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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interview with Refuge Manager,Dave Brownlie ~ From Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo Credit:USFWS
David Brownlie began serving as the Refuge Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA 7,604-acre refuge on January 4, 2010 after nearly 20 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and nearly 32 years of federal service. 

David’s federal career began with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service on the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota in 1978.  David transferred from the Forest Service’, Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 as a Fire Management Officer/Forester for refuges in the mid-Atlantic states, based at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in SuffolkVA.  In 1999, David assumed the Regional Fire Ecologist role for the Service’s Southeast Region, based in TallahasseeFL and more recently AtlantaGA until coming to Monomoy.

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1944 as a sanctuary for migratory birds with an emphasis on threatened, endangered species is recognized internationally as a truly special place, a wonderful place to come to re-connect with the natural world of which we are all a part, and to “recharge one’s batteries”.  In 1970, Congress designated most of the refuge as southern New England’s only coastal Wilderness.  The refuge received Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network designation in 1999 and was also designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. 

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is, “Working with others, to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

Q: Why were you interested in participating with Aldo and Leonardo initiative?

D.B. The Aldo and Leonardo initiative and the whole concept I found to be different. Also it is very needful to bring the idea of wilderness as art, as well as wilderness as almost like a bench mark for science and the environment. I found that incredibly appealing, and something that really has not gotten a lot of attention in a practical or tangible way, and that’s what I thought the Aldo and Leonardo concept was really doing, was bringing art and science together around the common denominator of wilderness. Also because Monomoy is uniquely positioned to be able to do that in part because we actually do have a fairly well developed long standing art community here on Cape Cod.

Q: Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

Photo Credit:USFWS
D.B. From having been on more the science side of things for my entire life, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought or attention to the aspects of wilderness as being art-or at least a medium for generating artistic work. My kids-I don’t know where they get it from, but both of my kids are much more artistically inclined then am I. I enjoy art although I’m probably no good at producing it. I don’t know if I have the right mental process. I am the opposite brain from what most creative artists are. My son is actually a graphic designer so somewhere deep inside my gene set their might be some artistic ability, but it had not been cultivated over my life time.
 I particularly enjoy being out in remote areas, most of my career I spent in fire management and fire ecology which often took me too many of the wilderness areas across the country and a wide variety of them. Maybe under less ideal circumstances-but seeing that process, the process that is fire in wild setting relatively unrestrained is itself aw-inspiring, and at certain times, particularly at night it’s both frightful but also absolutely beautiful at the same time.
 There’s probably something primal in the genes that we all have as people that is artistic, as well as our ability to just be put in awe by the world around us. This is one of the things that I think wilderness strives to keep. Monomoy is a relatively seasonal place with a high population, heavily trafficked waters, roadways, and village centers. Monomoy was uniquely positioned to retain a little bit of that, surrounded by people. It being an island situation hard to get to its accessibility in a highly populated area, is part of what helps it keep that attribute there - I call it the magic of Monomoy, it’s the magic that is Monomoy. You know you’re somewhere different than you were thirty minutes ago at the dock. That’s part of Monomoy’s magic, and the uniqueness of the wilderness preservation. Its proximity of high density development and people, yet it still retains most, at least some of the wilderness character attributes that are embodied in the legislation.

Q: What are some of your first reactions to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge?

D.B. I think it was probably not realizing it right away, it took a few minutes or even a day or so for it to register, was that this place has a magic of its own, which is unique. It was like no other place I had been before even though I had actually really spent a good part of my time living and working along the beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf coast in the mid Atlantic states and subsequent down to Florida were I was stationed in Tallahassee. I covered the entire Southeast region which is most the Southeast Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf Coast plus Puerto Rico. I was able to get too many of the refuges that are in coastal settings. They had many similarities in some respects, between those and Monomoy but also there is something that was absolutely and completely unique about Monomoy, which is virtually impossible for me to put into words. It was more of a feeling that was a result of the surroundings that I put myself in. It was the internalization of that. I think that’s what artists are actually striving to capture in their work with whatever media they work with. There’s probably equally one of exploration as that of the scientist but for a different end purpose.

Q: What do you believe to be a highlight to your time spent at Monomoy?

D.B. For me it was a couple of times working with the artists. The front and back ends of their time here. We were able to get together very shortly after they all arrived at the place that they were all lodging at together. They presented to us their previous work and their artistic interests and what they hoped to be getting out of the Aldo and Leonardo as artist, and Grant led the whole thing off by just talking about the convergence of science and art and the role that wilderness can play. On the back end we closed out by having dinner together at a local restaurant and pub where we broke bread together and shared a meal together.
The thing that just stayed with me is that all three artist collaborated on a very simple token of their visit.And that was they custom made a thank you card using their paper making skills and their combined collaborative talents. They just left hand written notes on paper in a card that they had made during their visit here. And they gave these cards to each of us as a keep sake leave behind. The card itself was more of a tangible artwork product that came out of their visit. For me it was the most meaningful experience from the residency.
As far as on the ground we tried to get them out for an orientation visit and we were able to take them out into the tern colony after we had told them what they were going to be exposed to and what they would experience. We made light of the fact that Monomoy is where the concept for the game angry birds was invented. They all got a kick out of it. Then we walked into the tern colony, and they got to experience getting dive bombed.  This is where Jeremy was able to capture the colony in his video segment that he posted in the blogs and Elisabeth as well, posted and captured in her mosaic stills, terns in motion. Just seeing their eyes light up and listening to how animated they suddenly became after we had gone to three or four places was great. They really just began to get their own taste themselves and to personalize that Monomoy magic for each one of them individually. That was so much fun to see and observe.

Q: Did you experience any change in your perception or experience any form of enlightenment at Monomoy?

D.B. I think I would actually describe it as more of a reawakening for the artistic side of the scientist. I think the artist, particularly in their blogs were absolutely right. Deep down inside everyone of us has an artistic component that’s not always developed or in the forefront. I think the experience interacting with the artist over thirty days did that, not just for myself but for everybody here on the staff. So everything we look at, we look at with more of an artistic eye, or listen more with an artistic ear then we did in the past. It has been a very sensory thing; we use our senses scientifically to gather scientific data. We probably less so inclined to do so before the Aldo and Leonardo artist came to join us for a month. So I think we are changed as scientists probably more because of their visits than we were able to change them, and I think it worked here.

Q: As a scientist do you feel like you influenced the artists that you worked with?

D.B.  I think we did, based on what happened at our very informal but wonderful closeout at the end when we gathered and we basically said thank you, and goodbye to each other. It was very light, it was very comfortable, and there was no awkwardness that things didn’t go well or leaving uninspired, they all seemed to be indicating that they were going home with far more creative ideas than they knew they had time to be able to generate. The hard part for them was going to be narrowing down which of the ideas they were actually going to pursue upon return. The problem for them was they got too many ideas on what they could do. A couple of them were adjunct faculty so they were looking at ways of incorporating what they did this summer into their construction of the upcoming year. Paying it forward to the next generation of inspiring artists.

Q: Did you experience any unusual occurrences at the Monomoy Refuge residency?

Photo by: Artist - Elizabeth Nickles
D.B. I wouldn’t say that we had anything that was way out of our prior experience realm. What I would say is some of the rarer kinds of events were reported a little more frequently, in part because we had three more sets of eyes and ears out there, that were just simply out there trying to drink in and observe that natural world that’s around them. And they were looking at it with artists’ eyes; I know Elisabeth spent a lot of time lying on her belly with a camera for long periods of time trying to just get that one shot. As a result she got a lot of rather close up encounters with some pretty concise critters. She had a far number of encounters with seals that were absolutely completely interested in her presence. Just simply because she was just so still just laying there, and she just got some absolutely marvelous photographs of seals because she was there, and she was there a very long time. Elizabeth basically was the one that would go out and lay there just to see what came her way. She had some of those events that actually spoiled her wilderness experience or sense of solitude. Her solitude was actually spoiled and impaired by someone else doing something that was not really keeping with wilderness character. That stayed with her; at first her initial anger response was - how could you spoil this for me? But then she would become more reflective as she blogged on it. She would kind of take it in stride as one of the indicators of human condition and differences in values and goals. Everybody values wilderness differently in our culture and as a result everybody uses it and treats it differently. Some are far more aware that its wilderness and others have absolutely no clue that they just landed there boat with a motor on it in wilderness, and in doing so they violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act Harassment Provision; but it’s because they really didn’t know. They were ignorant for whatever reason of those things, they have never been taught, or they have been taught and they don’t care which goes back to value systems. Not everybody is able to use wilderness physically themselves but many people still derive value from simply knowing it’s there, and appreciate that there is wilderness that is being preserved.

Q: What were some of the beneficial outcomes of the experience?

D.B. I think partly the biggest one as far as benefits to the refuge would be what I alluded to earlier. The refuge staff particularly the scientifically inclined refuge staff actually look at the world a little more artistically then we did before the artist were here. I think we learned a lot about how to look at the world differently from the artist. I think that’s actually very healthy, very beneficial.
It wasn't widespread awareness, but some of the folks in the local community were able to get news coverage in the local newspaper about the artist in residence, describing why they were here and what they were doing. The artist themselves were able to get downtown and talk to the local artists and merchants about what they are doing in the area,to get a sense of place. I think that’s a very important aspect of wilderness. That is, when you have wilderness locally it’s important that you develop that as part of your sense of place. But I think the artists getting into the community downtown and sharing  their experience, and why they were here was a little bit eye opening for a small segment of the community, and this is what in part we are trying to build upon and expand next spring during the 50th Celebration of The Wilderness Act.
Photo Credit:USFWS
 I would be very saddened to see the Aldo & Leonardo initiative basically be declared over at the end of the year. I would prefer that maybe the 50th anniversary is the time were we look at the opportunity to begin celebrating art and a science coming together around the concept of wilderness, that enduring resource of wilderness. So we are going to try to make some of that happen next spring locally. In spite of the concerns of sequestration and staffing and plans for retirement for some of us old timers, could affect availability of folks and certainly challenges funding to sustain these kinds of initiatives so they aren't just a flash in a pan and then fizzle out.
I’ll  tell ya, this part of New England; there’s probably as many that are openly outwardly hostile toward the concept of wilderness, toward the existence of Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, and in particular towards some of the species that we focus our management on. They become hostile towards the concept because it has adversely impacted their livelihoods in the fishing community. We spend a lot of time talking with the scientists about the local commercial fishing community, and trying to get across to the artist that we recognize that there have been adverse impacts on people’s way of life. Long standing ways life, commercial fishermen are losing their boats, which they are on a trajectory that we have already been through with the small family owned farms. There on their way out of existence and the only ones that will be commercially fishing might be large corporately owned conglomerates. That was a way of life, that was 300 years of New England coastal town culture that is threatened with extinction. They are part of the problem, and they don’t want to admit the problem. They’re the ones responsible for over harvesting various fish stocks that there now prevented from harvesting. Or they can’t make a living at it anymore because of overharvest, so they don’t catch many every time they go out, and it cost them money every time they go out, so they are losing money when they fish. That whole tension, that whole dynamic is painful. So there are probably as many openly against to the concept of wilderness as there are those that would be more willing to embrace the artistic value of having wilderness in their backyard.

It’s important but it’s going to be a difficult conversation, and it’s happening right here in the community. In a small community you have very much diametrically opposed sets of values, all of which are legitimate sets of values. I think everyone of them even if they don’t publicly outwardly express it- if you were to get them out on the island on the same day, on one of those perfect fall days - 70 degrees waves crashing on the beach, sunny, sky blue, water, dunes, grass blowing in the breeze-everyone of them would probably say we had a really good day at that place at that time even though we don’t agree about what’s valuable about it. I think you actually would be able to get those folk to at least agree- you know what, this was a really neat day, and it’s a really magical place. I think they would all experience the Monomoy Magic.
Photo by: Artist-Megan Singleton

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