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May 11, 2011

Environmental Transformation

Guest post by Aric Mayer

For the past few months I have been following a logging operation that is taking place within the watershed of Bellingham, Washington. High up on the hillsides above Lake Whatcom, the timber rights for public land are sold off and the trees are cut in commercial logging operations. There are many obvious problems with logging within one’s watershed. Erosion and habitat destruction are two.

There are also difficulties in visually communicating environmental transformation through photographs. Visual drama is easy to catch. It is the long, slow passage of time that pictures cannot easily touch. Cinema is a medium better suited to constructing a narrative. Photographs are fixed and therefore are unchanging. There is no passage of time within an image. Because of this, though, it is possible to see into two places in time simultaneously. The effects can be jarring, especially when it is the same place in two radically altered states.

The first picture above is a view of a healthy middle-aged forest. In another 20 years, the trees would have thinned out, with the stronger trees thickening and growing taller, pushing out the weaker in the quest for sunlight, and the weaker trees falling and contributing through their decay to the life of the forest floor. In the second image, taken some weeks after the first, the forest is completely destroyed in a commercial logging operation. For a decade this will be almost entirely uninhabitable land. With no trees to impede the sunlight, brush and weeds will rule. Then, slowly, birds and animals will return again to find habitat in the returning trees.

In this next pair of images, we first see trees in the foreground in a healthy forest. In the second image they are gone, cut down, dragged away, stripped and stacked on the pile of logs in the background waiting to be sent to the mill. The three less useful trees with blue painted bands in the upper right corner anchor both images. The green life has been stomped out of the foreground. Only broken branches and debris remain.

Not only are these images a record of the passing of a forest, but they are also competing visions of success. Progress in the first images takes decades to achieve. Progress in the second can be reached in just days. There is an obvious question of values here. Many of us may not be alive long enough to see this forest return. On a planet with looming environmental crises, how much cheap lumber do we need, and at what expense?

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Environmental Transformation

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