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.