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.

Monday, August 26, 2013

When Leaving

 by Andrea Spofford
Noatak National Preserve
you must always love this place, as deeply as you love yourself and all others 
When I leave a place I love I go through a period of sadness, a moment of mourning for the loss of a beloved, the familiarity of a landscape pulled from me as if by sudden death, or the way of disappearance. The Alaskan arctic where I spent the last month is not gone, so this sadness of leaving has not been as deep as it could have been. This place is still very present for me—as present as the promise of an Arctic Oven and a camping trip across a frozen sound.

Nigu River Sunset
I have dreamed about Alaska for seven years but I had no idea that Alaska could be this largeness of experience: a terrain of tundra and rolling muskeg, a boreal forest, a herd of muskoxen circling a lone baby as we fly over in a float plane, a large blond grizzly bear raising a paw, an expansive scattering of lithics along river shores, the saltwater taste of fermented walrus, the deep red of frozen caribou, a dog in war-paint, a polar bear researcher and her artist husband, a woman from Arizona sorting fireweed blossoms, her partner simmering the syrup, an archaeologist with a quick smile, a town of generosity full with children, three a.m. fishing, a trip to Cemetery Hill to hunt for the aurora borealis, and a vibrant, expansive day lit sky that darkens mid-August and reveals only the brightest stars in partial light—this is only a small piece of Alaska. This place is more than all of this; it is an outdoor museum, a testament not to “untrammeled land” but to the relationship between humanity and landscape, an incomprehensible largeness, like opening your arms atop a mountain, the wind buffering around you, closing your eyes to balance and just standing there in darkness, in flight.

Tundra Along the Nigu River
Before we leave Alaska we go on one more trip into an area that runs along the edges of the Noatak National Preserve. We fly close to the Kobuk Dunes, farther east than our first excursion to the base of the Brooks Range. We camp along the Nigu River, a north-flowing river that runs through the Brooks and down the North Slope. We map sites and dig exploratory 50cm by 50cm square pits, shaving layer after layer of soil and screening each batch as we go. We find flakes and stone tools and Hannah finds a nearly perfect atlatl spearhead that dates back four to five thousand years. She beams.
Atlatl Spearhead

Everywhere we go we see evidence of human life and subsistence—tools and flakes, stone-cut caribou bones, game drive lines, cairns atop gravel, tent circles, and even shotgun shells. The people who lived and hunted here did not just survive—they thrived in a climate of sub-zero temperatures and swarms of mosquitoes. One night on the Nigu we take the canoe into the lake. Mike paddles and I steer. We pull ashore near an archeological site more recent than others we have seen. The tent site here is square. Mike, Jess, and I walk up the hill to the site and Tama stays in the boat with the shotgun—she photographs the bank, the way the grass emerges from the water far from the shore, the water so clear stones are visible through it.
Fall Color Changes

The magnitude of this place is biblical in proportion. One night at the visitor’s center Tama and I watch a film about a man who walked alone across the Brooks Range, beginning at the Gates of the Arctic and ending at the mouth of the Noatak River. We watch a film about the Noatak Wilderness itself. We gather fireweed and blueberries, akpik, or cloud berries, or salmon berries. We walk the loop road outside of town. In one of the films a scientist says that Alaska is where he will take his grandchildren. See, he says, this is wilderness; this is what God made.

Alaska is the sky that night on Cemetery Hill, the circle of darkness dotted with bright stars and haloed by gray light, the sun set fully but still lingering along the edges. Alaska is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer—the sunsets, not sunrises, are vibrant pink and pulsing. Alaska is, instead, that place in the middle of the sky, the coldness of fall approaching and fogging breaths, the space of electricity not mechanical but human, not entirely wild but impossible to contain—the wolf that runs for miles and the fox that follows close at hand.

While I am figuring out Alaska for myself, what part I have taken and what part I have left, I do know that I will bring my children to this place. I will say: See, this is the landscape. This is the sky in all clearness; this is the ground in all brightness. Those are mountains. This is silence. This is where your ancestors lived, where they slept, where they ate. This place is you, the core of you, and you must always love this place, as deeply as you love yourself and all others. 

Noatak National Preserve

Noatak Sunset
Flying Back to Kotzebue; Noatak National Preserve
Noatak National Preserve
Noatak National Preserve
Kotzebue, Alaska

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