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, April 12, 2014

Noatak National Preserve Residency Interview with Andrea Spofford (July 15th-August 15th, 2014)

Floatplane return, backcountry trip two.
Bio: Andrea Spofford's essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Vela Magazine, Revolver, the Kudzu Review, the Oklahoma Review, Red Paint Hill, Town Creek Poetry, Sugar House Reviewand The GulfStream: Poems of the Gulf Coast, among others. Her chapbook, EverythingCombustible, is available from Dancing Girl Press and her chapbook Qikiqtagruk: Almost an Island is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. A native Californian transplanted to the South, Andrea is Poetry Editor for Zone 3 Press.

Q: Why were you interested in participating at the Noatak National Refuge residency?

A.S. All of my work deals with nature and conservation issues, place specifically. Recently my focus has been on conservation and wilderness, but also how humans find their place in wilderness and how we define wilderness.

Alaska was particularly appealing because it is stereotypically known as this last frontier. Alaska is a wilderness area that I had never been to, and had wanted visit for a very long time.

I planned some Alaska trips, and they kept falling through, so I applied to this program thinking, “Wow, this is right up my alley.”  This is funny because Tama, Jess, and I were all recommended by friends to apply to this program. I read through the listing, and I thought that the Alaska biome sounded really perfect. It sounded like the goals of the residency—celebrating the Wilderness Act while exploring how we define wilderness and how we experience wilderness—seemed to be exactly what I was doing in my poems and essays. I am always trying to find my place in the natural world and reconcile my impact and influence upon it. That’s why I applied and was specifically interested in Alaska. I was very excited when I found out the location because there’s so much historical human interaction within the landscape of the Noatak National Preserve. Getting to see how people interacted with their landscape thousands of years ago was specifically appealing to me.

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

Tundra and the onset of fall.
A.S.  Well, first I think scientific language is really interesting and I think there’s a lot of overlap between scientific thought processes and creative thought processes. I like to compare writing a formal poem like a sestina or a sonnet to something that has a very specific format—much like an equation. You want to get to a final product in as few steps as possible, but there’s an element of creativity and thinking outside the box that’s necessary as well.  There’s satisfaction with writing a sestina  that not only successfully follows the pattern but is also very creative.  I think there’s a similar thought process that happens in the sciences and I think there’s a specific part of the brain that both the sciences and the arts explore.

My writing reflects my interests. I read a lot of scientific articles and I like to steal from that language because it is foreign and exciting to me as a writer. I like to take these articles or issues and try to work through them in my poems and essays; at the same time, I like to dissect the language and make it something that I understand and that a layperson reader would understand as well. In that way I feel like a translator, beholden to the original as well as the new product.

I think there is a necessary collaboration between science and art when it comes to wilderness in that there is an element of subliminity experienced by both scientists and artists who devote their lives to wilderness issues. The overlap is great and it just makes sense that there would be collaboration.

 I write so much about environment and place that I see part of my made-up job description as being a translator for that. It seems it’s the same part of the brain that goes into vivid descriptions, and a lot of my writing is very vivid. The most exciting thing for me is to combine my personal experiences of abstractions like place and environment with very physical and concrete sciences.  

An essay I wrote about Alaska can be found in Vela Magazine; it addresses fishing but also ideas like, what is wilderness and how do we interact with wilderness? There are hard facts in the essay but it is also more thoughtful, philosophical, and tends to wander off into tangents—that’s one of the best parts about writing, the ability to wander.

I like learning, and that’s why combining science and art is especially interesting. It’s this opportunity to learn something I’m not familiar with; I mean I’m not a scientist but sometimes I wish I was. This has become a chance for me to explore something different and learn something new.

Q: What are some of your first reactions to the Noatak Wilderness?

A.S.  It is really large, and it is really, really quiet. Mike and I were the first floatplane trip out.  At camp it was just Mike, me, and the group’s gear. Tama, Jess, and Hannah were meeting us on the second flight. It was so absolutely quite out there.  When Tama, Jess, and Hannah arrived we could hear the plane from miles and miles away because there was literally no other air traffic.

That said, it wasn’t completely silent; we heard some loons and foxes and the sounds of grass and wind. It was quiet compared to the busy sound of Tennessee, almost painfully so.

Q: What do you believe to be a highlight to your time spent in the Noatak Wilderness?

A.S.  I think the three of us got really lucky in terms of the people we worked with in the Park Service. The Park Service employees in the Western Arctic National Parklands are some of the most generous, kind, intelligent, and wonderful people I have ever met. They went above and beyond to make sure we had an excellent experience so my trips to the backcountry became this magical time.

 In terms of the backcountry, going into the Noatak the first day, that rush of silence and how big Alaska actually is was amazing.

On the Nigu River, we got to participate in archaeological surveys. The day we dug exploratory 50 x 50 centimeter squares was such a great opportunity. In the pit Hannah and I dug, Hannah found an almost perfect atl-atl spearhead that was dated to about 4000 years old. The next day they found datable charcoal in the same pit. That time, at that place, felt like we were doing real archaeology. We were getting to learn so much about the people that worked with and lived upon the landscape thousands and thousands of years ago.
Prepping fireweed blossoms for syrup.

In town there was a day when we made fireweed syrup. We got up early, and Tama and I went with Norma Booth and Frank Hays to collect blossoms. Together we spent all day just making fireweed syrup and taste-testing it. Later, Mike and Ann and Levi came over for lunch.  It turned into this all day, hanging out in Kotzebue experience.

That night everyone came over to our house and I made the salmon I caught the day before. I caught my salmon off the seawall and it weighed about fifteen pounds after it was cleaned—it was a huge salmon and my fishing pole was broken after! It was just this enormous fish, and it didn't even fit on the cookie sheet we put it on; it was bent over in the oven.

All the kids in Kotzebue were so excited when I caught that fish. I think partially because I’m a girl and I caught a really big fish, but also because I was a visitor and I caught a really big fish.  They were giving me directions on how to reel it in because I had never used a snagger before and I didn’t even bring a knife. I mean, we weren’t planning on going fishing. It was just a group of us walking home and we decided to throw a line in and see. Once I had the fish pulled up the boat ramp, one of the boys killed the fish for me and cleaned it too.  The kid’s father said, “So next time you’ll bring a knife.”

There was also a day at the first backcountry location when we sort of took the day off to explore, read poetry, and fish. That day we caught trout. We had six trout when all was said and done. We caught them on a homemade fly. I had a lure and the fish weren’t biting so Hannah made a fly from materials from the surrounding environment. We all started catching fish with the fly that Hannah made—we were fly fishing with a spinning reel, which is pretty funny.  

This was totally the perfect residency and I kept thinking, can it get anymore perfect?

Q: Did the residency make any impact on the way you view the natural world, or facilitate ideas for future work?

 A.S. In terms of focus, my writing the past couple of years has really taken more of environmental direction. I just finished my Ph.D. in the beginning of the summer and my major areas of study were American literature and Environmental Poetics. I’m really interested in early American literature and contemporary writing about environment. I think there is a certain bigness to wilderness, and certain people are drawn to wilderness because of that. I think I’m really drawn to wilderness and gravitate toward people who are drawn to wilderness for that same reason.

Backcountry camp.
Writing about wilderness is just one of those things that is so large it is hard to put into words. I think this residency really influenced my writing. It helped me focus my ideas even more than they have been in the past. It gave me a subject that is really unique—wild in a lot of ways—but also a place people have been interacting with for a long time. There is not a separation from people and wilderness in Alaska; there are people interacting with their landscape. Ideas of ownership are really different in Alaska and I think that made me reconsider how I think about wilderness.  

Q: As an artist do you feel like you influenced the scientist that you worked with?

A.S. When we were in the backcountry we worked with Michael Holt who is the lead archaeologist and head of cultural resources as well as his assistant, Hannah Atkinson.  Having us around—the three of us who are not archaeologists—asked Mike and Hannah to explain things they may not have explained if they had been with a team of other archaeologists. I noticed the small details of things, but the types of rocks and the stories those rocks told were not as apparent to me as they are to Mike. I think the artists’ presence really asked Mike and Hannah to express these things. I think the thing they really had in common with the three of us is that we are all storytellers.  Jess tells stories through visual art, Tama tells stories though her photography, and I tell stories with my writing. Mike especially is a storyteller—a huge part of his job is telling stories about the way people interacted and experienced their landscape. I think Mike was excited to have us there; he’s so earnest and so invested in his resource and so willing to share. I think that quality can be rare.

Stone tools.
I think there is a question, especially in archaeology, about what we present to the public and what we hide away. I think when we present something to the public a lot of times the public wants to destroy it. But if we don’t present it to the public they don’t know that they should care about it; it’s a catch-22. Because they were so willing to share, I think Mike and Hannah took on the role of teacher more than they would have otherwise. I like to think that maybe they experienced the backcountry a little differently, not just from the lens of an anthropologist, but also from the lens of a writer, photographer, and visual artist.

I think we realized we were telling similar stories in different ways. We don’t do exactly the same thing but there is a lot of overlap in our goals and in what we value. 

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

A.S. I think the amount of work I produced is a hugely beneficial outcome. There’s so much more to say! I think experiencing this place, a place most people don’t get the opportunity to experience, was hugely beneficial to my creative process as well.  I also think that getting to work with Tama and Jess was fantastic. I don’t get to work with people who are visual artists very frequently, which is a shame. I think there should definitely be more collaboration across mediums and I really admire what both of them do. Just seeing and getting to hear about things from their perspective and observing what they noticed compared to what I noticed became very eye-opening. Tama is a writer (in addition to being a photographer) so I feel like she and I really bonded; we will always have this shared experience.

I also think getting to work with the Park Service was great.  Like I said earlier, everyone we encountered was dedicated, generous, and excited to share—that is really refreshing. The level of care for these parks demonstrated was admirable. 

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