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The paleo-tectonic maps of retired geologist Ronald Blakey are mesmerizing and impossible to forget once you've seen them. Catalogued on his website Colorado Plateau Geosystems, these maps show the world adrift, its landscapes breaking apart and reconnecting again in entirely new forms, where continents are as temporary as the island chains that regularly smash together to create them, on a timescale where even oceans that exist for tens of millions of years can disappear leaving only the subtlest of geological traces.

With a particular emphasis on North America and the U.S. Southwest—where Blakey still lives, in Flagstaff, Arizona—these visually engaging reconstructions of the Earth's distant past show how dynamic a planet we live on, and imply yet more, unrecognizable changes ahead.

The following images come from Ron Blakey's maps of the paleotectonic evolution of North America. The first map shows the land 510 million years ago, progressing from there—reading left to right, top to bottom—through the accretion and dissolution of Pangaea into the most recent Ice Age and, in the final image, North America in its present-day configuration.



Venue met with Blakey in his Flagstaff home to talk about the tectonic processes that make and remake the surface of the Earth, the difficulty in representing these changes with both scientific accuracy and visual panache, and the specific satellite images and software tools he uses to create his unique brand of deep-time cartography.

Like film stills from a 600-million year-old blockbuster, Blakey's maps take us back to the Precambrian—but there are much older eras still, stretching unmapped into far earlier continents and seas, and there are many more billions of years of continental evolution to come. Blakey talked us through some of the most complex changes in recent geological history, including the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, and he allowed himself to speculate, albeit briefly, about where Earth's continental crust might yet be headed (including a possible supercontinent in the Antarctic).

Many of Blakey's maps are collected in the book Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, written with Wayne Ranney, where Blakey also describes some of the research and methods that went into producing them. Blakey also contributed to the recent, new edition of a textbook by Wolfgang Frisch and Martin Meschede, Plate Tectonics: Continental Drift and Mountain Building, a thorough exploration of landscapes disassembling and colliding over vast spans of time.

• • •

The west coast of North America, depicted as it would have been 130 million years ago; the coast is a labyrinth of islands, lagoons, and peninsulas slowly colliding with the mainland to form the mountains and valleys we know today. Map by Ron Blakey.

Geoff Manaugh: When I first discovered your maps showing the gradual tectonic re-location of the continents over hundreds of millions of years, I thought this was exactly what geologists should be doing: offering clear, step-by-step visual narratives of the evolution of the earth’s surface so that people can better understand the planet we live on. What inspired you to make the maps, and how did you first got started with them?

Ronald Blakey: Well, the very first maps I made were in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, back in the early 1970s. Those were made with pen and ink. I made sketches to show what the paleogeography would have looked like for the specific formation I was studying with my doctorate. Three or four of those maps went into the thesis, which was then published by the Utah Geologic Survey. I’ve also done a number of papers over the years where I’ve made sketches.

But I was late getting into the computer. Basically, during my graduate work I never used a computer for anything. I kind of resisted it, because, for the kind of work I was doing, I just didn’t see a need for it—I didn’t do quantifiable kinds of things. Then, of course, along comes email and the Internet. I actually forget when I first started with Photoshop—probably in the mid-1990s. When I found that, I just thought, wow: the power of this is incredible. I quickly learned how to use the cloning tool, so that I could clone modern topography onto ancient maps, and that made things even simpler yet.

Another thing I started doing was putting these maps into presentations. There were something like five different programs back there, in the late 90s, but the only one that survived was PowerPoint—which is too bad, because it was far from the best of the programs. I was using a program called Astound, which was far superior, particularly in the transitions between screens. I could do simple animations. I could make the tectonic plates move, create mountain belts, and so forth.

I retired in May of 2009, but all of my early maps are now online. With each generation of maps that I’ve done, there has been a noted improvement over earlier maps. I find new techniques and, when you work with Photoshop as much as I do, you learn new ideas and you find ways to make things that were a little clumsy look more smooth.

Manaugh: Where does the data come from?

Blakey: It comes from various publications. You can get a publication and have that PDF open, showing what something looked like in the past, and work from that. Usually, what I’m working from are fairly simple sketches published in the literature. They’ll show a subduction zone and a series of violent arcs, or a collision zone. What I do is take this information and make it more pictorial.

If you create a series of maps in sequence, you can create them in such a way that certain geologic events, from one time slice to the next, to the next, to the next, will blend. It depends a lot on the scale of what you’re trying to show—the whole world versus just four or five states in the West.

Now, throughout the years from, let’s say, 2004 until I retired in 2009, I kept improving the website. I envisioned most of this as educational material, and I didn’t pay much attention to who used it, how they used it, and so forth. But, then, shortly before I retired, various book companies and museums—and, most recently, oil companies—have approached me. So I started selling these and I tried very diligently not to allow this to overlap with what I was doing for my teaching and my research at the University.

In the following long sequence of images, we see the evolution of the west coast of North America, its state boundaries ghosted in for reference. Sea levels rise and fall; island chains emerge and collide; mountains forms; inland seas proliferate and drain; and, eventually, modern day California, Vancouver Island, and the Baja peninsula take shape, among other recognizable features. The time frame represented by these images is approximately 500 million years. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Nicola Twilley: What do the oil companies want them for?

Blakey: They’re my biggest customers now. Usually, the geologists at oil companies are working with people who know either much less geology than they do or, in some cases, almost no geology at all, yet they’re trying to convince these people that this is where they need to explore, or this is what they need to do next.

They find these maps very useful to show what the Devonian of North Dakota looked like, for example, which is a hot spot right now with all the shales that they’re developing in the Williston Basin. What they like is that I show what the area might have really looked like. This helps, particularly with people who have only a modest understanding of geology, particularly the geologic past.

Manaugh: What have been some of the most difficult regions or geological eras to map?

Blakey: The most difficult thing to depict is back in the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic. Large areas of the continent were flooded, deep into the interior.

During certain periods, like the Ordovician, the Devonian, and parts of the Jurassic—especially the Cretaceous—as much as two-thirds of the continents were underwater. But they’re still continents; they’re still continental crusts. They’re not oceans. The sea level was just high enough, with respect to where the landscape was at the time, that the area was flooded. Of course, this is a concept that non-geologists really have problems with, because they don’t understand the processes of how continents get uplifted and subside and erode and so forth, but this is one of the concepts that my maps show quite nicely: the seas coming in and retreating.

But it’s very difficult—I mean, there is no modern analog for a seaway that stretched from the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and that was 400 miles wide. There’s nothing like that on Earth today. But the styles of mountains have not dramatically changed over the last probably two billion years—maybe even longer than that. I don’t go back that far—I tend to stick with the last 600 million years or so—but the styles of mountains haven’t changed. The nature of island arcs hasn’t changed, as far as we know.

What has changed is the amount of vegetation on the landscape. My maps that are in the early part of the Paleozoic—the Cambrian and the Ordovician early part of the Silurian—tend to be drab-colored. Then, in the late Silurian and in the Devonian, when the land plants developed, I start bringing vegetation colors in. I try to show the broad patterns of climate. Not in detail, of course—there’s a lot of controversy about certain paleoclimates. But, basically, paleoclimates follow the same kinds of regimens that the modern climates are following: where the oceans are, where the equator is, where the mountain ranges are, and so forth.

That means you can make broad predictions about what a paleoclimate would have been based on its relationship to the equator or based on the presence or absence of nearby mountains. I use these kinds of principles to show more arid areas versus more humid areas.

The next three sequences show the evolution of the Earth's surface in reverse, from the present day to, at the very bottom, 600 million years ago, when nearly all of the planet's landmasses were joined together in the Antarctic. The first sequence shows roughly 90 million years of backward evolution, the continents pulling apart from one another and beginning a slow drift south. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: And you paint the arid area based on a contemporary analog?

Blakey: Right. I know the modern world reasonably well and I’ll choose something today that might have matched the texture and aridity of that older landscape.

I use a program called GeoMapApp that gives me digital elevation maps for anywhere in the world. Most recently, they have coupled it with what they call the “Blue Marble.” NASA has stitched together a bunch of satellite photos of the world in such a way that you can’t tell where one series of photos come in or another. It’s a fairly true-color representation of what Earth would look like from space. So this Blue Marble is coupled with the GeoMapApp’s digital elevation topography; you put the Blue Marble over it, and you use a little slider to let the topography show through, and it gives you a fairly realistic looking picture of what you’re looking for.

For example, if I’m working with a mountain range in the southern Appalachians for a Devonian map—well, the southern Appalachians, during the Devonian, were probably far enough away from the equator that it was in the arid belt. There are some indications of that, as well—salt deposits in the Michigan Basin and in parts of New York and so forth. Plus, there are red-colored sediments, which don’t prove but tend to indicate arid environments. This combination tells me that this part of the world was fairly arid. So I’m going to places like modern Afghanistan, extreme western China, northern Turkey, or other places where there are somewhat arid climates with mountain belts today. Then I clone the mountains from there and put them in the map.

But you have to know the geologic background. You have to know how the mountains were formed, what the grain of the mountains was. That’s not always easy, although there are ways of doing it. To know the grain of the mountains, you need to know where the hinterland and the center of the mountains were. You need to know where the foreland area is, so that you can show the different styles of mountains. You have to move from foreland areas—which tends to be a series of parallel ridges, usually much lower than the hinterlands—to the center and beyond.

I use this kind of information to pick the right kind of modern mountain to put back in the Devonian, based on what that Devonian landscape probably had a good chance of looking like. Do we know for certain? Of course not. We weren’t around in the Devonian. But we have a good rock record and we have a lot of information; so we use that information and, then, voilà.

To give another example, let’s look at the Devonian period of the east coast. The big European continent that we call Baltica collided with Greenland and a series of micro-continents collided further south, all the way down at least as far as New Jersey, if not down as far the Carolinas. We know that there are places on Earth today where these same kinds of collisions are taking place—in the Alps and Mediterranean region, and the Caucasus region, and so forth.

We can use the concept that, if two plates are colliding today to produce the Caucasus mountains, and if we look at the style of mountains that the Caucasus are, then it’s reasonable to think that, where Greenland and Baltica collided in the Silurian and the Devonian, the mountains would have had a similar style. So we can map that.

This second sequence shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 105 million years ago to 240 million years ago. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: That collision alone—Baltica and Greenland—sounds like something that would be extremely difficult to map.

Blakey: Absolutely. And it’s not a one-to-one relationship. You have to look at the whole pattern of how the plates collided, how big the plates were, and so forth.

Then there’s the question of the different histories of particular plates. So, for example, most of Scotland started out as North America. Then, when all the continents collided to form Pangaea, the first collisions took place in the Silurian-Devonian and the final collisions took place in the Pennsylvanian-Permian. By, say, 250 million years ago, most of the continents were together. Then, when they started to split apart in the Triassic and Jurassic—especially in the Triassic and Cretaceous—the split occurred in such a way that what had been part of North America was actually captured, if you will, by Europe and taken over to become the British Isles.

Scotland and at least the northern half of Ireland were captured and began to drift with Europe. On the other hand, North America picked up Florida—which used to be part of Gondwana—and so forth.

One of the things that is interesting is the way that, when mountains come together and then finally break up, they usually don’t break up the same way that they came together. Sometimes they do, but it has to do with weaknesses, stress patterns, and things like this. Obviously, all time is extremely relative, but mountains don’t last that long. A given mountain range that’s been formed by a simple collision—not that there’s any such thing as a simple collision—once that collision is over with, 40 or 50 million years after that event, there is only low-lying landscape. It may have even have split apart already into a new ocean basin.

But here’s the important part: the structure that was created by that collision is still there, even though the mountains have been worn down. It’s like when you cut a piece of wood: the grain is still inherited from when that tree grew. The pattern of the grain still shows where the branches were, and the direction of the tree’s growth in response to wind and sun and its neighbors. You can’t reconstruct the tree exactly from its grain, but, if you’re an expert with wood, you should be able to look and say: here are the tree rings, and here’s a year where the tree grew fast, here’s a year where the tree grew slow, here’s where the tree grew branches, etc.

In a sense, as geologists, we’re doing the same things with rock structure. We can tell by the pattern of how the rocks are deformed which direction the forces came from. With mountains, you can tell the angle at which the plates collided. It’s usually very oblique. What that tends to do is complicate the geologic structure, because you not only get things moving one way, but you get things dragging the other way, as well. But we can usually tell the angle at which the plates hit.

Then, in many cases, based upon the nature of how the crust has been deformed and stacked up, we can tell the severity of the mountain range. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we can say: oh, this structure would have been a twenty-thousand-foot high mountain range. It’s not that simple at all, not least of which because rocks can deform pretty severely without making towering mountains.

This final of the three global sequences shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 260 million years ago to 600 million years ago. There was still nearly 4 billion years of tectonic evolution prior to where these maps begin. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: Are you able to project these same tectonic movements and geological processes into the future and show what the earth might look like in, say, 250 million years?

Blakey: I’ve had a number of people ask me about that, so I did make some global maps. I think I made six of them at about 50-million-year intervals. For the fifteen to 100-million-year range, I think you can say they are fairly realistic. But, once you get much past 75 to 100 million years, it starts to get really, really speculative. The plates do strange things. I’ll give you just a couple of quick examples.

The Atlantic Ocean opened in the beginning of the Jurassic. The actual opening probably started off the coasts of roughly what is now Connecticut down to the Carolinas. That’s where the first opening started. So the central part of the Atlantic was the first part to open up. It opened up reasonably simply—but, again, I’m using the word simple with caution here.

The north Atlantic, meanwhile, didn’t open up until about 60 to 50 million years ago. When it opened up, it did a bunch of strange things. The first opening took place between Britain and an offshore bank that’s mostly submerged, called Rockall. Rockall is out in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Ireland—near Iceland—but it’s continental crust. That splitting process went on for, let’s say, ten million years or so—I’m just going to talk in broad terms—as the ocean started opening up.

Then the whole thing jumped. A second opening began over between Greenland and North America, as Greenland and North America began to separate off. That lasted for a good 40 or 50 million years. That’s where you now get the Labrador Sea; that is actual ocean crust. So that was the Atlantic Ocean for thirty or forty million years—but then it jumped again, this time over between Greenland and what is now the west coast of Europe. It started opening up over there, before it jumped yet again. There’s an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, way the heck up there, called Jan Mayen. At one time, it was actually part of Greenland. The Atlantic opened between it and Greenland and then shifted to the other side and made its final opening.

The following two sequences show the evolution of Europe from an Antarctic archipelago to a tropical island chain to the present day Europe we know and recognize. The first sequence starts roughly 450 million years ago and continues to the Jurassic, 200 million years ago. All maps by Ron Blakey.



So it’s very complicated. And that’s just the Atlantic Ocean.

The Northern Atlantic took at least five different paths before the final path was established, and it’s all still changing. In fact, the south Atlantic is actually even worse; it’s an even bigger mess. You’ve got multiple openings between southwest Africa and Argentina, plus Antarctica was up in there before it pulled away to the south.

These complications are what makes this stuff so interesting. If we look at events that we can understand pretty well over the last, let’s say, 150 or 200 million years of time—where we have a good indication of where the oceans were because we still have ocean crusts of that age—then we can extrapolate from that back to past times when oceans were created and destroyed. We can follow the rules that are going on today to see all of the oddities and the exceptions and so forth.

These are the kinds of things I try to keep track of when I’m making these maps. I’m always asking: what do we know? Was it a simple pull-apart process? There are examples where continents started to split across from one another, then came back together, then re-split in a different spot later on. That’s not just speculation—there is geologic evidence for this in the rock record.

So, when it comes to extrapolating future geologies, things become very complicated very quickly. If you start thinking about the behavior of the north Atlantic, creating a projection based on what’s going on today seems, at first, like a fairly simple chore. North America is going on a northwesterly path at only one or two centimeters a year. Europe is moving away, at almost a right angle, at about another centimeter a year. So the Atlantic is only opening at three centimeters a year; it’s one of the slowest-opening oceans right now.

OK, fine—but what else is happening? The Caribbean is pushing up into the Atlantic and, off South America, there is the Scotia Arc. Both of those are growing. They’ve also identified what looks like a new island arc off the western Mediterranean region; that eventually would start to close the Atlantic in that area. Now you start to speculate: well, these arcs will start to grow, and they’ll start to eat into the oceans, and subduct the crusts, and so forth.

Again, for the first 50, 75, or even 100 million years, you can say that these particular movements are fairly likely. But, once you get past that, you can still use geologic principles, but you’re just speculating as to which way the continents are going to go.

For instance, the one continent that does not seem to be moving at all right now, relative to anything else, is Antarctica. It seems to be really fixed on the South Pole. That’s why some people think that everything will actually coagulate back towards the South Pole. However, there are also a bunch of subduction zones today along southern Asia, and those are pretty strong subduction zones. Those are the ones that created the big tsunami, and all the earthquakes off of Indonesia and so forth. Eventually, those could pull either parts of Antarctica or all of Antarctica up toward them.

But I’m more interested in reconstructing the past than I am the future, so I’ve only played around with those five or six maps.

This second sequence, showing the next phase in the evolution of Europe, begins approximately 150 million years ago and extends to the present day. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Manaugh: To ground things a bit, we’re having this conversation in Flagstaff, on the Colorado Plateau, which seems like a great place to teach geology. I wonder whether there might be another Colorado Plateau, so to speak, elsewhere in the world—something geologically similar to the extraordinary landscapes we see here that just hasn’t had the chance to emerge. Maybe the tectonics aren’t right, and it’s still just a crack, rather than a canyon, or maybe it’s covered in vegetation or ice so we can’t see it yet. Conversely, I’m curious if you might have found evidence of other great geological districts in the earth’s past—lost Grand Canyons, other Arches National Parks—that have been lost to time. How could we detect those, and where are they?

Blakey: This is indeed a great place to teach geology. It’s a great place to live.

As for Colorado Plateau analogs—it’s an interesting question. There’s an area in South America that I’d say is fairly similar. It’s got a couple of famous national parks that I can't remember the name of. It’s a smaller version, but it’s very similar to the Colorado Plateau. It’s between the Andes and the Amazon basin, part of the general pampas region there of South America. It even has similarly aged rocks. Parts of northern Africa would also be similar.

But you have to look at all the characteristics of the Plateau. Number one: the rocks are flat. Number two: the rocks have been uplifted. Number three: the rocks are dissected by a major river system. Number four: it’s a semi-arid climate. There are probably five or six defining characteristics in total, and I’ve heard many people say that there is no other place else on Earth that has all those characteristics in exactly the same way. But I went to an area in eastern Mauritania many years ago, where, for all the world, it looked like the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t as colorful, but it was a big, deep canyon.

In fact, the Appalachian Plateau would be somewhat similar, except it’s in a humid climate, which means the land has been shaped and formed differently. But the Appalachian plateau has flat-lying rocks; it’s dissected by some major rivers; it’s experienced uplift; and so forth.

The next two sequences of images, followed from left to right, top to bottom, illustrate the gradual evolution of the Colorado Plateau, where, in its modern day incarnation, this interview with Ron Blakey took place (specifically, in Flagstaff, Arizona. The earliest map included here depicts the Proterozoic; the first sequence ends in the Triassic. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: I’m interested in the representational challenges you face when you decide to make a map, and, specifically, when you’re in Photoshop, what your most-used tools might be. I thought it was fascinating when you said that the cloning tool really changed how you make geological maps. What other techniques are important to you, in order to represent geological histories?

Blakey: Oh, the cloning tool is the most important, by far—at least when I’m actually painting. Of course, I use the outline tool to select areas, but, when I’m actually painting, it would be impossible to paint these different maps pixel by pixel. I couldn’t do it. Occasionally, I will actually hand-draw some things in the flatlands, where I want to put a river system, for example, but, at least for mountains and rugged terrain, I clone everything.

Some times, I’ll cut and paste. I’ll select an area in the GeoMapApp, I save it as a JPEG, and then I can select it and copy it and paste it in, and I can rotate and deform it a little bit. Are you familiar with the warp tool in Photoshop? I use that a lot, because you can change the shape of mountains a little. If you do it too dramatically, it really looks flaky. But, if you do it right, it still looks pretty realistic.

This second sequence, also showing the evolution of the Colorado Plateau, begins with the Triassic and ends roughly 5 million years ago—basically the present day, in geological terms. All maps by Ron Blakey.



Twilley: And do you have certain filters you rely on for particular geological effects?

Blakey: A little bit. I like to use the craquelure filter. It actually gives you little bumps and valleys and so forth. I use that especially for continental margins. Continental margins are anything but regular slopes, going down to the abyssal depths. They’re very irregular. There are landslides and all kinds of things going on there at the margins, so I add a little texture with craquelure.

It can be difficult to use, though, and it doesn’t work at really high resolutions—so, what I actually have to do some times, is that I will actually copy a part of my map, take it out, make it smaller, do the craquelure on it, and then blow it back up and paste it in again.

A painting by Ron Blakey depicts a geological landscape near Sedona, Arizona.

Dee Blakey, Ron's Wife: I think the other reason that he can do what he does is that he paints. That’s one of his paintings, that one over there [gestures above fireplace].

Blakey: Well, I guess I should have said that right away, when you asked me why I got interested in this, because I am interested in the artistic aspect of geology. The artistic aspect of science, in general, but especially geology. Astronomy, for example, would be another field where artistic visualizations are useful—any time you’re trying to show things that can’t easily be visualized with something comparable here on present-day planet Earth, you have to use an artistic interpretation.

Anyway, I can’t explain it, but I understand color pretty well. I use the hue saturation tool a lot. I’ll select an area and then I’ll feather it, let’s say, because you don’t want the edges to be sharp. I’ll feather it by thirty, forty, fifty pixels. Then I'll take the slider for hue saturation, where, if you go to the left, you make things redder and, if you go to the right, you make things greener. If I’ve got a landscape that looks a little too humid, I’ll just slide it slightly to the left to make it a bit redder. You can also change the lightness and darkness when you do that. There’s also regular saturation. By killing the saturation, you can really kill the nature of a landscape quite a bit.

And I use hue saturation a lot. That took me a long time to master, because it’s really easy to screw things up with that tool. You start sliding things a little too far and, whoa—wait a minute! All of a sudden, you’ve got purple mountains.
"Gradually, America's management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art," reflects Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.


Detail from the cover of Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones.

This is a surprisingly generous statement, considering that Mooallem has spent the last few years researching a harrowing litany of accidental extinctions and unintended consequences—including a surreal day spent chasing ex-convict Martha Stewart as she and her film crew pursued polar bears across the Arctic tundra—in order to untangle the complicated legal and emotional forces that shape America's relationship with wildlife.

Despite the humor, the stakes are high: half the world's nine million species are expected to be extinct by the end of this century, and, as Mooallem explains, many of those that do survive will only hang on as a result of humans' own increasingly bizarre interventions, blurring the line between conservation and domestication to the point of meaninglessness.

On a foggy morning in San Francisco, Venue met Mooallem for coffee and a conversation that ranged from tortoise kidnappings to polar bear politics. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

• • •

The polar bear tourism industry in Churchill, Manitoba, relies on a dozen specially built vehicles called Tundra Buggies that take tourists and their cameras out to see the world's southernmost bear population. Photo: Polar Bears International.

Geoff Manaugh: In the book, you’ve chosen to focus on two very charismatic, photogenic, and popular animals: the whooping crane and the polar bear.

Jon Mooallem: They’re the celebrities of the wildlife world.

Manaugh: Exactly. But there’s a third example, in the middle section of the book, which is a butterfly. It’s not only a very obscure species in its own right, but it’s also found only in a very obscure Bay Area preserve that most people, even in Northern California, have never heard of. What was it about the story of that butterfly, in particular, that made you want to tell it?

Mooallem: I thought it would be really interesting to go from the polar bear, which is the mega-celebrity of the animal kingdom, to its complete opposite—to something no one really cared about—and to see what was at stake in a story where the general public doesn’t really care about the animal in question at all. It turned out that there was a hell of a lot at stake for the people working on that butterfly.


Lange's Metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei). Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It’s called the Lange’s Metalmark butterfly, and it’s about the size of a quarter. As you said, it only lives in this one place called Antioch Dunes, which is about sixty-seven acres in total. It is surrounded by a waste-transfer station, a sewage treatment plant, and a biker bar, and there’s a gypsum factory right in the middle that makes wallboard. You can’t even walk across the preserve, actually, because of this giant industrial facility in the middle of it.

In fact, the outbuilding where Jaycee Dugard, the kidnapping victim, was held is just round the corner.


Counting butterflies at Antioch Dunes. Photo: Jon Mooallem

It’s a forgotten place. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to spend a lot of time in if you’re writing a book about wildlife in America.

On top of all that, not only is the butterfly the animal in the book that people won’t have heard of, or that they won’t know much about, but it’s also the one that I didn’t know very much about, going in. Looking back on it, it was somewhat audacious to say in my book proposal that a third of the book was going to be the story of this butterfly, because I really knew almost nothing about it! But it ended up being by far the most fascinating story, for me. That’s at least partly because I had the sense that I was looking at things that no one had ever looked at and talking to people who no one had ever talked to before.



Jana Johnson leads a captive breeding project for the Lange's Metalmark from inside America's Teaching Zoo, where students in Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management degree program learn their trade. Photos: (top) Jason Redmond, Ventura County Star; (bottom) Louis Terrazzas, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It also seemed as though, when you’re working in an environment like that on a species that doesn’t get a lot of support or interest, you’re confronting a lot of the fundamental questions of environmentalism in a much more dramatic way. You have to work harder to sort through them, because it’s difficult to make simple assumptions about what you’re doing—that what you’re doing is worthwhile and good—when you don’t have anyone telling you that, and when it looks as hopeless as it looks with the Lange’s Metalmark.

Maybe hopeless is too strong a word—but you can’t transpose romantic ideas about wilderness and animals onto the situation, because it’s just so glaringly unromantic. You can’t stand in Antioch Dunes and take a deep breath of fresh air and feel like you’re in some primordial wilderness. You don’t have that luxury.

The other thing that was interesting about the butterfly story was the fact that it was happening on such a small scale. The butterfly’s always just lived in this one spot—it’s the only place it lives on earth—so you could look at what happened to this small patch of land over a hundred years and meet all the people who came in & out of the butterfly’s story. It was quite self-contained. It was almost like a stage for a play to happen on.


Butterflies on display in cases at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo: Venue.

Manaugh: Harry Lange, for whom the butterfly is named, has a great line that seems to sum up so much of the sadness and stupidity in the human relationship with wild animals. He said, after exterminating the very last of the Xerces Blue butterfly: “I always thought there would be more…”

Mooallem: Right—and that was the other extraordinary thing about the butterfly story.

When I started working on the book, I had no idea about the history of butterfly collectors in the Bay Area. Apparently, the Bay Area was a big hotspot for butterflies, because of the microclimates here. It can be ten or fifteen degrees hotter in the Mission District than it is at the beach; there can be fog in some places and not others; and all of this creates a sort of Galapagos Island effect. The whole peninsula is peppered with these different micro-populations of butterflies because of the different microclimates.

Meanwhile, in the early twentieth century, at a time when the Audubon Society and other groups were being founded and there was a turn against the overhunting of species, it still seemed OK and sort of benign to collect butterflies. It wasn’t considered “hunting.” You could transfer all of that ambition to conquer nature and discover new things to collecting butterflies. You’re here at the very end of North America, where the country finally runs out of room, and now you’re starting to run out of animals too, but there were still enough butterflies to collect and name after yourself.


The Xerces Blue is the first butterfly in America known to have gone extinct due to human disturbance. Photo: Andrew Warren/butterfliesofamerica.com

The story of Xerces Blue, which is the butterfly that Lange thought there would always be more of, is just incredible. Back then, past 19th Avenue, it was all sand dunes. I actually met a friend of Lange’s, named Ed Ross, who was a curator at the California Academy of Sciences; he had to be in his late eighties or early nineties.

He told me about growing up as a kid here and taking the streetcar out to 19th Avenue and just getting out with his butterfly net and walking to Ocean Beach over the dunes. Occasionally you’d see a hermit, he said.


Richmond Sand Dunes (1890s). Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, San Francisco, CA, via FoundSF.


Dunes along Sunset Boulevard, San Francisco (1938). Photo: Harrison Ryker, via David Rumsey Map Collection.

That generation of butterfly nuts who were living in San Francisco in the early twentieth century saw that habitat being erased in front of their eyes.

That backstory really helped to shape my perception of a lot of things in the book by elongating the timescale. It brought up the whole idea of shifting baselines—this gradual, generational change in our accepted norm for the environment—and all these other, deeper questions that wouldn’t have come up if I’d just followed Martha Stewart around filming polar bears, as I do in the first section of the book. It’s a very different experience to zoom out and take in the entirety of a story as I did with the Lange’s Metalmark, which is why I think I enjoyed it so much.

Nicola Twilley: It’s interesting to note that Ed Ross doesn’t actually figure in the book, and that, elsewhere, you allude to several intriguing stories in just a sentence or two—to things like the volunteers who count fish at the Bonneville Dam. Instead, you deliberately keep the focus on the bear, the butterfly, and the bird. But what about all the animals or all the stories that didn’t make it into the book? Were there any particular gems that you had to leave out or that you wish you had kept?

Mooallem: There were tons! The fish counting thing is a perfect example.


Janet the fish counter, hard at work. Photo: Jon Mooallem.

I spent a day at the Bonneville Dam, and it was completely surreal. I barely touch on it in the book, but the question of how to get fish around the dam is a really interesting design problem. There have been different structures that were built and then shown not to work, and so they’ve had to adapt them or retrofit them, and that’s ended up creating all new problems that need to have something built to solve them, and so on.

The government has actually moved an entire colony of seabirds that were eating the fish at the mouth of the river. The fish that got through the dam would get to the mouth of the Columbia River, but then the double-crested cormorants would eat them all. So the government picked up the birds and moved them to another island in the river.

I felt as though, normally, when you hear about these kinds of stories, you just scratch the surface. We’re so used to hearing endangered species stories in very two-dimensional, heroic ways, where so-and-so is saving the frog or whatever, and I just knew that it couldn’t be that easy. If it was that straightforward—if you could just go out and pull up some weeds and the butterfly would survive—it wouldn’t be very meaningful work. That was the space I really wanted to get into—the muddiness where things don’t work out the way we draw them on paper.

At the same time, I was able to mention a lot of these bizarre stories—but, as you say, almost as an aside. Each one of those things could have been a much longer, deeper story. Take, for example, the “otter-free zone,” which was this incredible saga: the government was reintroducing otters in Southern California and, because of complaints from fishermen and the oil industry, they needed to control where the otters would swim. A biologist would have to go out in a boat with binoculars to look for otters that were inside the otter-free zone and, if he saw them, he’d have to try to capture them when they were sleeping and move them. It was just a hilarious, miserable failure. I spent a lot of time reporting on that—talking to the biologist and hearing what that work was actually like to have to do—yet, in the end, I only mention it. But I know there’s a deeper story there.


Sea-otter in Morro Bay, California, just north of the former otter-free zone. Photo: Mike Baird.

In fact, there’s a section of the book where I rattle off a bunch of these examples—there’s the project to keep right whales from swimming into the path of natural gas tankers, and there’s the North Carolina wolves and their kill-switch collars, and so on. Each one of those is its own Bonneville Dam story—its own complicated saga of solutions and newer solutions to problems that the original solutions caused. You could really get lost in that stuff. I did get lost in all that stuff for a long time.

This is my first book, of course, and I feel as though that’s the joy and the luxury of a book—that you do have the time and space to get lost in those things for a little while.

Manaugh: It’s funny how many of those kinds of stories there are. I remember an example that Liam Young, an architect based in London, told me. He spent some time studying the Galapagos Islands, and he told me this incredible anecdote about hunters shooting wild goats, Sarah Palin-style, from helicopters, because the goats had been eating the same plants that the tortoises depended on.


BBC Four footage of the Galapagos Island goat killers.

But, at one point, some local fishermen were protesting that the islands’ incredibly strict eco-regulations were destroying their livelihood, so they took a bunch of tortoises hostage. What was funny, though, is that all the headlines about this mention the tortoises—but, when you read down to paragraph five or six, it also mentions that something like nineteen scientists were also being held hostage. [laughter] It was as if the human hostages weren’t even worth mentioning.

Mooallem: [laughs] Wow. That reminds me of one story I saw but never followed up on, about some fishermen in the Solomon Islands who had slaughtered several hundred dolphins because some environmental group had promised them money not to fish, but then didn’t deliver the money.

Twilley: When you invest an animal with that much symbolic power, the stakes get absurdly high.

Mooallem: Exactly—look at the polar bear. Of course, the polar bear has lost a lot of its cachet. I don’t know whether you saw the YouTube video that Obama put out to accompany his big climate speech in June, but I was surprised: there wasn’t a single polar bear image in it. It was all floods and storms and dried-up corn. Four years ago, there would have definitely been polar bears in that video.

Today, though, the polar bear is just not as potent a symbol. It’s become too political. It doesn’t really resonate with environmentalists anymore and it ticks off everyone else. What’s amazing is that it’s just a freaking bear, yet it’s become as divisive a figure as Rush Limbaugh.



From "Addressing the threat of Climate Change," a video posted on the White House YouTube channel, June 22, 2013.

Manaugh: Speaking of politics, it feels at times as if the Endangered Species Act—that specific piece of legislation—serves as the plot generator for much of your book. Its effects, both intended and surreally unanticipated, make it a central part of Wild Ones.

Mooallem: It really does generate all the action, because it institutionalizes these well-meaning sentiments, and it makes money and federal employees available to act on them. It amps up the scale of everything.

The first thing that I found really interesting is the way in which the law was passed. It was pretty poorly understood by everyone who voted on it. The Nixon administration saw it as a feel-good thing. It was signed in the doldrums between Christmas and New Year’s, almost as a gift to the nation and a kind of national New Year’s resolution rolled into one. And it was passed in 1973, as well, during both Vietnam and Watergate, so the timing was perfect for something warm and fuzzy as a distraction.

But most people never read the law and they didn’t realize that some of the more hardcore environmentalist staff-members of certain congressmen had put in provisions that were a lot more far-reaching than any of the lawmakers imagined. Nixon didn’t understand that it would protect insects, for example. It was really just seen as protecting charismatic national symbols, in completely unspecified, abstract ways.


Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act. AP photo via Politico.

In the preamble to the law itself—I don’t remember the exact quote—it says something like: “We’re going to protect species and their ecosystems from extinction as a consequence of the economic development of the nation.” Passing a law that is supposed to put a check on the development and growth of the nation—all the things government is supposed to promote—is pretty astounding.

Obviously, the law’s done a tremendous amount of good, but I also think that, because of its almost back-room origins, there is a kind of sheepishness and reluctance among a lot of conservationists to draw on it to its full extent. I don’t spend a lot of time in the book on government policy, but, to get a little wonky for a second, I do find it interesting that there’s this hesitancy to really use the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel.

Groups like Center for Biological Diversity that basically spend their time suing the government to hold it to the letter of the Endangered Species Act, are quite controversial among other environmentalists for that very reason. There’s a feeling that it is too dangerous to really unleash the full power of the law. In some ways, I completely understand that, because there is no way to work these questions out. It’s not a zero sum game.

But the Endangered Species Act is always under attack. It’s always a political talking point to be able to say: we’re spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to study slugs or whatever.

Twilley: Then there’s the fact that it’s written so as to protect entire ecosystems, rather than just the animals themselves.

Mooallem: Exactly. To me, that’s actually the even more interesting part of this. Rudi Mattoni, the lepidopterist, pointed this out to me, and it’s why he became so disillusioned with the butterfly preservation work he was doing. The law says that it is supposed to protect endangered species and the ecosystems that they depend on. He and a lot of other people feel that the approach has been completely centered on species themselves at the expense of the larger ecosystem.

Even before the Lange’s Metalmark was listed as endangered, the Antioch Dunes ecosystem had been unraveling for decades. It was already pretty much destroyed. But, using the power of the Endangered Species Act, using the power of the federal government, and using a Fish & Wildlife Service employee whose job is just pulling weeds and keeping the plants that the butterfly needs in place, we’ve been able to maintain the butterfly there, in a place where it doesn’t really belong anymore because the landscape has changed so much.

I guess you could say that one of the weaknesses of the law—or you could say that’s actually the strength of the law, because it has protected a species from extinction even long after it should have been extinct, at least in an ecological sense. But it does bring up questions about what we are actually trying to accomplish.


Churchill's "polar bear jail," where bears that come into town are kept in one of twenty-eight cells, and held without food for up to a month so that they don't associate human settlements with a food reward. Photo: Bob and Carol Pinjarra.


At the end of its "sentence," if the Hudson Bay still hasn't frozen over, the bear is drugged and airlifted by helicopter to be released north of town, closer to where the ice first forms. Photo: Nick Miroff, via Jon Mooallem.

Manaugh: Preservation of an entire ecosystem, if you were to follow the letter of the law, would require an absolutely astonishing level of commitment. Saving the polar bear, in that sense, means that we’d have to restore the atmosphere to a certain level of carbon dioxide, and reverse Arctic melting, which might mean reforesting the Amazon or cutting our greenhouse gas emissions to virtually nothing, overnight. It’s inspiringly ambitious.

Mooallem: As I try to explain in the book, that’s basically why the polar bear became so famous, for lack of a better word. It became an icon of climate change, because in a shrewd, “gotcha” kind of way, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmentalists chose the polar bear as their tool to try to use the Endangered Species Act to put pressure on the Bush administration to deal with climate change as a much larger problem.

Even though the environmental groups themselves admitted it was very unlikely that this would work, they were trying to make the case that the polar bear is endangered, that the thing that is endangering it is climate change, and that the government is legally compelled by the Endangered Species Act to deal with this threat to an Endangered Species. So, if you accept that the polar bear is endangered, then you have to accept the larger responsibility of dealing with climate change.

It’s a completely back-door way to try to force the government to act on climate change, but the result was that the polar bear ended up with this superstar status and popular recognition among the general public, which I found amazing.


The not-sufficiently-charismatic Kittlitz's Murrelet. Photo: Glen Tepke, National Audubon Society.

What’s also interesting is that the Center for Biological Diversity had actually tried this tactic once before, using a bird called the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, and it completely failed. There’s this thing called the “warranted but precluded” category of the Endangered Species Act, which is basically a loophole.

If a species is endangered but the Fish & Wildlife Service or another agency feels that they can’t deal with it right now, they can just say, “Yes, we agree that this species is endangered, so we’re going to put it in a waiting room called ‘warranted but precluded,’ and we’ll get to it as soon as we’re done cleaning up this other mess.” Because there are so many species that are endangered and the threats keep escalating, the government has been able to shunt species after species onto that “warranted but precluded” list.

When the Center for Biological Diversity and a few other groups tried to pressure the administration to do something about climate change by getting the Kittlitz’s Murrelet listed as an Endangered Species, the government just used the “warranted but precluded” loophole, which also meant they didn’t have to rule on climate science or make any really difficult decisions.

But the Kittlitz’s Murrelet failed to inspire any kind of public support, so there was no pressure on the administration to do anything. The environmentalists who were petitioning to get the polar bear listed as part of their strategy to deal with climate change knew that the government could very easily apply the same loophole to the bear and duck the whole issue of climate science, again.


During the public comment period preceding the polar bear's accession to Endangered Species status, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne received half a million letters and postcards, many of which were from children. Via Jon Mooallem.

The Center for Biological Diversity realized that they needed a public relations strategy as well as a legal strategy, and, by picking the polar bear, they knew that they could put the Bush administration on the spot. The Bush administration couldn’t just put the polar bear in this infinite waiting room, because people would be upset.

Kids started writing letters to the Secretary of the Interior begging him to save the polar bear. They were sending in their own hand-drawn pictures of bears, drowning.


A 2007 letter from a child to Dirk Kempthorne included this drawing of a drowning polar bear being eaten simultaneously by a shark and a lobster. Via Jon Mooallem.

In some ways, the premise of the book is that our emotions and imaginations about these animals dictates their ability to survive in the real world, and this story was a particularly fascinating—not to mention peculiar—example in which all this sentimental gushing over polar bears, which, on the face of it, seems mawkish and kind of silly, was the lynchpin in a legal proceeding. In that case, our emotions about this animal really did matter.

Of course, there’s a whole other part of the story where the administration got around it anyway. But, for a while, it mattered.

Twilley: In the book, you encounter a whole range of attitudes that people hold toward wild animals and conservation, and the journeys that they take from idealism to pragmatism to cynicism and despair. There’s William Temple Hornaday, for example, who gets ever more ambitious and optimistic, and who goes from being a taxidermist who hunted buffalo to founding the National Zoo, and then on to a project to restock the Great Plains.


Manikin for Male American Bison, Hornaday (1891), via Hanna Rose Schell; Hornaday's innovative taxidermy "Buffalo Group," originally displayed at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian), and since relocated to Fort Benton, Montana (photo: Pete and the Wonder Egg).

Then there’s Rudi Mattoni, the lepidopterist you were talking about, who starts out as a pioneer of captive breeding and reintroduction, and then gives up and moves to Buenos Aires to catalog plants and animals so that at least we will have a record of what we’ve destroyed. Through the process of visiting all these places and spending time talking with all these people, did your own attitude toward wild animals and conservation evolve or shift at all?

Mooallem: What was great about writing the book was being able to absorb all these different perspectives. I met all these different people, some of whom are incredibly jaded and some of whom are incredibly idealistic, but, when you step back, you see that, as a species, we’re all in this struggle together, and this incredibly diverse group of people are all doing their best to grab hold of some piece of it and try to solve it.

That was where the “weirdly reassuring” part of my book title came from—from looking at conservationists as a breed, rather than just an individual person. If I had just written a book about the many, many old, battle-scarred conservationists who are extremely bitter and who claim to have given up, I think I would have ended up being really depressed. I think that it’s important to remember that there are people at all different points on that spectrum of idealism and disillusionment and they all serve a purpose. I identified with all of them, and that kept me from identifying too strongly with any one of them.


William Temple Hornaday's table of wild animal intelligence. Via Jon Mooallem.

I wasn’t trying to advocate any particular position or solve any problems with this book. I actually didn’t realize this till the end, but what I was really doing was just trying to figure out how you’re supposed to feel about all this. How should you feel and respond when you look at everything that’s going on with the environment? What I tried to do is collect the attitudes and emotions of the people that I met and than to take what was useful.

I would get off the phone, for instance, with someone like Mattoni and he would be so horribly pessimistic about everything, yet somehow I would feel slightly exhilarated by it. Here’s someone who is so close to these questions—really big questions about what the place of humans on earth should be—and he’s just totally beaten down by them. But he’s in contact with them. He’s living in engagement with those kinds of questions, and there was something beautiful about that. It doesn’t necessarily make me hopeful, but it does make me feel reassured in some way.

People who haven’t read the book keep asking me, “What’s so weirdly reassuring about it?” And I don’t really know how to explain it. In the book, I just try to recreate the experience that I went through, so that, hopefully, when people get to the end of the book they can have gone through the same range of emotions, so that they also feel weirdly reassured.

Manaugh: As far as the human attitude to wildness goes, I think the role of the child is a fascinating subplot. The idea of the wild, feral child is both fascinating and terrifying in popular culture—I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s newly restored movie about Kasper Hauser, for example, or about recent newspaper articles in the UK expressing fear about "feral children” starting riots in the streets. It seems like humans want to make children as domesticated as possible, as fast as possible, and that, in a sense, the role of education and acculturation is exactly the task of de-wilding human animals.

Mooallem: I don’t know: among certain people in America right now, it seems as though it’s almost going the other way, that there’s a kind of romanticization of kids as a noble, unspoiled embodiment of nature. We haven’t ruined them yet. That sentiment seems to be actually in opposition to this idea that anything that’s animal-like about a kid is not human.

What was interesting to me is that we surround our kids with all these animal images and stuffed lions and bears and so on, yet no one’s ever really looked at how children conceive of wild animals. We have a lot of research about how a kid might think about their family’s pet dog, for instance, but how does that kid think about a panda bear that they’ll never see?


Rufus, the polar bear rocking horse, by Maclaren Nursery.

There was one set of studies done in the 1970s that interviewed a lot of grade school kids about how they thought about wildlife, and the answers were pretty much exactly the opposite of what we like to imagine. The older kids get, the more compassionate they feel toward the wild animals. The younger kids were just horrified and scared and felt very threatened by the animals—which makes perfect sense, of course, because they’re helpless little kids.

In many ways, that’s actually the more “wild” response: the kids are behaving like animals, in the sense that they’re only looking out for their own interests.

I thought that was really funny, in fact, because the whole book came out of a very genuine feeling that it’s really sad that my daughter is going to grow up in a world without polar bears, and, at the same time, a complete inability to understand why that should be so or to rationalize that feeling. After all, she doesn’t interact with polar bears now. Why should she care about polar bears? I think part of that originally inexplicable sense of sadness comes from a romantic place where we want to see children and wild animals as part of the same culture—a culture that’s not us.

Manaugh: What’s interesting, I suppose, with the children, is that we want a kind of animal-like, wild innocence, but only until they reach a certain age.

Mooallem: That actually mirrors this cycle that I write about with a lot of wildlife where we love wild animals when they are helpless and they don’t threaten us, but then we vilify them when they inconvenience us or aren’t under our control.

My daughter is about to turn five, and I’m really glad she doesn’t bite me any more when she gets angry! At the same time, it fills me with a very profound joy when I see her stalking a butterfly on Bernal Hill, because somehow I want her to be connected to that more pure idea of nature. I think that we love wildness and we love that kind of animal nature when it doesn’t inconvenience us—when it’s not biting us in the leg.


California Department of Fish and Wildlife shot three tranquilizer darts into this celebrity mountain lion, found in a Glendale-area backyard, before removing it to Angeles National Forest. Photo: NBC4.

There’s this study in Los Angeles that showed that when there were almost no mountain lions left, people would celebrate them as a part of their natural heritage—the good wild—but then, when mountain lion populations made a bit of a comeback and the lions started intruding into the city and eating pet dogs, people’s attitudes changed and mountain lions were seen as vicious murderers—the bad wild. There is a kind of fickleness: we want it both ways.

In the book, I quote Holly Doremus, who is a brilliant legal scholar based here in Berkeley, who says that we’ve never really decided—or maybe even asked—how much wild nature we need and how much we can accept.

Twilley: What that question brings up to me, too, is the idea of an appropriate context for wildness. One of Rudi Mattoni’s first projects was breeding the Palos Verdes blue butterfly, which was thought to be extinct after its last habitat was covered by a baseball diamond, but was then rediscovered in a field of underground fuel tanks owned by the Department of Defense. I was curious about both the idea of control and the idea of pristine nature, and how both concepts are embedded in our assumptions about wildness.

Mooallem: Right. Pigeons are wild—but they annoy us. Cockroaches are wild. We don’t romanticize or preserve the wild animals that live alongside us and invade spaces that we think of as ours—we exterminate them.

As far as control goes, we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want something that has nothing to do with us—something that has free rein and that can surprise us and thrill us—but we only want the positive side of that equation. We don’t want the wolves eating our cattle or the sea otters getting in the way of the fishermen. That’s certainly behind some of the extreme lengths we go to in order to create the right context for the animals and to keep them within a certain area that we’ve decided is appropriate for them.

The point of the book is that we’re only going to see more and more examples like the Palos Verde blue and the Lange’s Metalmark, where the last hope for a species is in a seemingly hopeless place. There are only going to be more industrial landscapes—it’s unavoidable. Travis Longcore, who is an urban conservation scientist that I spoke with for the book, makes a really good point, which is that we have to get away from what he calls Biblical thinking—that you’re either in the Garden of Eden or the entire world is fallen. He heads the organization that’s behind a lot of the Antioch Dunes butterfly recovery, and he makes a point of trying to celebrate the wildness of places that make most of us feel queasy.

I think that’s important—I’m not suggesting that we give up on the romantic idea of the places that do seem “pristine,” but I think that we need to be a little more flexible and we need to find the joy and the beauty in those other sorts of places, too.

Twilley: You chose to start the epilogue with a story that seems emblematic: the “species in a bucket” story. What about that story summed up these complex themes you were tackling in the book?

Mooallem: The “species in a bucket” story is about a fish biologist named Phil Pister and a little species of fish called the Owens pupfish. Back in the 1960s, in the Owens Valley, Phil Pister was part of the group who had rediscovered the Owens pupfish—it had been presumed extinct, but he found it living in a desert spring.


Owens Valley pupfish. Photo: UC Davis; Phil Pister in front of the BLM Springs where the fish still flourishes today. Photo: Chris Norment.

One summer—I think it was 1964—there was a drought, and this one desert spring where the fish lived was drying up. Pister ran out there with some of his California Department of Fish & Wildlife buddies, and they moved the fish to a different part of the spring where the water was flowing a little bit better and the fish would have more oxygen.

He sent everyone home thinking it was a job well done, but then, after nightfall, he realized that it wasn’t working. Scores of fish were floating belly up. So he made a snap decision. He got some buckets from his truck, he put all the fish he could into the buckets, he carried them back to his truck, and he drove them across the desert to this other spring where he knew the water was deeper and that they’d survive.

I was drawn to that story because I heard it a few different times and, originally, to be honest, I just didn’t think it was true. It sounded like this almost Biblical, heroic story of a man alone in the desert—and it was always told to me in that way, too. People stressed how miraculous it was and how noble he was, carrying these two buckets full of fish across the desert to save the species. It was almost too perfect of a metaphor—here we are with the fate of all these species in our hands—but it also turned out to be true. I actually went down to Bishop to meet Phil, and he’s a phenomenal guy.

I thought that story should start the epilogue for two reasons. In part, I liked the story for all the same reasons that I thought it wasn’t true—there’s this timelessness to it. A lot of the book is about adding layer after layer of complexity, so the reader feels less and less certainty. It’s not a book that moves toward an answer—it’s more of a book that unravels all the answers that we thought we already knew. So there was something really refreshing and absolving to just take it back to this one man with a bucket, saving a species.

The other reason is that I thought it was a good illustration of this human compulsion to help, which is the underlying driver of so many of the stories in the book. There was something really nice about Phil’s story, in that it didn’t even strike him as that remarkable at the time. Later it did, of course, and he’s written about it, pretty eloquently. But I thought his story got at the fact that we just can’t not do this sort of thing. We can’t not try to solve a problem when it’s in front of us. I found that there’s a real dignity in that.

Even the people I met who were the harshest critics of Endangered Species preservation wanted to help—they just thought the way it was being done was ridiculous or that the politics are ridiculous.


Brooke Pennypacker in costume, with the juvenile whooping cranes. Photo: Operation Migration.


Chairs set up for "craniacs" hoping to witness an Operation Migration flyover, Gilchrist County, Florida. Photo: Jon Mooallem.

Take, for example, all these people up and down Operation Migration’s route who donate their property to let the pilots stay on their land with the whooping cranes. They’re not people that you would think of as environmentalists, but they’re really grateful for this opportunity to help—there’s no red tape, there’s no government surveyor coming in to check their land for endangered species, just a simple way to make a difference for this one species.

I also liked the idea of pairing Phil Pister’s story with Brooke Pennypacker, one of the Operation Migration pilots. For Brooke, this is not a one-night-with-a-bucket deal: he flies a little plane in a bird costume in front of whooping cranes for five months of the year, and then he migrates back with them on land. His whole life is given up to this effort, for the foreseeable future. It’s not a simple problem he’s trying to solve. I found him on a pig farm, where he’d been exiled due to bureaucratic squabbling, and he had FAA inspectors coming to check out his plane. He was just beset by complexity and he was so in touch with the potential futility of it all. He was willing to accept that maybe everything he’s doing isn’t going to make a difference.


Juvenile whooping cranes getting acquainted with the microlight, pre-migration. Photo: Doug Pellerin, via Operation Migration.

That’s the complete opposite of Phil Pister walking across the desert just thinking that all he has to do is move these fish over here and they’ll be fine. In the span of 50 years, we’ve gone from one scenario to the other. But Brooke is doing it because he feels the exact same way Phil did. Brooke told me that he got involved with Operation Migration because it was as if someone had a flat tire on the side of the road and he had a jack in his car. He saw a problem and he knew that he could pull over and help. That’s where it all starts from.

Manaugh: This is a hypothesis in the guise of a question. Most people’s experience of wildlife nowadays is in the form of roadkill or perhaps squirrels nibbling through the phone cable or raccoons in their backyard. It’s very unromantic—whereas pets seem to be getting more and more exotic and strange. There’s a boom in people owning lions or boa constrictors or incredibly rare tropical birds as pets. I’m curious what you think about the role of the pet in terms of our relationship with wild animals, and whether we are turning to increasingly exotic pets in order to replace the wildness we find missing in nature itself.

Mooallem: That’s never occurred to me, but it’s a brilliant point. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t really have a lot to say about pets. I’ve never really had a pet.

My sense is that when you have a dog, the dog is your buddy. Even though it’s a dog, you more or less relate to it as a person. I think that, in that sense, pets are sort of boring to me. But this idea that we’re trying to get our exotic thrills from a pet monkey is interesting. I’ll have to give that some thought.

The stories that interest me as a writer are ones in which people are trying to respond appropriately to something where it’s not clear what the appropriate response is. For a while, I was writing a lot about the dilemma of recycling—you’re holding this can, and you don’t know whether putting it in the recycling bin is smart or whether it just gets shipped off to China. There’s that drive to do the moral thing, but most of us are completely clueless as to what the right thing might be, because of the complexity of the issues.

Wild animals are the perfect example of that kind of situation, because they can’t really tell us what they need—they’re just this black box that our actions get fed into. For some reason, probably some deep Freudian problem, that challenge of trying to do the right thing but ultimately just banging your head against the wall to figure it out is really appealing to me. I really relate to it.

I guess that’s why I’m not really that interested in pets, either. You come to feel that you understand your pet, even if you don’t. There’s not that tension or urge to solve the problem that you get with otters or wolves or buffalo. You house-break your pet and then it’s over.

Manaugh: I wonder, though, if that’s not part of the appeal of getting an exotic animal species as a pet—the promise and the thrill of not understanding it.

Mooallem: At the same time, that’s a feeling that you’ll eventually get bored or annoyed with, and you’ll end up abandoning the pet. I just read that the government is setting up unwanted tortoise drop-offs for owners who want to abandon their pets, just like babies at fire stations. Apparently in some states—Nevada and a few others—there are dozens of desert tortoises being left by their owners by the side of the road.


Desert tortoises at a sanctuary for abandoned pet tortoises in southwest Las Vegas. Photo: Jessica Ebelhar, Las Vegas Review-Journal.

When a pet monkey goes nuts and the owner gives it up, we tend to look at it as a failure of pet ownership, but maybe they actually wanted that feeling of not understanding the animal, at least at first. It’s an interesting theory.

Twilley: Another group of people who would seem to have a very different but equally complex relationship to wild animals is hunters. That’s a whole segment of Americans who seem to be less troubled about what their relationship should be with wild animals, yet who often end up being at the forefront of conservation movements, in order to save the landscapes in which they hunt. The division is interesting—it seems philosophical, but it’s also maybe class-based?

Mooallem: It’s geographic, definitely. But you’re right: a lot of the stereotypes around hunters break down when you see all the really creative conservation projects that are supported, or even spearheaded, by people who we might normally think of as redneck hunters. The lines are just not clearly defined. You also choose your species—some people are more sympathetic to one species than they are to others.

The other point I was trying to make with the book is that conserving a species or celebrating a species is just another way to use the species. Conservationists always talk about utilitarian values and aesthetic values, but, to me, it’s all the same thing. Some of us want salmon in the Columbia River because we want to fish them, and some of us want salmon there because it’s part of America’s natural glory, or because we’ll feel guilty if they go away. But, in all of those reasons, the salmon are serving human needs.

Those different reasons really come to the surface when a species rebounds. Right now, there’s a huge fight up and down the sandhill crane flyway. They were all but extinct, yet they’ve come back to the point where they’re annoying farmers, and hunters are saying: “Fantastic! They’re back—now I can hunt them with my son again. Success!” And, of course, then there’s an outcry from the birdwatchers and the conservationists who are saying that that’s not why we brought them back. We brought them back so they could be beautiful, not so they could be shot. But these are still just two groups of people who want something out of the bird.

Manaugh: There’s another book that came out recently called Nature Wars

Mooallem: Yes, I read that.

Manaugh: The author, Jim Sterba, argues that all of our well-intentioned efforts to protect animals have actually allowed deer and beaver and Canada goose populations to explode, and now they’re bringing down our planes and causing car crashes and tearing up our golf courses and so on. He ends up, to my mind, at least, over-emphasizing the point that we need to become hunters again—that the ecosystem is out of balance precisely because it no longer features human predators.


Roadkilled deer, South Carolina. Photo: John O'Neill.

Mooallem: Preserving these species—whether it’s intentional or whether it’s an unintended consequence of habitat changes, as in the case of deer—is an ecological act, and it’s going to have repercussions that we should take responsibility for dealing with. We forget we’re ecological participants. In fact, if Sterba’s book hadn’t been written, I might be thinking about exactly the same issue now. There are so many cases where it’s the rebound or the resurgence that causes the problem, rather than the decline.

The real fallacy is the “leave no trace” attitude. There is no way you’re not leaving a trace, so it’s better simply to be conscious and thoughtful and to take responsibility for what you’re doing.

Somebody asked me the other day about the de-extinction movement, and I had the same response. I don’t know what I think about actually bringing back passenger pigeons, but I think it’s good that people are talking about being proactive and being creative rather than just trying to pretend we don’t have any power.

Of course, it also makes me nervous—as it should, given our environmental history of unintended consequences, having to find solutions for problems that were caused by our own solutions for other problems that we ourselves most likely caused in the first place.


On our way west across Arizona, Venue read about—and made a spur of the moment detour for—Grand Canyon Caverns, a once-landmark tourist site found just off historic Route 66, now somewhat left behind and forgotten after the construction of the I-40 highway bypass.



Our interest was piqued by one anecdote in particular: the story that explains how the caverns—which are not very close to the Grand Canyon at all—originally got their name.

"The caverns went through many names until 1962," reports Arizona Central, "when an experiment was performed to determine their size." It turns out there is quite a strong internal breeze in the cave, as tides of air move through the underground cavities in tune with daily atmospheric temperature changes outside. This is sometimes referred to as "cave breathing."

But one passage that was far too small for human exploration appeared to be where the air was originating from and then disappearing into again everyday. This presented a bit of an impasse. Would it be possible to determine where the air was coming from and whether or not the capillary-like series of passages too small for humans to enter might not reach the surface again nearby? This would not only help to determine how large the caves really were, but could potentially lead to the discovery of other explorable subsections and entry points.



Serving as tracers, "[r]ed smoke bombs were set off in the caverns," Arizona Central adds. "Two weeks later, red smoke was spotted wafting from a crack in the Grand Canyon, 63 miles away."

This vision of the earth's surface as an unmappable labyrinth of lungs, smoking 63-miles' worth of passages from the Grand Canyon to these caves, as underground red clouds slowly worked their way through invisible passages of geologic space, was too much for us to resist. Venue thus pulled off the highway to visit this old mainstay of western road trips, now slightly past its prime, its unpaved parking lot lined with sun-bleached dinosaur statues and cowboy figurines.

Of course, Venue has spent a great deal of time over the past year of travel visiting mines and caves, hiking or riding elevators deep underground more or less whenever possible. But Grand Canyon Caverns was unique for our subterranean visits in several unexpected ways, as the site had a few surprises in store for us.

The most obvious of these was the fact that Grand Canyon Caverns had actually been chosen to serve as a civil nuclear shelter for emergency use during the Cuban Missile Crisis.



The site is thus as much a show cave as it is a disused bunker, this dual-use made explicit by a surreal, stadium-sized room stacked full with old barrels of crackers. Yes, crackers—this would have been the food of the post-apocalypse.

Our guide here seemed understandably dumbfounded by the idea that anyone at all would want to survive a planet-irradiating nuclear war by hiding underground with hundreds or perhaps thousands of others, eating Saltines, praying for the batteries not to go out, and using the cave itself as a giant latrine.

The desperate absurdity of it all was only heightened by her claim that the planners responsible for stocking the cave with sufficient food provisions and fresh water to sustain 2,000 people for two weeks had only included three rolls of toilet paper.



As it happens, there is also an open-air hotel room in the middle of the cave (it can be rented for a mere $700 a night).



The room—really just an elevated platform with waist-high walls and no ceiling—comes complete with heated shower, emergency telephone (whose primary purpose seems to be to warn you when tourists are on their way down the next morning), TV/VCR, and several shelves' worth of old VHS tapes for your viewing pleasure.

Apparently, comedian Billy Connolly has slept there.



Because the cave is privately owned, there is no legal compulsion for, and seemingly no owner interest in, preservation of the cave as such. This is a shame, because it is one of the largest dry caverns in the world (shortly after Venue's visit, explorers broke through to a new, never-before-seen cave), and filled with gorgeous flowstone formations and selenite crystals.

Instead, Gertie the Ground Sloth, a laser show, and a New York City fire escape compete with their astonishing surroundings.



Having said that, though, the over-riding effect of all this—a kind of Brady Bunch Baroque, or suburbanized faux-extravagance installed below the surface of the earth—is historically and spatially interesting in its own right, if for no other reason than to see how one generation of human owners tried to make sense of, and inspire popular interest in, their subterranean holdings.



Indeed, the colored lights and dusty VHS tapes perhaps make the lifeless, breathing silence of the cave itself, and its 63 miles or more of invisible passages, stretching all the way to the Grand Canyon, all the more extraordinary.

While the ticket-holding public stands there, thinking of Billy Connolly on an emergency telephone in the darkness, eating Saltines, the planet itself calmly inhales and exhales through huge and unmappable lungs successfully disguised as the disco-lit underground space all around them.

"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly fifty large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.


"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood."

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work—a global portrait of the human relationship with water—Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones, film-making, and the future of photography to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

• • •

"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, here seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there’s also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes—landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I’m curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step—that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven’t really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I’ve always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn’t fit into what I’ve been doing.

When I’m photographing these systems—systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general—what’s happening is that I have an idea and I’m trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I’ll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I’ve certainly gone to places like vegetable packaging plants, but then I’m looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody’s refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that’s more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn’t something I feel I can say about that that we don’t usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I’m looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting—but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It’s implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you’d actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.


"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I’m curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven’t filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It’s following the project I’m doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I’ve got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you’re hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I’m taking still photographs of that probably aren’t going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can’t make stills of that are better suited to be filmed—and then there are subjects that can handle both. I’m finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we’re currently working on.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it’s the stills that I’m making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film—to the logic of the film—I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I’m of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.


"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: It’s clear that there’s an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it’s also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works—such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards—the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I’m curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

Burtynsky: I’d say, actually, that I’ve been careful not to frame the work in an activist or political kind of way. That would be too restrictive in terms of how the work can be used in society and how it can be interpreted. I see the work as being a bit like a Rorschach test. If you see an oil field and you see industrial heroism, then perhaps you’re some kind of entrepreneur in the oil business and you’re thinking, “That’s great! That’s money being made there!” But, if you’re somebody from Greenpeace or whatever, you’re going to see it very differently. Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.

I actually have a funny story about this. After spending about six years and two shows on the Rock of Ages quarries in Vermont, I wanted to do a trade with them: a print for some granite slabs to make countertops in my country house up North. I met with them and I brought ten of my favorite pictures of their quarries. Most of them were of abandoned sections of the quarries. So I rolled them all out—and they were big, 40-by-50-inch prints—and the whole board was there. And they were totally silent.

After this uncomfortable, pregnant pause, I said, “So… what do you guys think?” Someone—I think it was the director of the quarry—finally said, “Why would anybody want one of these?” [laughter]

I’d never really had it put to me in that way! I said something like, “Well, because they’re interesting pictures and they talk about our taking of a resource from the land. It’s about that accumulated taking—the residual evidence of that taking—and then nature bouncing back into that void. You can see it struggling back into that space.”

And he replied, “These just aren’t very interesting for us.” Well, actually, he said, “These are a sorry sight for us, because these are places where we can’t get any more stone out of the ground, and we have to go somewhere else. They’re the end of the line for us. We wouldn’t want to have to be reminded of that everyday.”

I asked whether that meant the deal was off, and they said, “Oh, no, you can go photograph the latest thing we’ve found with all the machines still working on it.” And I did. It never entered my oeuvre, but I photographed it and I got the countertops.

Twilley: So the quarry has an “off-label” Burtynsky, as it were?

Burtynsky: That’s right. In fact, eighty percent of what the quarry produced went to make gravestones, so I blew up a big picture for them to take to a monument fair.


"Rock of Ages # 26," Abandoned Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: The question of access is one I’m really interested in. Earlier, you said it took you three years to set up a photograph of the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, but I imagine it’s even harder to get into places like oil refineries. Have you heard of any responses from the oil industry to your series?

Burtynsky: No, I haven’t. I must say, for the most part, that the oil industry isn’t very enlightened. In most cases, they said no when I asked to come in and make photographs, because they couldn’t see an upside to letting me in. They couldn’t see why. They could only see a downside.

One place I tried to get into is the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies ten to eleven million barrels a day, and this one oil field—the Ghawar—is the oil field of oil fields. It produces five million barrels a day. I thought it would be great to have that as part of the project narrative. In terms of scale, Ghawar is it. There is no bigger oil field. Even all the tar sand activity in Canada produces between one and a quarter and one and a half million barrels a day, while the Saudis are able to produce five million barrels a day from one oil field. That one field is four times the scale of Canada’s entire oil sands operation.

Twilley: But they said no?

Burtynsky: They said no. I went through a fairly lengthy process all the way to the very top, where I was talking to the minister of petroleum in Saudi Arabia. They basically said that they might have been interested if I had had more of a focus on the human dimension of oil—the people who work there, and so on. They said they thought it was too detached and impersonal.

Manaugh: To go back to something you said at lunch yesterday, you mentioned that you consciously exclude green and blue from your photographs, and that, for the most part, you don’t like to shoot in summer or at certain times of day. You also mentioned the way that the light during “the shoulders of the day”—early morning and late evening—makes space much more volumetric and filled with shadows, and that, conversely, shooting at high noon from 8,000ft helps minimize shadow. I’d love to revisit that conversation in the context of this interview and hear more about the role of color, light, and shadow in your work.

Burtynsky: I love the tones of browns and grays—I love more neutral tones. That’s why I like going to the desert and working in the desert. I find that green trees and things like that have a tendency to lock us into a certain way of seeing. When I look at green trees on a sunny day, I don’t know how to make an interesting picture of that. We’re familiar with that already.

Instead, I like the transparency that comes when leaves are off and you can look deeper into the landscape—you can look through the landscape. When I did try to make those kind of green-tree/sunny-day pictures, I’d find myself not ever putting them up and not ever using them. Eventually, I just said, well, I’m not going to take them anymore, because they never make it past the edit.

There’s a certain point where you learn from your own editing. You just stop taking certain pictures because they never make it through. Your editing starts to inform your thinking, as far as where you want to go and what you want to look for when you’re making a photograph.

That what’s different about me after thirty years of doing this kind of work—there are a lot of pictures I don’t have to take anymore. I think that’s called wisdom—learning what not to waste your time on!

Twilley: Do you have a ratio, or a sense of how many photographs you take vs. how many actually make it into the final show?

Burtynsky: My ratio has changed over time, certainly. I used to shoot 8 x 10 film, and, with that, my ratio was pretty high—something like one out of six or one out of seven images would make it through. With 4 x 5, because it’s faster and a little easier, which means there can be a little more risk-taking, my ratio would have been closer to one in twelve or one in fifteen. With digital, now, where everything is dematerialized and I’m up in the air, I’m shooting probably one to 100.

Twilley: Returning to the idea of avoiding blue skies and green trees, I was thinking back to your earlier comment about wanting to show us things that we don’t usually get in front of, places and things that are unfamiliar. In a way, green leaves and blue skies are too familiar—that’s the nature we already know as nature.


"Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. Note the extremely rare inclusion of green trees!

Burtynsky: You know it already, so how do you say something new about it? It locks us into a cliché, or a genre of understanding. We immediately understand it, so there’s nothing there.

I just came back from a conference on the future of photography, where we had an interesting conversation around this. One of the curators of a museum in Switzerland had invited students from any art school, anywhere in the world to submit work to be included in a survey of photography of the new generation. The one thing that was consistent in 1,200 submissions was that not one of the students was showing anything that had to do with spontaneity. Spontaneity was gone completely.

There were no pictures with light coming through the glass on the table or a Robert Frank kind of street photograph or a decisive moment photograph—nothing like that at all. It was all very staged and all very deliberate—not photography as the act of seeing the world or reacting to seeing the world, but rather a photography of crafting things in the studio. We didn’t find one that varied from that, which I thought was fascinating.

We were wondering, why this is? In school, are they teaching that all the possibilities for taking photographs of reality and interpreting reality and reacting to reality in a spontaneous way have all been done? There seemed to be a feeling that there is no new narrative that can be found by pursuing that avenue of representation, and that they have to move into creating their own world.

Twilley: Perhaps it’s also a response to the fact that everyone now has a camera on them at all times, and so those photos—those spontaneous shots of decisive moments and everyday life—are, in fact, being taken, but they’ve been claimed, in a sense, by iPhones and Instagram, so students need to do something different to be photographers today, rather than just people with a camera.

Burtynsky: That might be the case—it could be a response to the way that we’re all now awash in images. So how do you define yourself? That spontaneous way of making imagery has become an avenue that the next generation doesn’t see as worthy of pursuit because it won’t yield anything that the world hasn’t already put out there.

I think there is an anxiety about the status of the photograph amongst the new practitioners coming in. I have certain anxieties, too, of course, but, I think because I’ve had such an arc of existing work that I continue to build on as an artist, that I don’t feel as much anxiety about using the real world as my palette or as my template, to draw from. I don’t feel compelled to start staging my imagery or moving away from recording “reality” on some level in order to achieve a deeper subjective experience, and I think it’s because I came out of an analogue, more traditional way of approaching photography. Photography was a way to put a window onto the world and to enter into the world. For me, photography is a way to mine ideas that are things.

Manaugh: I’d like to ask another question about the future of photography. As a writer, something that always catches my eye are stories about how they’re working on an artificial intelligence bot that can actually write a sports recap or a movie review on its own. The idea is that things like descriptions of football games are so formulaic that, in the future, a robot will write it, churning out sentences like, “Quarterback X threw for a certain amount of yards for a victory in the last quarter against team Y,” and so on. In and of itself, this is culturally fascinating, of course—but, as a writer, I am particularly fascinated by what it means for the future of my craft.

From the point of view of a photographer, then, it might seem equally interesting that there are now all sorts of new types of photographic systems on the rise—quadcopter-mounted 3D scanners, drones, and even smart ammunition equipped with cameras that can loiter in an area taking aerial photographs. Simply on a technical level, I’m curious about where you see the future of photography going. Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?

Burtynsky: I’m already doing it.

Twilley: You have a drone?

Burtynsky: Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture.

So I am already using that technology. It offers new ways of entering into places that you would never have considered going—or that you couldn’t even go to—before.

The pictures I’ve been taking of irrigation circles now as part of the water project—that’s something I think would not have been possible to do very easily even just five years ago. It would be almost impossible with film to splice those images together so well and not have it look weirdly distorted or problematic. With Photoshop, and with digital files, you’ve got contrast control, the removal of haze, color filtration, and all of that, so I’m able to do things that, again, were not even conceivable five years ago.

"Dam #6," Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Manaugh: I’m curious about how you know when a series is done, when you’ve said all you wanted to say about a certain them or topic. For instance, I think you said that the water series will be finished in 2013—but how do you know when to put an end to certain things? Is it that there is literally a checklist of sites you want to get to, or is there a more subtle narrative sense of completion that you’re looking for?

Burtynsky: Well, by 2013, I will have been working on water for almost five years. It’s unlike a lot of my other series, in that I’m not doing any other projects right now. During the oil series, I did a whole series in China, and I still kept doing quarries along the way. I did a lot of other things while pursuing the idea of oil systems, and the kinds of landscapes that come from them.

For this water project, I gave myself a five-year time period and that’s all I’m concentrating on. I’ve dropped quarries and I’ve dropped oil, pretty much—except for the Gulf oil spill, which I saw as this historic-scale, crossover event with oil and water, a moment when the two liquids that I have been pursuing for so long were put into such an unhappy marriage. I thought it was worth the chance to go, to see them both in one place; and I think it worked.

But the 2013 date puts a hard stop on the project. It’s not to say that I won’t ever take more images of water—or, for that matter, of oil—but it’s a chance to consolidate the work, to put a book and movie together, and to put something out there for people to react to and see. I don’t think it means that either oil or water will be closed off the way I closed off quarries.

In fact, it’s interesting that once I move away from a series, I can go by those landscapes all day long and I won’t see them anymore. It’s like I’ve just switched it off. I know it’s still there, of course, and, if I went back, I could still find those kinds of things again; but I don’t look for them anymore. To me, the photographic image is an idea that you put into your consciousness, and then you go out in the world in search of manifestations of it. It’s a very idea-driven process—but that also means than, once the idea is expressed, I don’t necessarily go looking for it anymore. I’ve done it.

"Dryland Farming #7," Monegros County, Aragon, Spain, 2010. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

Twilley: I want to end with a question about where the water project is going next, and, in particular, whether there’s any aspect of water that is proving particularly tricky to capture or perhaps more productive than you originally expected?

Burtynsky: Probably the trickiest bit right now is source: where water comes from. It’s so riddled with clichés. That’s actually where I might end up using film, because it might be able to carry the cliché better than still photographs.

I also gave myself another challenge, which is something I grew up next door to: I’ve been trying to figure out, is there any way I can photograph Niagara Falls without making it a cliché? And I haven’t done it yet. Andreas Gursky shot the Maid of the Mist and it was very postcard-y—but I think he meant it to refer to the postcard tradition. I’m working on it, and I’m trying to figure it out, but it’s hard. I keep looking at Niagara Falls, thinking, “Great. Now what?”
 
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