Introducing Uplift: Conservation on the Plateau

LCI continues to expand our science-art collaborative work with two ongoing projects, our participation in an Entrada Institute Artist in Residence exhibit and the Fires of Change project. Both of these are outgrowths of our initial Burnished Landscape project with local printmaker and river runner Kate Aitchison.

Captial Reef, photo by Kate Aitchison

Captial Reef, photo by Kate Aitchison

In mid-August, we (Kate, Collin, and I) took a reconnaissance trip to visit the Entrada Institute in Torrey, Utah. This October 4th we will be presenting our second science-art collaborative exhibit, Uplift: Conservation on the Plateau, there as the Entrada Artists in Residence for 2014. We’re very excited about this opportunity. Entrada Institute’s mission is to “further public understanding and appreciation of the arts, the natural, historical, and traditional cultural heritage of the high desert Colorado Plateau and to foster community-based economic development in Wayne County, Utah and the surrounding region.” With a vision statement like that, how could we not be thrilled to be selected as participants in this venture?

Kate and Collin observing the majesty of Capitol Reef, photo by Cari Kimball

Kate and Collin observing the majesty of Capitol Reef, photo by Cari Kimball

Uplift will be focused on the role of community and sense of place in enabling people to shape the future of the Colorado Plateau. Our communities face difficult decisions about how to address conservation issues like climate change, resource extraction and development, water scarcity and land degradation. The Plateau is a special place that has inspired art and supported human communities for thousands of years. Envisioning what the future may hold for the Colorado Plateau can be a scary proposition; to a large degree this is because we fear we might loose those things that make it special. This fear of loss is a major motivating factor for us as we seek to conserve and preserve as much of the Plateau as we can. As we deliberate these matters, we find ourselves pondering questions that get to the root of how we make our lives good ones. We must think critically and discerningly about what we value and want to conserve and make available for future generations.

Wizened juniper, photo by Kate Aitchison

Wizened juniper, photo by Kate Aitchison

If you’re like us (and I suspect that in many ways you just might be) and you reflect upon some the times when you’ve felt most content and full of joy, you’ll probably find that these moments were amazing because a) you were with special people who you care about and/or b) because you were in a place that was mind-blowingly beautiful and expansive and wild. Our connections to the people and places we value are some of the most reliably life-enriching things we have. This is perhaps even truer on the Colorado Plateau than it is elsewhere. The winding canyons, towering red rock monoliths, and the fragrant ponderosas feel alive and real here. When we’re in these places, we feel a way that we don’t feel anywhere else. These places are special and deserve protection. So many people and places have lost that specialness. We’ve created suburbia hellscapes where Safeway after Famous Footwear after Taco Bell repeat into oblivion. These places dominate the American landscape and offer that certain allure that takes the shape of buying things as a solution to every problem. They satisfy that primal human compulsion we have to acquire more, to fill the gaps in our lives with the latest and greatest stuff, to seek security and safety in possessions. The Colorado Plateau in particular, and the American West in general, however, hold landscapes that can’t be found anywhere. They cannot be replicated, and once they’ve been destroyed it will be nearly impossible to restore them to their former glory. We know that intellectually. And we can point to study after scientific study demonstrating that certain human activities have wide-ranging impacts on these ecosystems, but at the end of the day we find that science isn’t enough to empower and compel people to take action in shaping the future of their community. Our forays into the world of science-art collaboration help us develop different, more holistic ways of thinking and communicating about these issues. At both the societal and community levels we need art to remind us that there are other, more sustainable ways to find richness and to bring meaning and joy to our lives. Art can remind us that they way we feel in special places and the relationships we build with special people are what make life spicy.

We work to conserve this place because it forms a backbone for our relationships. The Plateau gives us life, and not just in the sense of food, water, and shelter. This place provides us with opportunities to express love, joy, friendship, solitude, fear, and struggle. These emotions and experiences make for satisfying lives. The Plateau provides us many ecosystem services, but few may be as important as the spiritual and emotional. As scientists we never forget that, but we force those feelings into a compartment in our brains in the name of objectivity. We work in a disciplined process that encourages us to break the emotional roots that hold us to a place. Art is a way for us to mine our emotional side and nourish our roots. Where would we be without such a wonderful place to stick them in?

Blue skies and red rocks, photo by Kate Aitchison

Blue skies and red rocks, photo by Kate Aitchison

 

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