Wild Visions: Imaging and Imagining the American Wilderness
Mark Klett, 1988. Ed Abbey taking notes in Turkey Pen Ruins, Grand Gulch, UT
Our ideas and images of the wilderness have evolved dramatically over the past century, from a view of wild country as an inviolable, even mythical “place apart” to one that exists only within the larger field of human activity and societal choice. This shifting understanding has in turn provoked complicated questions about the value of wilderness as well as new aesthetic expectations as we reframe the wild as (at least to some degree) a human construct.
For example, what is the role of our celebrated traditions of wilderness imagery and appreciation as we take this more clear-eyed view of the “man-altered landscape” and the history of human influence – and as we preside over the retreat of largely outmoded myths of “untrammeled” nature? Can we cultivate a coherent and responsible aesthetic of the natural landscape that lies someplace between — or outside of — the extremes of the purely wild and the completely wrecked? How might this alternative vision steer future environmental thought and photographic practice, including our appreciation of emerging models of the wild as we move deeper into a human-dominated age?
Wild Visions: Imaging and Imagining the American Wilderness, an innovative book developed in collaboration with photographer Mark Klett and historian Steve Pyne, will tackle these and other questions at the intersection of environmental thought and wilderness photography. The book (University of Chicago Press, under contract) is inspired in part by the “exhibit format” series popularized by David Brower during his tenure as Executive Director of the Sierra Club in the 1960s. The original Sierra Club volumes created the new genre of “environmentalist coffee table book” by showcasing the indelible work of photographic luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and others. In the process they presented a distinctive, and today controversial, view of wild landscapes as pristine environments threatened by human activities and encroachment. Wild Visions will employ this classic photographic essay format to consider the evolution in these traditional American views and images of the wilderness, taking stock of the swirl of changing representations, values, narratives, and faces of the places we call wild in the 21st century.
Shadows of Extinction. Loss, Recovery, Resurrection
Biologists, managers, and wildlife advocates have all been lured by the binding force of the loss-and-recovery narrative in conservation, a storyline that has driven their efforts to curb species declines and extinctions via a clutch of scientific and policy strategies, from the traditional (regulations, referenda, and refugia) to the novel (the scientific wizardry of genetic engineering and synthetic biology). Promising achievable solutions to the extinction crisis, the more ambitious and interventionist efforts raise thorny questions about the value of wild species and wildness — and our weighing of the moral wages of ecological recovery, preservation, and creation in the 21st century.
Extinction, in other words, casts a long shadow. For some conservationists, it prompts a profound sense of regret, which in its darkest moments can lead to a posture of hopeless resignation. For others, it’s simply evidence of the need for greater precaution, not just in how we develop and consume on the planet but in how we prioritize and conduct our conservation efforts. For still others it stokes a fiery re-dedication to the cause, a determination to reverse the elegiac conservation narrative by (for example) “rewilding” species to replace the long lost megafauna and their ecological functions to the North American continent — or by efforts to revive extinct animals (e.g., the passenger pigeon, thylacine) so that they may be returned to their rightful place on the landscape.
Shadows of Extinction (Columbia University Press, manuscript in progress) offers a deep sounding of these ideas and efforts, an interdiscplinary and personal narrative reflecting on the significance and legacy of iconic cases of historical species loss and recovery — and (proposed) resurrection — in the age of humans.
The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation
Today, many zoos promote the protection of biodiversity as a significant part of their mission. As conservation “arks” for endangered species and, increasingly, as leaders in field conservation projects such as the reintroduction of captive-born animals to the wild, they’re preparing to play an even more significant role in the effort to save species in this century. An intensification of this effort, however, poses a number of significant practical and strategic challenges for zoological institutions. It also raises important questions about the science, values, and historical traditions informing a more robust zoo and aquarium conservation agenda.
The Ark and Beyond is an interdisciplinary, collaborative project focused on the evolution and changing character of zoo and aquarium conservation, with an emphasis on the intersection of historical, ethical, scientific, and policy perspectives. This multi-year project (the first component of which is described here) will result in a series of workshops and public events, as well as an innovative volume on the evolution of zoo and aquarium conservation, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. The project is supported by the National Science Foundation.
Header Photo: “Martha, a Passenger Pigeon.” Smithsonian Institution Archives