Art, science and progressive politics—why should they be separate domains? Serious art is a way of knowing the world: how to get along with others, what’s out there in the world, what to admire, what to be wary of—in short, how to live. Science explores the particulars, and politics is the endeavor to work with others to make life better—hopefully for most people! They’ve all been my passions since childhood, and this book brings them all together. And today it is urgent that we bring them together: we need to act collectively to preserve what we can of the livability of this earth. As the “Gaia” prophet, independent scientist James Lovelock notes,
“Over half the Earth’s people live in cities, and they hardly ever see, feel or hear the natural world. Therefore our first duty if we are green should be to convince them that the real world is the living Earth and that they and their city lives are part of it and wholly dependent on it for their existence.” (from The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 2006, p. 147)
Nature is not merely a place to go to relax and unwind: it is the very ground of our being. Our very survival absolutely depends on a myriad of systems functioning correctly and interconnectedly. The Gaia concept is an attempt to embrace this entire enterprise, although its complexity is beyond our understanding. What we do know, however, is that we humans are damaging these systems with our waste products and food production, to the point that the Earth will support many fewer of us in the coming years.
Most people live very provincially, occupying a very small section of the Earth. Even committed travelers can never grasp anywhere near its entirety. Still, by offering a diverse enough selection of glances at Earth’s marvels, I hope to give the reader/viewer a sense of the diversity and magnificence of the Planet that supports our existence. The surface geology that I photograph are but the visual remnants and traces of unimaginably long processes, including those that connect the deep structure of the Earth with its surface.
We all love landscapes. The great master painters and photographers have captured rare moments when the light, sky, and formations come together in a near mythological union. I hope some of my images in this book fall into this category. But I also wanted to share my discoveries on a much smaller scale: the views of the Earth at hand and underfoot, which I call “miniscapes.” These often encompass pieces of ground or rock face that are the size of art works that might hang in a gallery, and many of them evoke familiar artistic styles, like Abstract Expressionism or Surrealism. The fashions for these styles have come and gone, and they’ve settled comfortably into the range of modern art styles that many artists work in today. To find similar formations in the natural world, however, is still a kind of revelation: they were obviously there all the time, many from long before humans walked the Earth, and they’ll still be there when we’re gone. We might say that these styles are an acknowledgement of a certain kind of natural beauty, giving us as nature-lovers the recognize out in the natural world, what we’ve learned to love in museums and art galleries. It’s analogous to the conquest of dissonance in music: what one age hears as dissonant, a later age will experience as beautiful and evocative. So these influential modern artists who have shaped our visual sensibilities, many of whom openly acknowledge the source of their inspiration in nature, return us to its direct contemplation. I’m thinking in particular of Jackson Pollack who considered himself a force of nature, and the French Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, who, we now know, was inspired by rocks on the coastline of Brittany, although for many years no one guessed that his “enigmatic objects” were actually drawn from reality.
So painters have enabled photographers to see more, and hopefully we photographers can help extend everyone’s vision, increasing not only enjoyment, but appreciation for the natural world, which has taken so many thousands and millions of years to create its “compositions.” It’s this world that needs our committed and vigorous defense now, as the depredations of industrial civilization that enables us to live in comforts unknown to our ancestors, keep stressing and even destroying more and more of it. It is not infinite, and we’ve lost a lot already. The loss of Brazilian rain forest is especially worrisome. So as the great nature photographer Eliot Porter entitled his first and most famous book, “In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World.”