Giving and Taking: Images and Nature

daguerrotype-004-580

Once again I’m promoting science writer Michelle Nijhuis, this time for a little piece in The New Yorker on the history of the daguerreotype, an early type of photographic technique.  What I like about the piece is it makes me imagine what it might have been like at that dawn of a new technology, to think about the possibilities of what could happen by merging observation, art, and technology.  It’s hard to say this early technology was primitive—the resolution on well preserved daguerreotypes is astonishing.  According to the sources in the article who have used modern technologies, such as electron microscopy, to examine them, they also have a real three dimensional structure, a result of the chemical process that created them.  They are also all fading and deteriorating, which brings up an important question Michelle grapples with in the piece.  Theoretically, stored in argon filled chambers, we might be able to extend the life of these early relics for many years, but then no one would get to see them.

It immediately brings to mind a fundamental question of conservation that Michelle and many others have likewise wrestled with—if we can save places by completely cutting them off from human impact, are they still worthwhile to save? Set aside for a moment the far wild places towards the poles where we can still realistically and without much inconvenience cut off direct human contact and just focus on places we are likely to set foot upon unless some stricture tells us otherwise. Many naturalists and conservationists would say undoubtedly yes—their value in so many ways accrues from them just being there, even if they are like a daguerreotype in a vault.  But there could be a compelling, maybe even more realistic argument for using places even as we use them up.  We have gained enormously in understanding political, economic, and environmental history by peering, destructively, at those old photographic plates.  I think we also gain by the small acts of destruction involved in taking a group of kids to tramp around a tidepool and bury their fingers into—and yank them back with horror and wonder—the tentacles of an anemone.  Coring trees and netting butterflies and dumping two dozen snails into formalin and storing the results in a natural history museum drawer that may not be opened for 30 years have provided unmatchable windows into climate change, human impacts on populations, and evolution itself. This isn’t to condone extracting any amount of enjoyment we can squeeze from nature—I’m a big fan of not shoveling out another copper mine from Arizona’s sky island mountains, even if it means we’ll all be paying a few more dollars for an iPhone—but understanding and appreciating and becoming an advocate for nature comes at a price.  It’s just ironic that the price is extracted from nature itself.

About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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One Response to Giving and Taking: Images and Nature

  1. Trica says:

    Hey Rafe – This brings to mind the evolution of censusing reef fish down in the Sea of Cortez. Into the early 80′s we still dumped quinaldine into our study sites in order to count all those fish that finally revealed themselves – floating belly up… And yet they still counted. And are “forever” archived on the shelves in the fish museum – certainly to reveal some other fishy secret as some time in the future (should someone care to ask… which I truly believe they might and I’m glad we have the collections to study). But over time, we realized that we no longer had that luxury of poisoning the fish to extract them from their lairs for our censusing. No, their numbers had enough pressures and each individual became more valuable alive (but uncertain) than dead but accounted for. I’m glad for the old counts and collections, but I’m more glad for the evolution of our thought, technologies, and less invasive approaches to nature study. We don’t always have to kill and extract to learn – we can glimpse secret intimacies of living things simply with patience and persistence.

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