Photo Journal

Sandhill Cranes at Dawn, Bay Delta, California

A Quiet Place

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I recently returned from a trip to California where I spent some time photographing private land that has been restored to wetland habitat as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program (WRP). It's a program where private landowners can enhance or restore wetlands on their property with technical and financial assistance from the USDA.

Photographing these places is challenging. Many of the early choices made in the name of conservation were influenced more by aesthetics than ecology. The result is a string of national parks in the west exemplifying virtues of grandeur and the sublime—temples to romantic values in nature. Feasts for the eyes to be sure, but the arrangement doesn't make the most sense from an environmental point of view. Wetlands and prairies are at least as important as granite walls and canyons—probably more so—but while we cordoned off the grand vistas we managed much of the fertile, flat ground for agriculture with a vast system of roads, dams, and levies.

The Wetland Reserve Program is one attempt to restore some balance. But conveying the importance of this work in a photograph to an audience whose visual associations with nature are constantly being reinforced by imagery like one finds in the Sierra Club calendar is difficult. Grasslands and marshes are amazing, complicated places, but they have have no sublime peaks or raging rivers tumbling over precipices into mist. They are quiet, flat, mostly monochromatic, and their most important features are frustratingly non-visual. The need to sell conservation with romantic imagery combined with the desire to preserve visually dramatic places while ignoring other important areas has created a self-reinforcing public relations problem for conservation. It leaves the photographer very few solutions other than to simply celebrate the quiet places for what they are.

If you are interested in looking deeper into the relationship between art and ecology, a good starting point is the subject of ecocriticism—a relatively recent catch-all term for interdisciplinary studies on art and environment. Here are a few books that are on my reading list and some wetland photos from California.

Readings

The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture by Lawrence Buell

The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic by Joseph W. Meek

The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm

Photos

Wetland Reserve Program
Wetland Reserve Program
Wetland Reserve Program
Wetland Reserve Program
Wetland Reserve Program
Wetland Reserve Program

7 Reader Comments

Peggy Taft

Maybe I'm attracted to the sense of place and its perceived silence, but I'd say each photo is calendar-worthy.

Joanne Seaberg

I agree with Ms. Taft. I love the raw beauty, unencumbered by wires, signs, roads or buildings. It restores my peacefulness, those wide open spaces.

Kay

Aha--there they are--I LOVE this post, bask in it--you lucky guy--thanks for rendering the experience so beautifully!

Kay

Now I SEE the Richard Powers opening page in The Echo Maker--I want to send him the link to this post! Ooohhhh!!

Mark Meyer

Thanks Kay. Doing a little research into the subject has substantially extended my reading list. I wasn't aware of all the ecocriticism literature out there.

As for Richard Powers, The Echo Maker is on the list, but I thought I'd start with the Gold Bug Variations first. (One of my favorite things in the world is Bach's Goldberg Variations, and the play on the title was enough to convince me.)

Steve

I don't know the other books, but The Echo Maker's links with the Sandhills and and the idea of memory is coupled with the brain condition Capgras where the person's emotional memory is disconnected for certain people so, in this case, he thinks his sister is an imposter. Many other ties to memory. But the cranes begin each section of the book which is set where they gather in Nebraska.

I've only see the Sandhills here in Alaska, how does it feel to see them Outside? I imagine it's a little weird.

Mark Meyer

The Echo Maker looks great. Kay has been pitching it to me for a while—it's definitely on the short reading list.

I've seen small groups of sandhill cranes here in Alaska, but I've never seen them here in the numbers I saw down south. The sound is overwhelming especially in the half hour or so before sunrise when they are all active but still congregating in large numbers. I love to think that I might be looking at an individual crane that I've also looked at up here.

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