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Arts Nurturing nature

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Three books explore the relationship between humans and the natural world

In August 1970, four months after Americans celebrated the first Earth Day, Neil Young released After the Gold Rush, a mystical album whose apprehensive title track contained the line, “Look at Mother Nature on the run, in the 1970s.” Since its release, Young has updated the song several times, because, after nearly 36 years, Mother Nature is still running, but she’s losing the race against her human pursuers.

The precarious relationship between humans and the natural world is explored in a trilogy of books recently published by Trinity University Press: Terra Antarctica, Yosemite in Time, and The Land’s Wild Music. While their eloquent prose and gorgeous portraits are intended to inspire us to contemplate our sense of place in the natural world, their undercurrent is clear: Humans are changing nature, and rarely for the better.

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While President Bush pooh-poohs global warming as science fiction, Antarctica, a mysterious continent once thought by science-fiction writers and early explorers to harbor men from outer space and fire-breathing dragons, serves as a climatological bellwether. Terra Antarctica author William Fox basked on the melting ice one summer day when the temperature reached a record high 51 degrees. DDT has been detected in delicate lichens, which are being destroyed by ultraviolet light slipping through the growing hole in the ozone.

Despite Antarctica’s remoteness—explored since the 1800s, it wasn’t accurately mapped until the late 1990s when advanced satellite imagery penetrated the cloud cover—the continent cannot escape the human footprint. By air and sea, more than 20,000 tourists will visit the area this year, although not all will disembark onto the land. And as scientists, writers, artists, and photographers live there, some even wintering over, a small village has emerged, with the concomitant issues of trash, sewer, and air pollution from diesel generators.

Yet, environmental degradation is only one part of Fox’s transfixing book, which braids the fields of meteorology, biology, neurobiology, cartography, art, and history to illustrate an extreme world where a compass is relatively useless, microorganisms can be found 7,300 feet beneath the world’s largest ice shelf, and the human brain, baffled by the immense whiteness, struggles to comprehend the landscape: In white-outs, people have been known to temporarily go blind.

Terra Antarctica:
Looking Into the
Emptiest Continent

By William Fox
Trinity University Press
$35, 312 pages
ISBN 1595340157

Yosemite in Time
By Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe,
and Rebecca Solnit
Trinity University Press
$45, 140 pages
ISBN 1595340165

The Land’s Wild Music
By Mark Tredinnick
Trinity University Press
$24.95, 338 pages
ISBN 1595340181

A scrambled visual cortex—the air is so dry and free of particulate matter that it alters depth perception—and the lack of an indigenous culture affects how Antarctica is portrayed in paintings and to a lesser extent, photographs. As Fox points out, New Zealanders, whose proximity to Antarctica strongly ties them to the ice, have moved on to more subjective interpretations of the continent. Yet, much American Antarctic imagery has been strictly representational. This narrow view is the product of artistic and political impulses: The continent is still considered so otherworldly we have to see it to believe it; and to secure funding for scientific projects and expeditions, groups such as the National Science Foundation, which sponsor artists and writers to the continent, need beautiful images and stories to present to their benefactors.

Meanwhile, Yosemite, which, as opposed to Antarctica, is one of the world’s most photographed landscapes, also offers us an opportunity to gauge the natural and manmade impacts. Using mules to lug heavy cameras and gear, 19th- and 20th-century photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Charles Leander Weed, Eadward Muybridge (whose glass negatives measured nearly 2 square feet), and others perched on precipices, peered into viewfinders, and patiently waited for the right light in which to capture the area’s geologic magnificence.

For the book, modern photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe rephotographed as closely as possible the original views of the early masters. Through mathematical calculations, they placed their cameras within inches of the original setup and photographed at the same time of day and year. (Yet, even in the late 1870s, 125 years before Photoshop, photographers were adding clouds to skies using special negatives.) In recreating the pictures, Klett and Wolfe tapped into the photographers’ creative decisions in framing and choosing an image, while unveiling the march of time.

A flourishing Jeffrey Pine, captured by Ansel Adams in 1940, has withered away from drought by 2002. Areas once inhabited only by Native Americans are rephotographed with tourists wading in streams; contrails from planes pollute the skies. Yet in some places, the Yosemite of the 21st century is lusher than that of the mid-1860s. The once-craggy Domes, shot from Glacier Rock, are now swathed in pine trees.

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A Jeffrey Pine, left, photographed by Ansel Adams in 1940. Sixty-two years later, Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe rephotographed the withered tree.

But more important is what’s missing from Wolfe and Klett’s photographs. Increasing temperatures over the last century, have reduced the number of glaciers in the Yosemite area from 150 to 30. Nor can we see the pollution that has tainted the streams, but in one picture, the photographers show a child’s toy camera, found at water’s edge. Just by visiting these sensitive areas, we make an impact.

In the The Land’s Wild Music, author Mark Tredinnick analyzes the work of four esteemed nature writers, Terry Tempest Williams, James Galvin, Barry Lopez, and Peter Matthiessen. He interviews the writers about how they interpret the world, and folds in his own ecocriticial theories about their work. While the writers’ observations and brief biographies lend new insights into their methods, Tredinnick’s purple, yet stilted, prose, interrupted by academic footnotes and interjections such as “As I write this,” are distracting and derail what would otherwise be an engaging book.

Documenting the natural world cannot stem relentless deforestation, rampant pollution, and the push toward genetically engineered monocultures, (nor, can it apparently convince Intelligent Designers and Creationists, that El Capitan was created as a result of billions of years of wind and water, not God’s to-do list on the Fourth Day). Yet, writers, artists, and photographers continue to elevate nature to its rightful lofty place and raise our consciousness about what we are destroying. As readers, we can marvel at the pictures and become inspired by the prose, but if we continue to despoil ecosystems through consumerism, and refuse to embrace sustainable living, these authors are merely writing for history.

By Lisa Sorg


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