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.
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