This spring, my organization Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation has been honored to work with Emilie Lee, a classically trained painter working in the tradition of the Hudson River School. Although she is based in New York, Emilie is no city slicker. She grew up in Vermont and cut her teeth rock climbing across the Western U.S.
Emilie spent the last month living on the American Prairie Reserve, studying the nuances of this magnificent part of north-central Montana and preparing for an artist’s residency this fall where she’ll create a series of larger pieces. During her time on the Reserve, she hiked many miles with our Landmark wildlife research crew, in particular waking at 3 a.m. to research sage grouse during their lekking season.
Here, you can see some of Emilie’s work, and also read excerpts from a story she wrote for ASC (read the full story on the ASC Field Notes blog).
It’s 5 a.m., and I’m crammed in the back of a car with six strangers, rattling down a dirt road as we race to beat the sunrise. Sleep has overtaken me by the time we reach our destination, but I snap out of it when we step into the chilly air. The night sky is lifting, and a pale light illuminates the endless expanse of rolling grasslands that greet me.
It’s my first morning on the American Prairie Reserve, and I feel disoriented, but Elaine and Tim—the pair of Landmark wildlife researchers I’m following—consult their GPS and strike out with confidence, striding through the prickly sage brush and cactus. I hustle to keep up, as we have three miles to go, and we can’t be late for the big performance. As we hike, I notice patterns in the grass, a twisting rhythm that brings to mind flowing water. Further on, I see the abstract beauty of a singular cloud taking shape in the morning light and try to sear the vision in my memory.
I am an artist, not a scientist, and I’m observing my surroundings in terms of color, line, and form. I’m aware that my scientist companions have a different perspective, so I wrack my brain for questions. What is this plant? What bird makes that call? Why is the land shaped like this? Why are there cactus growing here?
I’m hungry for information on my first prairie hike, and my hope is that this time spent shadowing the ASC Landmark crew will give me new insight into the land I will be painting.The gumbo evening primrose is named for its namesake mud. (Painting by Emilie Lee)
We move cautiously, listening and checking through our binoculars, until we hear the sounds of corks popping—the party is not far away. That sound, I’m told, is the mating call of the greater sage grouse.
As we approach the crest of a hill, I see them—as big as turkeys, their white chests catching the light as they strut with importance on a barren patch of ground. We count 30 males, and I suddenly have a lot of questions about this unusual sight. I learn these birds return to the same place each year and perform this ritual at sunrise during March and April. The females poke around nearby acting uninterested, while the males go to great lengths inflating themselves to absurd proportions and spreading their tail feathers in a dramatic display.
I’m impressed by the number of birds we see, but I’m told that according to recent data, the natural habitat of the sage grouse is disappearing quickly. The data Tim and Elaine collect will contribute to an ongoing study of sage grouse populations and help conservationists fight for their protection.
After my first three days with the Landmark crew, I’d hiked 24 miles and seen a wide variety of ecosystems and topography that exist across this region. Learning about the ecology has helped me realize that the shapes, lines and colors I’m painting are a result of wildlife, humans, and plants evolving together over millennia.
I hope to come away from this month with a deeper understanding of what makes the prairie so special and how we can help protect it.