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Art and Science in the High Sierra

As a great artist in paint or in pixels, Julia Lichtblau knows nature well. But joining Adventure Scientists' #Pollinators2018 project opened even her well-trained eyes to things she had never seen before....

Every year, hundreds of adventurous volunteers get out into the backcountry and collect critical data for scientists and conservationists through the work of Adventure Scientists, the nonprofit I started after wanting my own adventures to have a greater impact for the good of our planet. Here’s a story from one of these dedicated volunteers.

By Julia Lichtblau

The scene was perfect. The sun was setting behind the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, casting a warm wash over the valley and setting fire to the waters of the Upper Velma lake with pinks and yellows. The Jeffrey pines dropped into an evergreen silhouette on the opposite shore and leaping fish left ripples across the water.

Happily I sat down by the lake with my pencils and paints, intent on capturing this calm moment in the mountains after a long day of hiking and butterfly chasing. Everything was peaceful and quiet as I began painting, but this was to be short-lived.

In a flurry of white fur and water our dog Indy raced past. Exuberant and energized by the scents and sounds of the mountains she bounded around the campsite, chasing unseen critters and howling to unseen wolves. Our loyal hound had turned into a tornado of energy in the campsite and we jumped to our feet to wrangle her. Pencils scattered and dirt, paint, and water splashed across the page of my careful rendering. Splatters of watercolor slowly grew across the page and I realized I could not ctrl-z away the mistakes like I was so used to doing on a computer. We were in the heart of Desolation Wilderness and as far from Photoshop as I’d been in a while.

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​We were led to this region by Adventure Scientists. Taking part in the Conserving Biodiversity: Pollinators study we were charged with the task of capturing and cataloging butterfly species and their host plants. We became expert butterfly stalkers, comically creeping through the meadows with oversized nets in hand, eyes peeled for the flutter of wings.

Prior to this study, I only noted butterflies in passing on our backpacking trips. This experience, however, made me realize the individual beauty of each species.

The small greenish blue butterfly (yes, that’s its actual name) with seemingly drab wings in fact had brilliant iridescent spots and vibrant indigo colorings. The flashy Lorquin’s admiral had fiery oranges and reds contrasted with deep black patterns. Even the abundant Mariposa copper had subtly rich colors and unique rippled wings.

Good luck trying to draw these fluttering insects, though. It is not in their nature to sit still for the artist! For many of my drawings I had to refer back to the photos we’d taken for research and pour over laminated guides later for identification.

Plants, however, proved to be a more forgiving subject matter. They tended to patiently wait while I fussed over sketches, rustling only gently in the breeze.

Painting these agreeable subjects was a joy unto itself, for the sheer variety of shape, color, and texture of these alpine flowers was incredible. Our site was abloom with sprays of mountain spiraea, spears of lupines, and delicate cotton balls of Aster. Our project brought these simple plants into a new focus for me, as I realized their piece in a complex ecological puzzle: feeding, shading, and protecting the delicate pollinators we sought.

Prior to this study, I only noted butterflies in passing on our backpacking trips. This experience, however, made me realize the individual beauty of each species.

After a weekend camping in the Sierras my journal was crumpled and dirty but full of wonderful memories.  From the alert barks of our bear-defense dog and the quest to capture butterflies, to the discovery of a magical waterfall surrounded by wildflowers, the spirit of our adventure was recorded in scribbled pen and paint. On these trips I learned to enjoy the mess and chaos of the backcountry––such a drastic difference from the order and technology of my civilized life during the week.

By unplugging and slowing down I was able to focus and find new appreciation for a delicate and overlooked creature vital to the Sierra ecosystem.

I returned to the pages of my sketchbook later that evening, under the light of a lantern in our tent. I contemplated the splattering of paint and dirt on the pages, courtesy of the dog who now slept peacefully on my sleeping bag. As our camp finally settled down for the evening and the night sky grew bright with stars, I thought of the tiny creature that brought us here and began to draw over the imperfections of the page the vague shape of a butterfly.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Gregg Treinish
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.