animals and birds are left to simply be. The interference of human development is prohibited, frozen in time… and you are experiencing something beyond the abstract boundaries and divisions that contain the spaces of our modern world. 

The southern end of the island is quite different from the north in that there are freshwater ponds. The vegetation is diverse, there are pine trees, water lilies, cranberry bogs and cattails. Until hurricane sandy and the contamination of salt water to the ponds,  freshwater fish inhabited the fresh waters of the island. River otters have been seen in the ponds until recent years. I noticed a large variety of song birds around the ponds, bringing the constant bird songs and the arcing trails of fast moving swallows.

The boundaries that exist on the southern end of the island, are formed by water, grasses, marshes, mud, lichen and the shifting water lines absorbed in the sand. All is a sensual wonderland of color, light, and atmosphere. Each moment changed by the bright sun or dim mist. A change in the weather brings dramatic changes to the sky and horizon. The light and mist make each previously observed area appear muted, subdued in clarity, light and shade. One’s confrontation with the mist, rain and wind is a part of its cycle as is night and day. Water is refreshing after the heat of the sun, the birds keep flying seeming to delight in the light rain. The falling rain and mist dampen the plants and lichens, changing the sound underfoot from crunchy to soft.

A clear, sunny day, very crunchy

a cloudy, damp day, very spongy

edges begin to merge

One can see in the morphology of the landscape and the vegetation that grows in the different areas, where water gathers and collects creating a different ecosystem within the large areas of dunes. One could miss the diversity beneath eye level unless spending time looking down, and getting on your hands and knees to take a closer look. From a few inches above the ground one can see an entirely new world, adding to the feeling of boundless wonder.  

The Bog
The lichens cover a large area. I noticed three different kinds interspersed with areas of cranberry bogs, filled with mosses, carnivorous plants and cranberries.

Within the cranberry bog

sun dew carnivorous plant

Powder Hole

The area around Powder Hole on the Western side of the south end was one of the most magical places I explored.  Each step, I was observing a different painting. Every texture told of the tide and the rolling up and away of a force, both feeding and taking away. The water used to be contained by sand, but the ocean has broken through and creates a stream of water directly in and out of the mud flats. The area is an important spot for migrating birds to stop and eat, there are always many different species of birds feeding on the mud flats.   

Oystercatcher at Powder hole
Each time I hiked to Powder hole, it appeared different. Depending on the light, time of day, amount of rainfall and cloud cover. The cycle of the tide changes constantly as does the movement of the clouds, the same environment can appear new and create a completely different experience. 

Powder hole from the Eastern edge

The blotches at powder hole with violets, deep blues and light greens

The tides filled areas with water over a stained sandy ground, the textures created by growth and decay was an enchanted wonderland of blotches. Each pattern and design marked the passing of time in the abundance of life of the large and small. Death is common in its intertwining rhythm of coming and going, each part fulfilling a role for some organism along its existence.


The ocean makes paper- seen above to the bottom right is a paper like phase of seaweed that is caught in the grasses at the edges of powder hole. 

The unbelievable colors of Powder hole.


The orangish, yellowish, brownish water contrasted with the blues and light greens had me floating inside of a
color field painting

Bright green in the sun , deliciousness of texture and color

I watched this accumulation of broken down seaweed ( I believe it is a type of spongomorpha) and took video of its movementgracefully forming organic lacework patterns that shifted constantly. Its colors ochre,
sap green. The fish 

The Inlet

The ocean has broken through to create a stream of water that rises and falls, filled with seaweeds that float with the movement. My own sense of scale changed with the experience of walking under an open sky surrounded by water and grasses. The proportion of my body was dominated by the land and atmosphere. To stay still and to watch is my favorite part of being in wild places.  In simple listening, in being quiet and motionless, I can see so much more. I am not the subject, but the observer. In the age of speed and fast images, I protest with long looking. I rebel in taking time to respond to texture and sound. Southern Monomoy gave me an easy invitation to look long and release the ego and ambition to the wind and rain; to worship sun and color.

The simplicity of two color families and their variation. I felt i was
in a living, breathing, perfect painting. 

The area where the sea breaks through, bringing life and evidence of past life. There are bones at the edges that
have been washed in with the force of the tides. 


When the evening comes, the day is done. The rhythm of eating, bathing and entertainment, is simplified. The morning light woke me to see the sun rise. The night begged for me to look at the dome of the stars, to hear the crickets and toads.  

The beach on the east side of the island 


Nightfall from the lighthouse, the silhouette of the land and structures create the uniform shape
to frame a changing sky

It was difficult to leave Monomoy’s southern area.  Life has a different rhythm when it depends on the rising and falling of the sun, the day dictated by weather and your activity of the day entirely dependent on the light offered naturally.

 For most of human existence, we were hunter gatherers. We related to the world quite differently than the modern human. I believe our minds still long for this connection, our modern psychological ailments a symptom of the growing divide between man and nature. Even in language we have separated who we are and the rest of ‘nature’. It’s as if we have created an alien species, living in the industrial world, without considering what it means to our totality as an animal, to lose habitat and experience within that habitat.   The imposition of convenience on the earth has left fragmentation for which I seek wholeness. I find it best in the wild, creative places of my mind and in the wilderness areas still intact.

Harrier hawk seen above dunes late in the day

Carl Jung’s writings about our interconnectedness with the natural world tell of a world without boundaries:
“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go……..”

When looking at the history of life on planet earth and the evolution of life on earth we are a part of a lineage that is constantly morphing. We are just a bud on a flower forming and never finished. All things pass and all things change, there is no crowning moment and no final curtain. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all related and the divisions are verbal and philosophical constructions. 


Upon returning to a modern town, it was so striking to see the lines and divisions everywhere.  How important it is to have a place without exact lines, except that of the meandering or crashing of water. A place where a human is a small and humble creature in the large landscape. The importance of wild places is a part of retaining balance, not only in that environment but also within our own psyches.We need air and water, the composition of our blood so close to the waters of the sea. The mind can be a part of the vastness contained underwater where all of our lives and life on earth originated.



  1. I apologize for the formatting change in the font. In draft form, all is the same font. I hope you can read the small print!

  2. Loved reading and seeing this post! The images and text engaged me fully and for that I give thanks! So glad you had a wonderful time there!!