Invoking the Tactile Senses at Badlands National Park

Rocky texture castle trail


In the Badlands, I  was most likely to filter my experiences through the sense of touch.  I felt the wind and constant erosion.  Colors were tactile,  broken down into sediments of pigment.   I felt the cycling of light and shadow as wind drove the clouds overhead. The textures of grasses and shrubs were soft, crisp, brittle, porous, and sticky.  Everywhere felt palpable and temporary.

Because of the human scale of the formations, I could move quickly through them on hikes, navigating by their undulations as much as by sight.  The tactile was a more sure way of orienting.  Viewpoint was insufficient as it changed so quickly.  Despite the open trail policy - I stayed on trails.  When I occasionally lost sight of trail markers, I steered by the feel of trail worn down by others.

Here's my favorite, formation, "Yellow Mounds".  I imagined them tasting of butterscotch and caramel. I saw them as soft, warm, and smooth.  But, I  felt them as cold, dry, and brittle as I raked the grasses through my fingers.


Golden mounds

Arriving at Bandlands National Park



On, Sept. 16, 2013, The clouds began to lift as I entered Badlands National Park.  Mid-70's - ah… Pretty full of myself too - feeling proud for being selected for the role and anticipating a teaching gig well within my comfort zone.  My contacts at the park service, Cathy and Julie, gave me a warm welcome.  I introduced myself to last spring's artist-in-residence, Judy Thompson, a dear person and artist of highly appealing watercolors.  She was there as a consultant.  The housing was clean and very comfortable.    My dear roommate, Lainey, a recent paleontology grad, was finishing her seasonal work assignment. Let's just say I eased in with alacrity.   Little did I know what was in store for me…  that my time at Badlands NP was every bit what any adventure should be.

The park encompasses 244,000 acres in southwestern South Dakota.  It is known for its fossil resources (of way-cool mammals but no dinosaurs), an alien-planet style landscape of eroded mounds and buttes, and a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem where the buffalo (bison) roam.

The landscape at Badlands National Park was formed through  deposition and erosion. The sedimentation we see in the Badlands formations began some 69 million years ago when a great inland sea covered the area.  Uplift to the west encouraged rivers to carve down into the sedimentary rock layers in the last half a million years.  The rocky divide where waters flow to either the White or Bad Rivers forms a backbone 100 miles long called the "Wall".  The nearby town of Wall gets its name from this feature.

Badlands National Park is pretty spread out and, as many national parks, quite remote.  Exit 131 from I-90 takes you 7 miles, past the Minuteman National Historic Site, a Prairie Homestead, and then to the northeast entrance.  Here you find the visitor center, housing, main campground, and lodge. Two miles down the road is the town of Interior, South Dakota.

Interior sign

As you can see by the sign, Interior has had an interesting history.   

My first buddy in Interior was, Sue, proprietress of Cowboy Corner (CC). Here I was welcomed into the community with a home-style lunch. I also learned from Sue's employee, Joe, that he relocated from Michigan because the folks are so friendly in Interior.  CC is an eclectic business conglomerate containing a gas station, casino, used book library, an eating area, and grab-n-go grocery stop.  Sue makes homemade lunches weekdays, chicken-fried steak Friday evenings, and prime rib on Saturday evenings. Park employees and locals alike gather daily with everyone sharing tables, and news.

Badlands Cowboy Corner:

Cowboy corners


Next a brief tour of Interior: 

1.  The old jail - ain't no bad guys get'n me!

Interior jail


2.  Infrastructure

Water system


3.  Central Business District.  With my back to Badlands Grocery Store / Post Office, I caught a view of the central business district.


Central business district


4. School.  I took a gander at the elementary school where I planned to teach 3 sessions to each age level.  46 students in all. Yes, I was ready.



Badlands National Park Artist Residency: Thoughts on Ways to Support the Interpretive Staff

Wall Story Time Photo: Artist, Judy Thompson, Ranger Ed, and Beemer helped local pre-schoolers learn about the Badlands at the Wall Public Library.

There is clearly a role for artists in both enhancing the visitor experience of the park and for connecting park resources to its audiences.  As an experiment, I was asked to informally staff the visitor center desk on a Saturday afternoon during my spring 2014 residency.  I partnered with ranger, Alison, who served as the main visitor contact and helped to legitimize my role with signage and a facebook post.   So, without a uniform or formal designation (badge, name tag), I threw out a line to see what I could catch.  I'm listing my interactions here to share some possibilities for engaging visitors.

The set-up:  I stood in front of the desk near the entrance to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center between noon and 4 pm, greeting and engaging visitors based upon their interests.  At 3 pm, I made a short presentation on "Improving  your Photography of the Badlands".


  1. Artist-in-Residence program
  2. Artist, Jessica Bryant's exhibit at the Dahl Museum in Rapid City, SD about the seldom visited South Unit of the Park.  I included a recommendation for Park Superintendent, Eric Brunnemann upcoming presentation at the Dahl regarding the status of plans for the Nation's first Tribal National Park.
  3. A continuous slide show of my photos highlighting beautiful aspects of the Balands landscape, suggesting photo possibilities for visitors
  4. Introduction to my digital silk painting medium and processes
  5. Scenic possibilities and favorite hikes, tying-in with factual background from Ranger, Alison on what visitors might be seeing
  6. With an example from a recent hike, I demonstrated what to look for and how to properly photo-document fossil finds.
  7. The supportive role of the Badlands Natural History Association, highlighting its role in supporting educational outreach in the community in addition to artist-in-residencies.
  8. Directed parents to Junior Ranger materials.  Suggested topics of books grandchildren might enjoy.
  9. At my short presentation,  I offered suggestions for “tuning-in” to what is unique about Badlands and how to develop a relationship with the landscape - finding meaning / interpretative expressions unique to each photographer's experience of the park.  Distributed a handout with compositional and technical advice for photographing Badlands.

Back to the Badlands. Pondering Upon Time and Significance


Why the ambitious title?  Well, I finally happened upon my first fossil.  We were hiking a grassland area near a Chadron formation (from 37-34 million years ago) at Badlands National Park.  Springtime rain had eroded the slopes of the formation, carrying down previously buried fossil remains.  This is of a turtle shell. The find reminded me of the slowness of time yet signified the animal's persistence today.  I heard echoes of the tale, "Turtle and the Hare".  I sure hope that's true for artists, as well -  Persistence + Time = Significance. 

Badlands National Park Residency, Lessons from the Pine Ridge

Lady of lourdes w graphic

The Oglala Sioux live on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  The Pine Ridge is a land of contrasts. The rolling prairies and lack of roads, gas stations, chain restaurants, and convenience stores free up landscape vistas.  There is almost no litter along the highway and many people walk along side. There are long distances between poor but close-knit communities where the schools, health centers, Oglala Lakota College centers share pride of place.

I had recently learned that reservations are sovereign entities equivalent to the states.  During my encounters at Pine Ridge, I found it important to respect this separateness and to be vigilant about questioning my assumptions.  At the same time, I intended to be mindful of and to foster connection-making whenever I could to Badlands National Park, the school curriculums, and place.

Lady of Lourdes School

I drove almost 2 hours from the Park to my first assignment, Lady of Lourdes school. I received a warm welcome. The principal told me how much the community appreciates this outreach especially since they have no budget for art supplies and instruction.  A possible donation opportunity?

I taught 3rd thru 5th graders to make kites inspired by the Badlands landscape and prairie ecosystem.  We connected the functions of kite string, sail, struts, and tail to prairie grass structures. I was surprised to learn that the majority of students had never visited Badlands National Park.  (Note to self:  prepare for next gig with more visual references and continue to be mindful of the distances that separate us even to this day.)

Interesting spiritual connections here... The school site contains a grotto where an elder of the tribe was visited by a holy woman.  Thus the name of this Catholic school, Lady of Lourdes, harkens to when St. Bernadette was visited by a beautiful, holy Lady in a grotto near Lourdes (France) in 1858.  I taught in the school's chapel and noticed these beautiful Lakota 10 commandments:

1) Treat the Earth and all that dwell therein with respect.

2) Remain close to the Great Spirit

3) Show great respect for your fellow beings

4) Work together for the benefit of all Mankind

5) Give assistance and kindness wherever needed

6) Do what you know to be right

7) Look after the well-being of Mind and Body

8) Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater Good

9) Be truthful and honest at all times

10) Take full responsibility for your actions

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Wounded Knee School

Wounded Knee School is near where the massacre of the same name took place. The community is very poor.  A teacher told me that no one in his students' families was employed.  Yet, the school was clean with attractive cultural symbols decorating the halls.  Noteworthy too - the 5h grade students I taught were even less familiar with the Badlands National Park landscape than those from Lady of Lourdes.

I taught a kite-making class as a break from a week of standardized testing. In contrast to the right and wrong answers engendered by the tests, we had fun talking about artistic sovereignty where each of their expressions is valid.  One student asked whether hair stylists could be artists.  What fun it was connecting the images that decorated their kites to hair styles - from wind-blown nonchalance to that "big hair" look inspired by buffalo!  The class had recently learned about simile and metaphor in language arts classes; so we discussed what a visual metaphor was using the wind as an example - here the students came up with a variety of conceptions of how the wind looks.

Kadoka School

Here, the long-standing, familiar and positive relationship the park has established with Kadoka teachers and school administration felt more like collaboration than outreach.  In time, I predict the Park's educational outreach will continue to grow these positive relationsips and bridge the many gaps found in its outlying communities.  I am so grateful for having been given this opportunity for a second time.  Many thanks to the Badlands Natural History Association (BNHA) for its support of this educational outreach. .  I found Gregory Gagnon's book, "Pine Ridge Reservation, Yesterday and Today", 2nd edition very helpful.  It is available from the  BNHA bookstore.