Art and science in the wild of the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms bear a sense of both peace and grandeur in their lofty peaks and ancient forests, writes Ellie Dimambro-Denson, Monitoring Officer for the Cairngorms Connect project. Ellie has spent many hours walking through the forest and hills of this ethereal landscape, first arriving in March 2018 while completing a year-long research internship with RSPB’s Abernethy reserve.

A printed leaf design, inspired by a sunrise over a high mountain loch while surveying ptarmigan. Photo and design credit: Ellie Dimambro-Denson.

Funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme is allowing the Cairngorms Connect project to carry out extensive monitoring work in the project area, meaning that changes to the environment can be scientifically recorded. This type of work requires patience and an eye for detail, and while science and art are often seen as contrasting ways of understanding the world, Ellie has found that both can feed into one another. She has taken her observational skills and attention to detail from her field to create inspired art pieces. Art and the natural world have always fascinated Ellie, and spending time in this dynamic, ever-changing landscape has become a great source of inspiration to her, as she watches its transformation through seasons, moods and lights.

Ellie’s paintings and field notes of moths caught during survey work for Cairngorms Connect demonstrate her ability to apply high attention to detail to both scientific recording and artwork. Photo and design credit: Ellie Dimambro-Denson.

To comprehend the landscape of the Cairngorms, one must use all senses and attention. The low winter light on the mountains, dusted with fresh snow, highlight every crevice and vibrant ledge. The northern lights flickering across a deep velvety winter sky aglow with stars. Ephemeral encounters with wildlife catching you by surprise – a wheatear narrowly missing your head as you sit in a sheltered bank sketching the peaks beyond, so close you can hear its wings beat, a sign spring has truly begun to return. Or a close encounter on a distant rainy hilltop with a golden eagle while returning from survey work, standing metres away, both caught by surprise. Moments that take your breath away, or seem too much to take in.

Recreating a close encounter with a golden eagle (left), and watching the aurora with a friend below the milky way and a shooting star (right). Photo and design credit for both images: Ellie Dimambro-Denson.

It is often impossible to capture through photos or describe through words, but Ellie has found it can be compelling to try and record, and interpret, her experiences. She creates those moments through her art, which she finds forces her to pay attention, and notice details it would be too easy to overlook. Ellie finds this gives her a new sense of perspective on her environment, and able to appreciate small details in all their beauty and complexity, whether that be the way light rises and falls across the peaks to the intricate scales of moth wings viewed through a hand lens.

By focusing all of her attention on her surroundings, Ellie has been able to gain a new perspective on the landscapes she interacts with, such as her sketch of the Cairngorms from a sheltered spot of Meall a’ Bhuachaille

Through sketching and painting the surrounding landscape or encounters with wildlife, for Ellie there is always something more to see. When we focus our attention beyond an initial glance, we are presented with moments to feel part of a landscape, connected to and by it. These moments are a gentle reminder that we are part of a bigger ‘whole’. For Ellie, this is an important reminder that however distant from it we may sometimes feel, we are all a part of the natural world.

This article was edited and reproduced with the kind permission of its author, Ellie Dimambro-Denson, Monitoring Officer for the Cairngorms Connect project. The article originally appeared on RSPB’s community blog space.