Story and Paintings by Emilie Lee
ASC Partner Artist
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.
Suddenly I become painfully aware of the unstoppable march of time as the sun, a molten red orb, rises with surprising speed from behind the perfectly flat horizon. We pause for a few seconds to witness this singular moment that marks the day’s birth and then hurry onward.
Tim checks the GPS with more frequency, warning that we should be there soon. The anticipation is thrilling. 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.
While Tim and Elaine count the grouse, I whip out my sketch book and make some frantic notes about the sight I’m witnessing. I make a loose notation of the shadows cast by the rising sun, the direction of the light, and the colors as they recede into the horizon. We watch the grouse for 10 more minutes until something spooks the birds and the sky fills with flapping wings.
Back in December, when I was hatching my idea to spend a month painting on the American Prairie Reserve, I was intrigued by the scale and vision of this conservation effort and I wanted my artwork to capture more than just the beautiful scenery I knew I would find. My year-long goal is to create five six foot wide oil paintings, but I won’t even begin these until I’m back in my studio in New York. My time on the prairie is research—learning about the place, exploring and collecting quick color paintings, pencil sketches and written notes.
After only 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. In the end, 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, which will ultimately become the driving message behind my final paintings.
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