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Native Grasses of the Apache Highlands: An Interview with Artist Matilda Essig

In the world of conservation, connectivity, and general appreciation of nature, grasslands usually take a back seat to the mountains and their forests. The apex point of most vacation destinations is not usually a grassland environment, but more often mountain peaks, tall trees, sheer granite walls, and steep-sided sandstone canyons.

Pronghorn in the grasslands. Photo: Myles Traphagen

However, most humans across the planet consume grasses on a daily basis, whether it is corn, wheat, rice, or indirectly through grass-fed animals. The grasslands are also home to the massive herds of grazing animals like bison, wild horses, dozens of African antelope, and, of course, the wolves, lions, and cheetahs that prey upon them. In his 2009 book, Grass: In Search of Human Habitat, Joe Truett expounds on the pleasing aspects of grasslands as a preferred human habitat that is a safer, more productive place for humans to live than forests.

In the Sky Islands region of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, large, steep mountains rise above semi-desert grasslands that form a sea of grass surrounding them. Matilda Essig, an artist who hails from the grasslands of the Sonoita Plains in southeast Arizona, has found habitat here among the ancient monocots that gave rise to modern agrarian agriculture.

Matilda has celebrated and brought the beauty of the grasslands, and specifically the grasses themselves, to an exhibit currently in place at the Tucson International Airport. The oft-overlooked intricacy and finely detailed elegance of the multitude of grass species in the valleys of the Sky Islands are displayed in stunning, larger-than-life prints using a medium made possible by modern scanning technology.

Myles Traphagen and Matilda Essig at the Native Grasslands exhibit at the Tucson International Airport. Photo: Courtesy of Matilda Essig

“Native Grasses of the Apache Highlands” is on display at the Tucson International Airport Centre Gallery until March 28, 2019. Following the exhibit, artist Matilda Essig’s grass prints will be available to view in the Special Collections Room at the University of Arizona library. Wildlands Network was pleased to be able to help sponsor this exhibit.

I was fortunate to visit with Matilda at the opening of the exhibit and then follow up with some questions.

Myles Traphagen: Have you been an artist your entire life?

Matilda Essig: Pretty much. I was born into the world of a portrait painter—my father—just as his career was crescendoing in the Philadelphia/Washington area. I grew up watching famous characters come to life in his paintings, so my work is, in fact, the next chapter in family tradition. He also taught me to plant a garden, too—food that wound up on the dinner table—so I am grateful for both of these arts to have been part of my life from the git-go.

MT: What drew you to grasses?

ME: When I was invited to do a poster to commemorate the dedication of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, I went out for a ride with the senior rancher, John Donaldson, to hear his perspective on 30 years of stewarding the restoration of that watershed, using cattle as the tool. When he talked about the groundwater getting healthy again, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that what was going on underground, with the root systems, was what was healing the land. Unable to recognize the grass species he was talking about, but hearing the enormous history he had watched in their growth, inspired me to want to learn this “language” of the earth that so filled his spirit with sublime (divine) satisfaction.

MT: What kind of reaction have you had to the exhibit? Have you opened up the eyes to “non-grass” people?

ME: Absolutely. The airport brings a wonderful audience to the work, and I love it when my art can step outside of the traditional boundaries of the institutions that are set up for it in our culture. I have found that people are drawn to the expression of life—intuitively, before they begin to try to understand it more deeply. That makes me happy. People need to see more from their hearts, in addition to their minds.

Photo: Courtesy Matilda Essig

MT: I’m a grass guy, and when I saw your exhibit on display at the Tucson International Airport I felt like I was among my botanical friends. Yet I saw things I have never observed in the field. It’s one thing to use a hand lens and see each feature while squinting your eyes, but to see the entire set of florets (flowers) in macro was like entering a whole new world of grass that I had never seen. Were you ever surprised by what you saw when doing the work for Apache grasslands?

ME: Every single day. That’s part of the draw. For me it is the thrill of discovery. I try to encourage that in my viewer: “embrace your inner explorer, and you will find a universe of beauty on the head of a pin.” And you don’t need science, I might add, to understand and bond with the natural world, to be inspired by it. So many people I speak with have been intellectually crippled, thinking that they need a course in botany to “understand” what they are looking at. They’ve lost faith in their own sense, their own perceptual framework, just as they have lost connection to nature.

MT: Do you think that grasses and grasslands are under-appreciated?

ME: Yes, sadly. Before the inventions of synthetics, grasses served many more purposes in our daily lives. People forget that grasses were the first species that allowed themselves to be domesticated, which gave rise to human civilization. As well, the game species whose protein fueled the hunter-gatherer evolution were found in the grasslands. Today, it is the diversity of the remaining wild grasslands that is so threatened, yet holds endless lessons for adaptation and survival as we move forward in such drastically changing times. Communities are strong by virtue of diversity and interdependence. This is the great botanical (ecological) metaphor for humanity.

When he talked about the groundwater getting healthy again, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that what was going on underground, with the root systems, was what was healing the land.
-Matilda Essig

MT: Have you seen changes in the grasslands during your tenure on the Sonoita Plains?

ME: Yes. I’ve been here since 9/11—that would now be 17 years. Specifically speaking, the lack of available law enforcement on the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area has resulted in significant negative impact on the resource, from off-road vehicles to target practice to off-leash dog activity. It has been heartbreaking to watch. That is especially frustrating, as there is a border patrol checkpoint within a mile of the NCA entrance that stops every car. With so many officers, and so little activity, it would seem they could volunteer one at the NCA entrance to stop and advise visitors of the parameters of legal activity—hand out a pamphlet like the National Park Service does.

In the broader scene, we have increasing numbers of people moving to the grasslands, putting up fences, mowing for fire prevention or even for amusement sometimes, overgrazing equines, further fracturing the fabric. But on the positive side, we have also had tremendous strides in conservation easements on many of the large ranches in the watershed. Mining (specifically the Rosemont Copper Mine and AMI Wildcat Silver Mine) threatens both the Empire Valley and the San Rafael to the south. And fire is now happening with unprecedented frequency and scale, which changes the landscape complexion in its aftermath.

MT: In the Sky Island region, the mountains and forests are usually the stars, getting most of the credit for the biodiversity of the region. What role do you think that the grasslands play in the Sky Islands?

Matilda rides her horse, Flecha, through the grasslands. Photo: Courtesy Matilda Essig

ME:  It is all interconnected—I invite you to answer that question, Myles, as I’m sure you can do it much greater, more eloquent justice!

MT: Well, thank you for the compliment and endorsement, Matilda! I guess I would have to say that here, of all places, the grasslands are the counter balance to the mountains, and there would be no Sky Islands if not for the sea of grass that surrounds them. Thank you for being a champion of these wonderful grasses and bringing them into such clear focus.

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