Is it nature?

When I first started playing around with my husband’s old Nikon camera this spring, I assumed I was all about nature photography. Macro shots of flowers, wide angle landscapes, long exposures of flowing water…that sort of thing. It went along with my ideas about nature writing – romanticizing and idealizing the natural aka ‘wild’ world.
But once I started looking around at other peoples’ photographs, the ones that resonated with me had a tension in them: between humans and nature, built and wild, edges and curves. In exploring the nature writing genre, I enjoyed works that examined the difficulty of interpreting nature from a human standpoint, and the co-dependency of humans on nature. Luanne Armstrong’s ‘The Light Through the Trees’ is a particularly good meditation on the former idea, while Sue Hubbell’s ‘A Country Year’ explores the latter idea through beekeeping.
One of my favourite photographers is Canadian Edward Burtynsky, whose predominant theme is nature transformed through industry. He has a show called ‘Water’ coming up this fall at the New Orleans Museum of Art, with stunning images of flooded cities, irrigated landscapes, oil slicks around drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico…It’s nature – but with the hand of humankind superimposed on it.
In the spirit of Burtynsky, I’ve been taking my new Canon to the regional waste disposal site to try and capture some of that nature vs. human tension. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

The pallet pile (Photo: S Boon)

Do you need a fridge? (Photo: S Boon)

Making space for more garbage (Photo: S Boon)

Propane heads (Photo: S Boon)

Well, I’m definitely no Burtynsky. But looking through the lens at these vistas has got me thinking more about how we define nature, and how we as humans fit into and affect the landscape. Whether that’s at a detailed scientific level, or at an even more basic level of surface patterns and shapes.

Emma Marris brings up a lot of ideas around what nature is – and whether we can still find any that’s untouched by humans – in ‘Rambunctious Garden‘. It seems that good nature photography and writing seeks not to avoid the anthropomorphism that some claim is making it merely bourgeois escapism (!), but to embrace and explore it.

Instead of calendar-ready mountain scenes in improbably vivid shades of green and purple, consider the true nature of a landscape – whether that’s a granola bar wrapper just off a pristine mountain trail, or fields of canola on what was once native prairie.

As part of nature, we have an impact on it that can’t be avoided no matter how far into the wild we seek to disappear.

Think about it, live it, share it, and talk about it. It’s the best way we have to look after what nature we have left.

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