Art in the Pines

The first thing I noticed upon arriving at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station’s Pine Needles cabin was the near vertical driveway plunging down from the highway towards the St. Croix River. When I arrived at the bottom and lifted my gaze, however, I gasped with joy upon seeing acres of skunk cabbage and marsh marigold strewn flamboyantly across the soggy forest floor.

Skunk cabbage and marsh marigold at the Pine Needles property.

The Watershed Research Station, which is operated by the Science Museum of Minnesota, is best known for award-winning research projects that draw visiting scientists from around the world. The main property, located off of Hwy 95, south of Marine on St. Croix, includes a state-of-the-art analytical lab, a sediment-dating lab, gamma spectrometry radioisotope tracer lab, wet lab, and microscopy lab. Staff scientists, graduate students, and visiting researchers investigate issues such as eutrophication (excess nutrients in water), toxic pollutants, climate change, erosion and sedimentation, biodiversity, and harmful algal blooms in Minnesota lakes.

Algal blooms from Lake St Croix – photo by Mark Edlund, SCWRS

A few miles further north along the river, a second property is home to the James Taylor Dunn Pine Needles cabin, which is used by artists and writers that participate in the research station’s Artist in Residency Program. The property contains 20 acres of pristine habitat, a tiny one-bedroom cabin built in 1910, and a stunning view of the St. Croix River.

This spring, a photographer from Lake Elmo named Sarah Lilja is calling the Pine Needles cabin home.  

Sarah Lilja is the current artist in residence for the St. Croix Watershed Research Station

“The focus of my residency is to explore the intersection of science and art in order to document and inspire a sense of wonder and curiosity in anyone who wants to explore the natural world,” explains Lilja. “I hope that my photographs will encourage everyone to go out into the world to see and discover their own unique perspectives on how nature and science interconnect and join all of us together.”

When I met Lilja at the Pine Needles cabin last week, we took a meandering walk beneath the pines, pausing frequently to exclaim about the anemone, hepatica, and bloodroot that had just begun to bloom. “I have been hiking all over, looking for spring ephemerals and not finding much,” she said. “Now I’m here and they are coming up everywhere.”

Marsh marigold blooms near one of the many spring-fed streams on the property.

Lilja considers herself an emerging artist. She is a clinical social worker by training and spent years working in schools before developing an interest in photography. “We are big boaters and love the water,” she says. “I sent a couple of photos into a boating contest in 2017 and won, so I decided that maybe I should take my interest a little further. The pandemic has been good for one thing, because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to take photos and pursue gallery proposals.”

Though she lives close enough to commute, Lilja is excited to live in the cabin and truly dedicate her time to photography for three weeks. “The one thing about nature photography is that it is extremely weather dependent,” Lilja explains. She wants to be there at dawn and moonrise, and to capture those rare moments of perfect light. She also looks forward to slowly exploring the beauty on site without anyone waiting for her to keep hiking.  

Pine needles in a fall stream. Photo by Sarah Lilja.

Sarah Lilja and her husband have lived in Minnesota for 30 years but just recently moved from Maplewood to Lake Elmo. “There is a fabulous community commitment and action related to the arts and environment here in the St. Croix Valley,” she says. “I feel like I had a rebirth just by moving a few miles east.” Sarah Lilja plans to showcase her photography at ArtReach and the Stillwater Library later this year. In the meantime, people can follow her journey on Instagram at @sarah_lilja_photography.