Wednesday, December 23, 2009

dangerous beauty

Just before the power went out, I spent an hour tromping around documenting the snow fall. Notice how much snow is on the telephone and power lines!

This is the most snow we gotten since we've lived in eastern Kentucky (now 13 years). And its the second major snow before Christmas -- a highly unusual occurrence. For those in the know, this is just another example of the weather weirding that results form over all global warming. Here's the explanation:

The unprecedented melting of arctic sea ice the past two summers has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the early winter weather over the Northern Hemisphere. Several modeling studies presented at the December AGU meeting showed that sea ice melt on this scale is capable of injecting enough heat into the atmosphere to result in a major shift in the jet stream. Dr. Overland [Jim Overland of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory] remarked that the early cold winter over North America this winter, and the exceptionally cold and snowy early winter in China last winter, were likely related to arctic sea ice loss. The sea ice loss induced a strong poleward flow of warm air over eastern Siberia, and a return flow of cold air from the Pole developed to compensate. Thus regions on either side of eastern Siberia--China and North America--have gotten unusually cold and snowy winters as a result. Source: Dr. Jeff Masters' WunderBlog

Not all signs of global warming are warmer days, instead what we see are important shifts and changes in the weather patterns.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

seeing beauty versus photographing it

I live in a beautiful place. There is certainly some ugliness -- mostly in the form of strip-mines, but also a lot of litter on the road sides -- but overall this is a beautiful place. Hills and mountains close in around the narrow valleys and hollers, where communities form like Christmas lights strung along the creeks and streams, and narrow ribbons of asphalt thread among the houses.

Every day, as I drive to and from work, or go out to run errands and go shopping, I see beautiful, inspiring scenes that make my heart sing with joy. Yet when I contemplate photographing this beauty I run up against rarely discussed, yet nonetheless existing "rules" about what makes a beautiful photograph.

For example, electrical wires, light poles, transformers, and other such things are not suppose to "mar" a beautiful photograph of nature. Yet, almost every view I have of the mountains, forest and sky has such things within it. Over the last several years, as I've done more and more photography, I've thought a lot about this.

The human eye in daily life, looks past things like wires and poles, street lights and traffic, and is inspired by the natural landscape beyond them. In our minds we edit out these things, they do not distract us from the view. But the literal eye of the camera locks these trappings of modern industrial society into view, creating images that do not conform to social conventions of natural beauty.

Some man-made objects are acceptable in nature photographs -- the older the better! Old barns, old fences (at least wooden ones), old houses, antique cars (not your old rusted clunker on cinder blocks), old wagons, old tools hand tools (not old rusting mining equipment!). But the kinds of man-made structures (untidy utility poles, trailers and double-wides, pick-up trucks, gas stations and Dollar General Stores) that often end up in one's view around here don't qualify as acceptable backdrops or foregrounds for nature photography.

The biggest problem with this disparity between people's daily experience of nature, and social standards for natural beauty as represented by nature photography, is that it can lead to degradation of the environment. Places like this are often viewed by those with the power to make such decisions as not beautiful or scenic enough to be worth saving.

Between 1976 and 1982 as I did the research for my masters thesis and doctoral dissertation in the nearby mountains of southwest Virginia, I observed a distressing scenario unfold. The United States Forest Service was developing the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and had selected the theme "Rural Americana" for their development. To achieve the idyllic rural vistas that the Forest Service desired for tourists, they decided it was necessary to obliterate several existing rural communities, such as Fairwood, condemning property through eminent domain and bull-dozing homes and outbuildings. Real rural Americans were "rural" enough for the Forest Service.

It is this type of mindset that also leads decision-makers to say, "what's one more strip-mine?" in eastern Kentucky? How can it matter to anyone whether yet another mountain top gets denuded of forest and turned into rubble. But it does matter.

I live in a beautiful place -- for now.