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The Most Beautiful Place in the World: IMHO - Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile. This amazing light lasted for only a couple of minutes at sunrise. The rest of the day was cloudy and overcast. Photo: © Peter Essick.
The Most Beautiful Place in the World: IMHO - Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile. This amazing light lasted for only a couple of minutes at sunrise. The rest of the day was cloudy and overcast. Photo: © Peter Essick.
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  • 'Our beautiful, fragile world' - front cover.
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Our beautiful, fragile world

Edgar Vaid

26th June 2014

There is much merit in the cliché that 'a picture is worth a thousand words', writes Edgar Vaid, but 'Our Beautiful, Fragile World' suggests that great photography complemented by explanatory text is worth even more ...

We have a book to engage both heart and mind, and which should appeal equally to photographers and environmentalists.

Some books form handsome 'door-stop' tomes replete with colourful photos which we are invited to gawp at, eg 'Historic Yorkshire from a Hot Air Balloon' - well, you know the sort of thing I mean.

Such publications often have an ephemeral pulling power on the eye, but with their minimal text, and following an initial flick-through, are apt to languish on the under-shelf of our coffee-table.

Other more worthily motivated endeavours may offer us 600 pages of polemical text, densely argued and perhaps supported with a myriad gloom-inducing facts and figures, but what proportion of readers reach further than page 274?

But why offer up such obviously woeful caricatures? Well, they are worth highlighting in order to emphasise that 'Our Beautiful, Fragile World' starts with the overwhelming advantage of falling into neither genre, as its contents is split equally between text and about 50 striking images. The latter seem to fall naturally into four broad categories.

More to it than meets the eye ...

The first are those which require complementary text to explain their inclusion - usually in terms of some harm to ourselves or the natural environment. Examples include an Amish corn-husker, tossing beautifully ripened cobs into a horse-drawn cart.

Our initial reaction might be along the lines of "what could be more emblematic of traditional agricultural prosperity and humankind's harmonious interaction with the bountiful land, etc?"

Peter Essick expounds his view that owing to the pervasive spread in processed foodstuffs of high fructose corn syrup (since he took the photo 20 years previously), "it is a shame that corn has become a symbol of corporate greed, political foolishness, America's fast-food culture, and the obesity epidemic."

Or we notice an engaging group of Adelie penguins in a David Attenborough style view of them socialising and at ease in their natural environment. Or are they? The text explains that one effect of anthropogenic global warming is the increase in Antarctic snow-fall.

But why should that be an issue for the penguins? Well, it has caused the number of breeding pairs to drop sharply over the last three decades, as Adelies need to nest on rocky, snow-free land.

Everything is not as it seems

The second, though much smaller category comprises images which waver on the unsettling side of neutral, emitting a subliminal dysphoria without immediate or apparent reason.

Is, for example, what appear to be gnomon-surmounted hub-caps, set out with regimented precision in an overall cast of lurid green, an aquatic art installation at Tate Modern? No - perhaps only a nuclear industry insider would know that what we are looking at are canisters containing waste which "will be toxic for millions of years".

Or, has the grass-fringed lagoon in northern China been photographed during the restfulness of a contemplative oriental dawn? No - the pink tinge is the result of preservative contamination from a nearby tofu plant.

Apocalypse now

Thirdly, are those images which quietly scream from the page "look at this ecocide!" - rendering the text largely supplementary, or even superfluous.

Examples include a log yard near Winnipeg, in which two-thirds of the aerial view is packed solid with thousands of tree trunks from the old growth boreal forest - their ignominious destiny to be turned into pulp for newsprint.

Or here we see the ravaged tracts of Canada's Athabasca tar sands. This scene could effortlessly double as a graphically realistic film set for a scarred and blasted post-apocalyptic waste-land, with industrial-scale tipper trucks malevolently carting off their spoils like voracious aphids.

The world's most beautiful places

Perhaps as a counter-balance to such grim images we find a fourth category, characterised by scenes of largely bucolic picturesqueness, that seem to have inadvertently strayed from the pages of a glossy, upmarket calendar.

However, they do provide a welcome relief from some of the doom implicit on other pages, reminding us all of the planet's unsullied natural environments, which for the sake of future generations we should strive to protect from ecocide.

Examples include the graphically sculptural rock formations in the Joshua Tree National Park, slightly reminiscent of an inchoate Californian riposte to the monumental Inca walls of Machu Picchu, and the irregular, craggy peaks of the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia which, for the photographer, is "the most beautiful place in the world".

So, all in all we have a book to engage both heart and mind, and which should appeal equally to photographers and environmentalists. Although there is much merit in the cliché that 'a picture is worth a thousand words', 'Our Beautiful, Fragile World' suggests that pictures complemented by text are worth even more.

 


 

The book: 'Our Beautiful, Fragile World - the Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick' is published by Rocky Nook Inc. ISBN: 978-1-937538-34-7

Edgar Vaid is a freelance book and film reviewer. For more than 30 years he worked for Natural England, becoming involved in policies including traditional field boundaries, organic farming, and public rights of way. However, he became witness to a series of increasingly over-sophisticated corporate programmes, and endured some mind-numbing team meetings. Partly as a more productive and satisfying diversion, he took to writing reviews (rather than drink). Edgar lives in the Forest of Dean, and may be contacted at orizabalodge@yahoo.co.uk.

 

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