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Beauty As Antidote For Living In Heavy Times

For painter Barbara Rusmore, the restorative power of nature is a catalyst for art and advocacy

Barbara Rusmore's portrayal of Sinopah Mountain which rises above the Two Medicine Valley in Glacier National Park.
Barbara Rusmore's portrayal of Sinopah Mountain which rises above the Two Medicine Valley in Glacier National Park.
. Conservationist. EnvironmentalistRestorationist. Rewilder. Although some relish parsing definitions of the above in order to clarify differing attitudes toward protecting the natural world, the words translate into basically the same outcome: safeguarding or resuscitating things we love as we move further along the path of our species' destiny.

That destiny, it often seems, is driven by our proclivity for gauging progress only by our ability to continually expand the size of the human anthill. 

As of this writing, I am uncertain whether Dr. Barbara Rusmore identifies more as a landscape painter or as a lifelong professional whose day job has been helping humans find their voice in various iterations of natural stewardship. On canvass, both of those passions form a powerful convergence.

Rusmore had a recent showing of new paintings in the foyer gallery at the Bozeman Public Library,  It is on display through Jan. 1, 2020. When you read the descriptions accompanying each of the 36 works, it caused you to pause. And then think. And, if you care about the ecological integrity of the northern Rockies, derive some hope in these times of epic uncertainty. 

Titled “Resilient by Nature: Landscapes of Recovery and Renewal,” the exhibition opened in early November to a passionate public discussion. It was well worth a visit. People in our part of the world ponder aspects of natural landscape that are still present here but absent from the lexicon of how other regions conceptualize wildness. 

From the Badger Two Medicine—sacred terrain to the Blackfeet Nation located along the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park in northern Montana— to reaches of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and many points between, Rusmore presents us with an uplifting reminder of what’s at stake. Inherent is a question: what happens if the anthill builders, oblivious to the consequences of their actions, prevail without being met by citizens who believe in the virtues of preservation, conservation, restoration, and rewilding?
Remembering the day she painted this scene in Paradise Valley, Montana, Rusmore writes, "From the shore of Dailey Lake looking up to the top of Paradise Valley into Tom Miner Basin. Ramshorn Peak, and the boundary ridge of Yellowstone National Park  A gorgeous windy spring day serendaed by red-wing blackbirds and entertained by resting waterfowl."
Remembering the day she painted this scene in Paradise Valley, Montana, Rusmore writes, "From the shore of Dailey Lake looking up to the top of Paradise Valley into Tom Miner Basin. Ramshorn Peak, and the boundary ridge of Yellowstone National Park A gorgeous windy spring day serendaed by red-wing blackbirds and entertained by resting waterfowl."
We know what happens. Greater Yellowstone will end up resembling today’s fractured human maze of the Rocky Mountain Front in Colorado, Utah’s Wasatch, and California’s Sierra, causing us to wonder why not live there instead of here? 

Rusmore has painted landscapes in our region where she believes hope and redemption still reside.

“Resilient by Nature” was a celebration not only of place but of the effects of advocacy. “Many of these paintings share the surprising beauty of restored and protected landscapes," she writes in an artist's statement. "Some striking examples are the Clark Fork River and wetlands in the Deer Lodge Valley, the Crown Butte mine site on the edge of Yellowstone National Park and conservation easements on agricultural land. These landscapes also tell of the power of scientific restoration and the vitality that happens when we commit to reconnect ‘all the parts’ of nature. I hope to share through art how nature can spring back."   ​ 

A common thread present in each "visual story" is the commitment and cooperation of landowners, communities and nonprofit organizations to protect and restore nature’s ways. "They brought resources to protect landscapes, demand clean up, to find funds for restoration, and to put science to work rebuilding the natural systems. Funding and assistance to restore these sites often comes from nonprofits, government agencies, and scientists. This show is a small sample of the many sites around Montana where these forces are working their magic.” 

The conservationist/fine artist painting the restored mountain meadows in the once-toxic New World Mining District.
The conservationist/fine artist painting the restored mountain meadows in the once-toxic New World Mining District.
Laura Ziemer, senior counsel and water policy advisor for Trout Unlimited, says it’s no accident that an essential thematic force flowing through Rusmore’s works is water—lifeblood of the arid West, most precious resource in a region that forms the headwaters for four major river systems. In Greater Yellowstone, it’s the Green-Colorado; the Snake-Columbia; and Missouri-Mississippi. Also rising from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem are currents, borne in the mountains, that eventually reach Hudson Bay.  Were tens of millions of Americans to trace the origin of water at their tap they would all converged upon this corner of the West.

In the last 150 years, however, over 12,000 miles of water reach in the Northern Rockies has been sullied by a legacy of abandoned hardrock mines, with the mother of all disasters being the Clark Fork River system stretching between Butte and Missoula. As the longest linear Superfund cleanup site in America, it was created by decades in which unregulated copper mining and smelting at Butte and Anaconda resulted in the river being treated as a tailings disposal system. And yet in recent years its cleanup has come to represent an equally remarkable story of human-enabled ecological healing.

 “Barbara Rusmore’s approach to painting mirrors her eye for conservation as well as  the approach of TU and other groups to restoration," Ziemer says." Together, the body of her work creates a nice synergy. The vision of one is reflected in the other. Restoration work takes its cues from the rivers and theirs landscapes the same as what Barbara does to produce her paintings. Both are responsible and the results, when you get it right, are obvious."

” ° ° ° ° 

For all of this, there is context and a backdrop.

A few years ago, when National Geographic devoted an entire edition of its magazine to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a respected senior scientist from Yellowstone Park was asked to assess what he believed was the paramount environmental threat to the region going forward. His response was not climate change, but “fragmentation along with the disruptions brought by climate change,” as in the steady whittling down and dismantling of the natural superstructure that makes Greater Yellowstone a rare exception in the Lower 48. 

As prominent ecologists note, this long-isolated intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho represents the healthiest and most intact wildland ecosystem remaining in the temperature zones of the world. But today people in numbers larger than ever before are descending upon the Northern Rockies. 
"Red Barns," a scene looking east in Montana's Paradise Valley between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountains and along the Yellowstone River.
"Red Barns," a scene looking east in Montana's Paradise Valley between the Absaroka and Gallatin mountains and along the Yellowstone River.
Much attention is often given to the concept of “death by 1,000 cuts,” i.e. large impacts imposed at a landscape level on Greater Yellowstone’s massive 22.5-million- acre mosaic of public and private lands. Development such as energy extraction, new mines, residential sprawl and even resorts turning once tiny enclaves like Big Sky, Montana into an expanding bubble of humanity that has already severed ecological integrity within the once-wild Madison Mountain Range. 

The Yellowstone scientist said his concern, the one that keeps up thinking at night, is not solely death by 1000 cuts but “death by 10,000 scratches.” This involves seemingly innocuous things happening in Greater Yellowstone every week that appear insignificant but in accumulation, over time are causing deep and, in many ways, irreversible negative impacts. It might mean a new widened highway here that blocks wildlife migrations, or rising levels of outdoor recreation and commercial tourism going largely unscrutinized by public land managers, or farms and ranches that reside on superb soil and provide open space and wildlife habitat being converted to residential subdivisions Or filling in a wetland or rip-rapping the banks of a river. 

For some people who have lived in Greater Yellowstone all their lives or settled in the region decades ago before the latest inward migration brought a rapidly-expanding human footprint, it is difficult to not take heed of the steady chiseling away of the aesthetic majesty of place. The more that a person becomes aware of what is happening, the less possible it is to look away in denial or self-imposed unknowing. Every new blight is a reminder of what’s being lost. As the pioneering 20th-century ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote in his classic A Sand County Almanac, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.
Rusmore presents the crest of the Bridger Range rising northeast of Bozeman as a dyptich.
Rusmore presents the crest of the Bridger Range rising northeast of Bozeman as a dyptich.
Rusmore lives along a street in the overflowing university district of Bozeman, one of the fastest micropolitan urban areas in the United States. Her backyard offers an alternative to the carefully-manicured rectangles of exotic sod that proliferate all around. Her garden beds are filled with perennial native plants. And together with her partner, conservationist Mike Clark, the couple in warm seasons has watched predator and prey scenes worthy of a nature documentary play out in the airspace above their patio. 

There, a family of Cooper’s hawks has taken up residence in a couple of old Douglas firs. Several young birds have fledged to adulthood. And along the way have come daily aerial displays of raptors feasting upon songbirds and turning mocking red squirrels pay a price for their false self-confidence. [Full disclosure: Clark has been a life-long professional conservationist, community organizer and he is a founding board member of Mountain Journal]. 

Soft-spoken, Rusmore’s introverted personality belies her resume. For more than four decades, she has helped conservation organizations, ranging from the largest in the country to local grassroots efforts begun by a single individual, solidify their strategies and levels of effectiveness. Be it local land trusts endeavoring to save open space, watershed groups trying to protect stream flows, organizations devoted to wildlife preservation, Native American sovereignty, or campaigns to safeguard national parks, monuments and wilderness areas, Rusmore has worked with over 1,000 different entities. She has tasted success and seen various kinds of developments proceed that caused ecological disaster. The same as she keenly grasps the meaning of Leopold’s lament, she, too, heeds the observation of the late David Brower: “All of our victories are temporary, and all of our defeats are permanent.” 

As a child raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she saw her own rural town swallowed up by growth. As a perpetual student congealing the lessons of placed-based conservation, as a denizen of Greater Yellowstone and as a resident of Bozeman and Gallatin County, Montana, Rusmore has an incisive perspective on the change that is happening fast. 

On the one hand, she is haunted by having witnessed other regions suffer from missed opportunities to defend nature when it was still possible; on the other, she has embraced an activity that has become an antidote, of sorts, for dealing with the temptation to become cynical.  Painting makes palpable what written descriptions of conservation deeds cannot. 

The painting of the Seeley-Swan, below, is a perfect example. Between 2007 and 2010, The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land purchased 310,000 acres from Plum Creek Timber Company, then the biggest conservation land purchase in the nation’s history. The acquisition in large part protected from residential and industrial development a huge swath of the Swan and Clearwater drainages-- home to migrating grizzly bears -- and extended a protected wildlife corridor all the way to Canada.  In 2014, TNC acquired another 117,000 acres from Plum Creek around Placid Lake and in the Gold Creek drainage, tying a tremendously large bow on critical habitat conservation in the Seeley-Swan valleys. 

"The bulk of Montana Legacy Project land has been transferred over the years into public ownership, promulgating public access and land stewardship for this magnificent and foresighted endeavor, forever," Rusmore writes. "While my painting may be but a small tribute to this mighty effort, I wanted to rejoice of this this snow-clad timberland, and call attention to the conservation legacy that stands like a mountain range solidly behind it."
Rusmore's preferred method of gathering information as a landscape painter is sketching in plein air—i.e. toting her paint kit into the outdoors, taking advantage of natural light, the spinning earth, the effects of weather, and trying to distill the spiritual essence of landscapes that stimulate awe. The good news, as the Cooper hawks remind, awe is where you find it. Across three decades of writing about wildlife and Western art, seldom have I encountered a painter more talented in Greater Yellowstone whose primary day job is that of professional conservationist. 

Dealing with environmental threats day in and out gets heavy and exhausting, she admits. “This is a hard time now, considering what’s happening in our country, both emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “I needed to to make a change in my thinking, rather than just focus on what is or could disappear. When I turned the filters in my brain around, I started looking only for good things and I found them in the landscape. When I did that, I was amazed at just how many landscapes we have around us that are still functioning according to long-range ecological principles.” 

Rusmore's "Cherry Creek Cottonwoods"
Rusmore's "Cherry Creek Cottonwoods"
More than that, she adds, is how many places have demonstrated how well nature can heal from earlier abuses when aided by human commitment and skillful restoration.” Conservation is about bringing people together, bridging divisions, joining conflict, empowering a collective energy and making dreams happen. 

“Painting is solitary. It is not a team sport,” Rusmore says. “The effort is for its own sake and yet you have the potential to make a deep connection with the viewer. It’s immersive and spiritual. You’re trying to be pliable and fluid in how you interpret what you are seeing. It’s not verbal. In a different kind of sense, it’s very expansive.” 

The art of nature, Rusmore says, is apolitical. “Beauty as an aesthetic experience is what uplifts, unites and sustains us. We are fortunate to live in a region where it is readily available,” she explains. “These kinds of places speak to what resides in the core of our hearts.” 
"The art of nature is apolitical. Beauty as an aesthetic experience is what uplifts, unites and sustains us. We are fortunate to live in a region where it is readily available. These kinds of places speak to what resides in the core of our hearts.”  —Barbara Rusmore 
Rusmore’s portfolio really falls into four different categories. If her settings were viewed from the air at 20,000 feet they would meld together. She paints wild untrammeled places, pastoral and agricultural vistas, the nooks and crannies inside the perimeter of urban areas where nature persists, and in once-blighted places restored through human tender loving care and headed in the direction of becoming “re-wilded.” 

Along with the Clark Fork River, another example is the New World Mine site just outside of Cooke City near the northeastern corner of Yellowstone Park and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
"Crown Butte"
"Crown Butte"
Crown Butte sits above Cooke City, two miles from the northeast edge of Yellowstone National Park and adjacent to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. I first experienced Crown Butte while backpacking in the ‘80s, as a blunt, scarified rock face, acid-orange streams, and rusting machinery -- an abandoned vestige of gold mining, 100 years in the un-making. 

In the ‘90s, a Canadian company proposed a new gold mine at Crown Butte. Environmentalists, led by the Cooke City-based Beartooth Alliance and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, successfully convinced the Clinton Administration to protect Yellowstone, buy out the company, and block future mining on federal land in the 25,000-acre New World Mining District. Using a $20.5 million fund from the settlement, the Forest Service spent 20 years cleaning up the abandoned mine sites and reduced the acid mine drainage to safe levels. The rugged area is now the most successful high-elevation reclaimed mine site in the Western United States. A carpet of wildflowers has returned to Crown Butte’s wild meadows and contrasting bands of brilliant color return in the spring, ready for celebration by paintbrush and canvas.

"Up Hyaite Canyon"
"Up Hyaite Canyon"
Joining Rusmore on painting excursions for the last decade and a half has been Richard Charlesworth, best known for his work as an architect in Jackson Hole, Bozeman and the wider region. “The most enjoyable thing for me has been watching her develop and evolve as a painter,” Charlesworth says. “Painting landscapes is about trying to capture the emotions that they invoke in you. It’s about the journey of discovery, seeing things outside of you that are visible in yourself." 

By her paintings, what would one conclude about Rusmore’s outlook for the future? Optimism, but only if citizens care. “They call painting ‘being in the zone.’ You get to a point where you don’t think. You just do and everything falls away. What is when you get your best paintings. Charlesworth adds. “It’s fun watching that mirrored in her. Her paintings are pure emotional responses.”

Rusmore isn’t trying to be didactic or manipulative on our emotions but a central theme flowing across the surfaces of her visions is an unspoken verity—that every one of the places she’s celebrating still possess their natural character. Each is accompanied by a short written narrative that gives the work context.

 With regard to ranches and farms in the mountain valleys of Greater Yellowstone and function like connective tissue between the larger body of public lands, Rusmore is unreserved in her praise for rural family traditions. Rather than selling out to the highest bidders, who most likely would be land developers, those raising cattle, sheep and crops measure richness in a way other than pure economics. 

Similarly, with wilderness, it is an ethic of self-restraint she finds praiseworthy, that some activities are subordinate to the survival needs of non-human creatures that have residence there. Homo sapiens is invited to visit as respectful guests but checking their personal ambition at the trailhead, understanding there are some places that, in order to avoid becoming like everywhere else, require special treatment. 
"Alex Diekmann Peak"
"Alex Diekmann Peak"
Among all of the painted pictures is a portrayal of a summit in the southern end of the Madison Mountains, rising above a valley where conservation easements on ranches, secured by the Trust for Public Land, Montana Land Reliance and Nature Conservancy, is writ large with another kind of legacy. The formerly unnamed summit is now called Alex Diekmann Peak, a conservation leader who tenaciously worked to secure some of those conservation easements and protect 100,000 acres in the northern Rockies from Wyoming to northern Montana. 

Diekmann died from cancer in winter 2016. The lesson, Rusmore says, is that he stepped up to make his vision of conservation a reality. By having sometimes uncomfortable conversations he forged lasting friendships and respect. 

Every reader of this story, Rusmore notes, is in a position to contribute something meaningful—their expertise, energy, time or money. Should one need an uplifting dose of hope, it be found in Rusmore’s collection, each work a kind of meditation on the benefits of nature and why every gesture of advocacy adds up.

The prescription for thwarting decline by 10,000 scratches, in Rusmore’s way of thinking, is launching a counter-offensive that begins with realizing what’s at stake. Her paintings show that with help from people, nature’s native resiliency can re-inhabit even the most toxic sites, and restore life to streams, neighborhoods and landscapes of great beauty. The last thing she wants is for her portrayals of beauty to be rendered artifacts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Enjoy more of Rusmore's paintings, below, along with the descriptions of setting and why she painted them.  All were on display at the Bozeman Public Library Gallery. You can contact the artist by clicking here.

Rusmore's Gallery of Landscape Protection, Restoration and Hope

Warm Springs Rookery
I watched with fascination the transformation of this site along Interstate-90 as it went from desolate mining tailings to one of the premier bird watching destinations and the largest area for waterfowl production in the upper Clark Fork. This 2,500-acre refuge is a complex of ponds developed by ARCO for treatment of surface water impacted by historic mining, and by Ducks Unlimited, and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for waterfowl production. All of the ARCO ponds can be walked or bicycled via an extensive network of dike roads and trails.This site was one of my major inspirations for this series of paintings. 

On a fall day I headed out to the eagle rookery to paint the beauty and life revitalized by the commitment of ARCO, local communities and many groups, state and federal agencies. The diligent application of the Superfund is helping to remediate the mining era damages in the nation’s largest Superfund site. 

Many thanks to the Clark Fork Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Audubon and the town of Deer Lodge for helping me learn about and appreciate this complex long-term effort to clean up the Clark Fork from headwaters on downstream. The Warm Spring Ponds are an early success of a far-reaching, decades long plan, including cleaning up the river’s main-stem and the recent successful removal of the Milltown Dam at Bonner. Additional work is well underway in the Deer Lodge Valley beyond Warm Springs Ponds.   
Kelly Ranch
“The peace of mind is priceless,” says Kathryn Kelly about their decisions to both permanently protect the family’s ranch via a conservation easement, and to foster the historic, natural, and cultural values embedded there.

Emerald green in spring, this view cascades from the top of the buffalo jump into the protected fields and cottonwood galleries below, and harkens back to prior land uses. Rocks still mark the pishkun used by indigenous people for bison hunts, while the meadows served for processing and drying of meat. 

Lush wild chokecherries are shared in the fall by bears, birds and people. Signs of historic indigenous camps line the Gallatin River to the south. In recent years the Kelly family has undertaken a long-term project to a fully restore the historic pioneer settler structures on the property. Their stewardship is guided by the philosophy that by doing right by the land, it will take care of you. Rotational grazing, the removal of exotic and invasive plants, and careful stewarding of the cattle grazing contribute to the natural and agricultural harmony created by this family. 
Bozeman Pass Solstice
Bozeman Pass, linking Bozeman to Livingston, lies snugged up against national forest lands and private ranches. Near the Pass, a development with deed restrictions keeps open land in natural habitat ― no fences wall off homes from the surroundings. Internal swaths of common open space link with public trails for horses, hikers, bikers, and skiers. Along with conservation and wildlife organizations, neighbors in this area fought off an oil-and-gas development proposed for the Pass. With Gallatin Valley Land Trust’s help, large blocks of conservation easements now lie across the entire Pass and defend a contiguous corridor for wildlife passing from the Gallatin Range to the Bridger Mountains. 

On this clear solstice afternoon I rejoiced in the unhindered scene before me, painting in my insulated coveralls and heavy fleece, hoping to capture the silent beauty of the ridge in snowy winter light.
Morning Creek, Woodson Ranch
On a cool early summer morning I was lucky to be painting from the bridge over the Ruby River on the Woodson Ranch. The Ruby Habitat Foundation manages this working ranch with conservation stewardship at its core. Their work is supported by conservation easements and stewardship assistance from the Montana Land Reliance. 
Through the Foundation’s extensive river restoration efforts, water flow and fisheries have been substantially improved – 2018 river monitoring showed better flows than in the previous 60 years – and a cooperative flow management process is shared among neighboring ranches to sustain and extend this restoration project’s benefits. 
These benefits are shared with the public; 1,800 visitors enjoyed the ranch in 2018 for bird watching, fishing, education and community events including the Ranch’s outreach program to schools from kindergartners to college students.
Wolf Creek, Sun Ranch, Upper Madison Valley
This painting of Wolf Creek honors the Sun Ranch and Trout Unlimited for pioneering Montana’s first water-lease to help maintain in-stream flows. The creek contributes significant flow to the Madison River, a blue-ribbon trout stream coveted by summer anglers and floaters. The lease program has now expanded to ensure flows are sustained elsewhere in Montana into the dry summer months. Among its stewardship activities, the Sun Ranch also runs a cattle operation, has a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy, and hosts a cutthroat trout hatchery that supplies Yellowstone National Park with pure native stock. 

The Sun Ranch’s water lease helped usher in a new era of cooperative actions between agricultural producers and anglers to protect and sustain flows in Montana streams and rivers, finding solutions that work for ranchers, fish, and the communities of people and wildlife that depend on healthy watersheds. In the words of Ranch Manager Clark Adkerson, "The renewal of the water lease to Trout Unlimited is part of my management philosophy of the ranch: work with my neighbors, maintain my cattle operation, and be good to the land."
Nine Pipes
Between the Mission Mountains and the Flathead River lies a vast stretch of bogs, fens, and marshes scattered between pot-holed ponds and islands of grassland. Fast-disappearing in other parts of the country, these habitat gems lie nestled within the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,062-acre reserve within the Flathead Indian Reservation and buffered by 3,000 acres of tribal lands along with 2,000 acres of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation easements.

I previously visited Ninepipe on an Audubon birding adventure, and I was well aware of its lushness of habitat for innumerable species—from hummingbirds to grizzly bears. But I found what I sought that day near the southern entrance to Ninepipe: I became riveted at the edge of a cattail marsh by the serenade of red-winged blackbirds and the fleeting examination by dragonflies of my paint-box. Sun on my back and the play of light on the marsh added to the feeling that it isn’t only for wildlife that our national refuge system provides safe harbor and sanctuary.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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