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.