Man’s Influence and Nature Photography

I just posted this photo on my last blog -- I am revisiting it because it represents a very interesting dilemma about nature in nature photography. I am going to try to do more blogs about nature as seen in photography. I mentioned that I was up in Northern California (almost in Oregon) when I shot these yellow lupine.

A nice natural scene, right? Well, not exactly. Then it is a garden shot? Nope. This is fully a natural landscape. Then what is the problem?

It turns out that yellow bush lupine, which are a very visible part of the dunes and shore areas up by Arcata and Eureka, California, is not native to the area. It comes from the San Francisco area. People had planted it alongside the railroad tracks to the sawmills in the area about a hundred years ago. It was used for erosion control.

Yellow bush lupine, like all lupine, has root nodules that can capture nitrogen from the air, allowing the plant to grow in areas with nutrient-poor soils. It adapted to the sandy dunes of Humboldt Bay quite well. So the lupine has now naturalized throughout much of the area. It has become a significant part of the natural history of the dunes.

So we have a dilemma of sorts. I have helped judge nature photo contests at camera clubs, and one of the criteria is often, "no signs of man's influence." This image is clearly showing man's influence, though I doubt most camera clubs would recognize it as such.

In today's world, there are very few places one can photograph nature without seeing signs of man's influence, whether that is non-native plants, changes in fire conditions, evidence of past farming or logging, and much more. I don't see that as necessarily good or bad. It simply is. Sometimes there are negative effects, sometimes good effects, though even this is pretty subjective.

I think it is a problem to say that as nature photographers we only photograph nature separate from man. Just our act of photographing nature in a specific way is a condition of "man's influence" because we are "man (and woman)" and cannot escape this. By photographing a specific part of nature (which we do), we are showing our "influence" on how we see nature.

Anyway, what does it mean if man is separate from nature? We cannot be that. At the minimum, we breathe oxygen released by plants, use water from rain, and walk on the earth. You sometimes hear people talk about their "right" to do certain things to "their" property. As the yellow lupines point out, it is very difficult to do something in one part of the environment and not affect other things.

The folks who look after the dunes up around Humboldt Bay have a dilemma about the lupine. They are definitely part of the natural environment now, but they have not been there in the past. They are only there because of man. On the one hand, it would be easy to condemn the plants as being "non-native." I am not convinced that is the best answer.

I have been reading a bit of the work by British naturalist, Richard Mabey, who is quite a historian of plants and how they have come and gone from his country's landscapes. He notes how it is very difficult to isolate plants from their history as affected by man. There are cases where a landscape is overrun by and severely damaged by invasive non-native plants (the tamarisk of the West is a good example of this). I don't think many people would argue that there is any good from that.

On the other hand, some plants, such as dandelions, are no more "invasive" than the lawns they grow in. There is no evidence that dandelions hurt anything in native ecosystems. They are historically now an important part of man's controlled landscapes and probably legitimately belong there.

As to the yellow bush lupine, that is hard to say. Some people want to roll back landscapes to "pre-white man", yet in many cases, that is simply not possible. Are the yellow lupine enough of an invasive to truly damage the ecosystems they are now in, or are they simply ornamental examples of man's influence and history in the area? This is not an easy decision.

But several things here may be distinct problems for how we interact with nature (including how we photograph it). First, our history is what it is and cannot be changed -- we can only use the past to influence decisions for the future. Second, change is not all the same. When I "grew up" studying ecology in college, a core idea was that of the climax, stable ecosystem that any area would eventually reach. Today, that idea has changed significantly as ecologists recognize that change is a core part of all ecosystems and always has been. Some changes are disruptive, some are not. Perhaps we need to recognize the difference in our connections with nature.

Third, I think that accepting we are part of nature, not separate from it, helps us better recognize what is and what is not acceptable for change in the natural world.

 

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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4 Responses to Man’s Influence and Nature Photography

  1. Hugh Nourse says:

    Thank you for these comments that man is part of nature. The point is important. In the southeast we wrestle with plants than man has brought to this area. Some are okay, but some are destructive of plants that came before. Chinese privet, Kudzu, Chinese wisteria, are but a few of the problems. But in the battle to turn back evolution occurring because we have introduced these plants, I wonder if it really can be turned back. We may have to live with what has happened. Tis a difficult problem. But at this time I would like to remove privet, kudzu, and wisteria (non-native) and see what returns.

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      That is so true, Hugh. Kudzo is particularly a problem in many areas as it smothers native plants. I think as photographers, we have a responsibility to do more than photograph "pretty scenes." That may mean we should photograph the problems kudzo (and other plants) cause. We need to make informed and quality decisions about what is happening to our environment and photography can help do that.

      Rob

  2. Dick Lester says:

    To this day, when I am doing nature photography I actively try to avoid any man-made objects in the image. But I don't get too hung up on non-native species, even while holding my undergrad degree in '73 in Botany. I am aware that they cause problems in some areas and native species often can't compete with them. But they are what they are and they didn't ask to be here. All they can do is try and live and many are actually quite beautiful. Truth be told, Native Americans probably consider me to be an invasive species so I can kind of relate to dandelions and other immigrants :) I just try to find the beauty in whatever plant or flower I come across. It may not have been here originally but it's here now and if my macro lens happens to find it, I'm going to press the shutter button.

  3. Hugh Nourse says:

    In further response I have photographed Chinese privet in such a beautiful way that a botanist refused to use it to show what this native plant looks like because I have made it too beautiful! Even the bloom of Kudzu is beautiful and has the fragrance of grape kool-aid.

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