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August 19, 2004


I think I've said this before, but if there are any Creek readers who haven't followed the "homepage" links in Anne's extremely kind comments, check out her blog now. If you're anything like me, you'll make it a habit.

Anne is an incredibly gifted wildlife photographer, with a heartbreaking empathy for her subjects. Her August 13 coyote is especially charming, capturing the soul of the species.

There is danger in this kind of photography. One runs the risk of anthropomorphizing the wildlife being portrayed, of glamorizing the beautiful and furred at the risk of missing said wildlife's true character. Assuming we can know what that true character is.

I wrote a piece a few years back in which I described the impact of the Disney Corporation on our perceptions of nature. There's a passage from that piece that I think applies to much wildlife photography, though I wrote it about filmmaking in particular:

Film editors quail at the hours of inactivity that characterize the natural world; a two-hour film may show enough vigorous activity to fill a year of an animal’s actual life. Gone are the endless hours of silence, the slow changes in sky and light, the arduous and heavy-laden progress along a steep trail, that characterize much of the true wilderness experience. Seasons cycle in less time than it takes to get to the bottom of your popcorn bag. The complex and interwoven rhythm of nature, plain to those who spend more than a few rushed days outside of cities, is lost, replaced by rhythms measured in frames per second.

Unless some filmmaker adopts Andy Warhol as a major influence, nature documentary isn’t likely to escape this limitation. But by modelling its attractions after its nature films, Disney extends this distortion of nature’s rhythms into what most take for real life. On the [Disneyland] mine train, you can get from Arizona to Wyoming in five minutes. On the [also in Disneyland] Jungle Cruise, you find predator after large predator leaping out from behind the cramped foliage. Even if you simply measure your four-mile Florida hike by the distance between interpretive signs, you’re experiencing nature that has been strapped to the procrustean bed of industrial time.

What happens when people accustomed to this industrial nature are faced with a natural environment in unenhanced form? Where seasons change at the traditional pace, flowers don’t open in time-lapse and the animals mostly hide or run away before you can see them? By comparison to nature in its disneyfied state, the simple swamp or desert valley floor will seem a flaccid, lifeless thing, its resident wildlife uninteresting and devoid of musical accompaniment, certainly of less value than the proposed shopping mall or airport. There’s no nature there: nature is bears and big snakes and rams duelling to the Anvil Chorus. Who could thus oppose a Disney-style development in which a few of the original plants would be preserved and labelled for our enjoyment?

The thing I especially like about Anne's work is that while she does publish an extraordinary collection of sublime megafaunal portraits, she pays heed to the inconspicuous as well. A harebell here, a dried stem of everlasting there, mist weaving through aspens and dissolving. Wolves and bears and ungulates command our attention, but they make up only a minuscule portion of the biomass of the Yellowstone that Anne loves so.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 19, 2004 02:57 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Thanks for pointing me at Anne's blog... and thanks as well for posting the link to "Nature by Design." What a wonderful article. Bravo.

Posted by: Chris Rieder at August 20, 2004 08:54 AM
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are YOU tawkin' about me????? thanks for the nice words Chris. i agree that too often it seems like folks can shortcut nature, and perhaps if they are only spectators they can. it is different experiencing nature than watching it on the discovery channel. experience requires a relationship - a nature documentary on requires an hour (or less) of the spectator. i have an acquaintence, bob landis, who makes films for national geographic. i know how much time he spends in the field filming footage, and i've seen the end result on tv. there is really no comparison. it is a labor of love, that's all i can say about that.
i love your journal, i love your words. write me some more :)

Posted by: Anne at August 20, 2004 09:56 AM
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...i also meant to say, and would have were i not such a "hit the send button" spaz...there is perhaps still value in anything that might convince someone to really physically step out into the actual wild. we cannot love or save what we do not know exists, and maybe the first step is simply becoming aware that something other than human beings exist. my experience with nature, is that if you go out into it there is always enough going on to fascinate one. that step out of the door is the hardest one.
love you to bits :)

Posted by: Anne at August 20, 2004 12:26 PM
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Thanks for the pointer, and thank you, Anne, for your pictures. I absolutely agree with Chris' summing-up.

It's a frightening topic to think about, though, the perception of "the wild." We're human beings. We use language. We construe everything metaphorically. The woods are never just the woods; a bear never just a bear; a death never just a death. We have memories and stories and childhoods which wend through even the most stark and affectless views of nature. And then there's the 'scientific,' naturalist approach, which has the potential of being all the more dangerous with its assumptions of objectivity.

I suppose an awareness and appreciation of this inevitable skewing is the best we can do. Because I don't think we can know what the "true character" of any animal is. I'm reminded of a famous philosophical paper by Thomas Nagel "What it is like to be a bat" . . . the piece is ostensibly on the nature of consciousness, but I think parts of it apply here:

"Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for /me/ to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications."

It's humbling to think of, and beautiful, too, how distant "the wild" really is.

Posted by: Siona at August 20, 2004 05:27 PM
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Speaking of slowing down, it's difficult to appreciate photo blogs when you have a glacial dial-up connection, but I'll try with this one - sounds good!

I just wanted to add that the really insidious thing about Disney is the way it colonizes the imaginations of little kids. It has to spend enormous resources in this effort, because it's going *against nature*. I've noticed that most kids up to the age of 4 or 5 seem to retain the ability to play in the grass or forest and be endlessly entertained by all the busy crawling and hopping things - invertebrates, mostly. Though I agree with the point about filmmakers' extreme exaggeration of the activity levels of megafauna, please don't forget that for those with eyes for detail, there IS always something going on! My four year-old second cousin played with tussock moth caterpillars for TWO DAYS STRAIGHT last week - and this is a kid whose mother flips out every time she sees a bug, and who likes to baby sit by plopping the kid in front of an enormous video screen and putting in a DVD of "Beauty and the Beast."

Siona, I might borrow this quote for a post about watching a bat groom itself (if I write it). Thanks...

Posted by: Dave at August 21, 2004 07:59 AM
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Weekend before last I was in Canada for a couple of days. After breakfast my husband and I took a short walk along a path. We couldn't have gone more than 1/8 mile, but there was plenty to absorb.

It's not activity that matters to me. The rhythm is slow, and that allows you to open up to the minute differences and textures around you.

I took about 40 pictures along this very short portion of the path. Different foliage, wildflowers, mixes of wildflowers, distant, close-up, I even took a picture of mud (and probably should have taken more).

I guess I'm easily amused, but the only animals that made much of an appearance were a dog who knew better than to talk to strangers, trotting along in a businesslike manner up a side path to a house, and of course the bugs that wanted a little piece of us. You could hear birds but they were mostly hidden or quickly gone; you could hear the crows but only one was visible, and without a telephoto it wasn't much of a picture.

The experience was rich as all such walks are for me, just being where I am, being in the now, seeing whatever is there to be seen.

Posted by: JoAnne at August 24, 2004 02:10 PM
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