On and Over the Hills

"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle

Guilty Pleasure: Finding beauty through death and destruction

Art is my passion, Nature my muse and I have betrayed her. I have found pleasure in her destruction.

I am fortunate to live in an isolated town where nature is all around me; bush spreads out for an 80 kilometre radius. Close to home at the elevation of over 1200 metres or 4000 feet, boreal forest blankets the ridges with its towering lodgepole pine, bluish white and black spruce and soft green balsam fir.

Wild life abounds in my vicinity. It is common to see mule & whitetail deer, moose and coyotes. It is more rare, but still possible, to see grizzly & black bear, and wolves.

There is no human habitation within this sphere of nature; there cannot be because the resource industry has the rights to all of it. And there, in a nutshell, is the irony and frustration of my relationship with my muse. The forests are being clear-cut at an astonishing rate. Ever year new vistas open up and from atop the hills I can see the ridges in the distance where before all I would see was the forest around me. Now new open fields are decorated with the silent remains of solitary, tall and stubborn poplar that once staunchly defended their ground among thick conifers: sentinels stripped of their branches as the stately pines fell around them. Debris litters the side of a hill devoid of any wildlife, indeed any sound at all.

And yet there is beauty. No sooner have the noisy machines left the scene of destruction than the fireweed seed and the enduring roots of horsetails, having lain dormant for generations, feel the heat of the sun and burst through the debris. Their lush growth hides what it can of the ravaged hillside and tries to hold the ground together while the grasses and other forbs that deer will browse, begin to establish themselves.

Within a year or two, if left undisturbed, blueberries and huckleberries will thrive and the bears will return to feed. Alder and willow will sprout in the draws, where the water collects. Aspen will begin to grow on the hillside with songbirds cheering them on all summer as the tiny and slow-growing conifers struggle to a dominance that will eventually shade out most of the undergrowth. Mosses will thrive on their remains, until a lightning strike sends a fast fire through, killing the oldest conifers so that their bodies can feed and the sunlight can again kiss the forest floor, beginning anew the cycle.

This is the succession, the circle of life in the forest. There are generations of plants that must grow in their turn in the natural forest with the efficiency that has been developed since before humans existed, creating habitat for a succession of wildlife as each matures.

We, however, have cracked that circle. With the supression of natural fire, we have allowed the conifers to grow too long until Mother Nature steps in to thwart our attempts with insects – bark beetles – that will do the job of which lightning was once the master. With the lumber industry’s method of stripping the forest floor of debris and killing the forbs with herbicides we are depleting the fragile but nourishing forest soil. Then, with the monoculture that they claim is ‘replanting the forest’, the biodiversity is lost and we are left with single-species stands of lonely, silent nurseries.

When the forest as we know it disappears, berries will be gone along with the bears; the ancient rotting pines will no longer shelter woodpeckers and owls. There will be no luxuriant mosses to hold on to the precious rain as it falls or to cushion the footsteps of the deer as they meander under the sheltering canopy.

I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve walked through these plantations and the feeling is far from any sense of thriving nature. It is eerily silent. Desolate. Perhaps it is progress. Perhaps it is necessary. We must feed the beast of humanity. But I’m glad that I won’t live to see my great-grandchildren grow up without the ability to feed their souls in a forest.

Photographs, documentaries and paintings will survive the end of the forest, but as beautiful as they can be, they will never be able to replace the sounds and the smells, the feeling of sinking into deep moss or discovering a wild orchid.

27 comments on “Guilty Pleasure: Finding beauty through death and destruction

  1. bobzeller
    September 26, 2010

    You are finding beauty everywhere, as illustrated by your wonderful photographs. But your story about the encroachment on our natural resources is also very enlightening. Thank you for reminding me.

    • missusk76
      September 26, 2010

      You’re welcome, Bob, and thank you!

  2. Pete Luedemann
    September 26, 2010

    I have seen the damage you speak of first hand and it saddens me to see that so many of us here in Alberta feel that this the price to pay for progress. Our forests are disappearing at an alarming rate and one seems to care.
    We complain about what is happening down in the South American rain forest and yet we are blind to the same thing happening right here in our own backyard.

    I have watched a pack of wolfs hunt the creek bottom and finally catching a rabbit. While hunting moose I have met a single wolf on a cut line while I was walking. We studied each other for a few moments and he slowly turned around and slipped back into the forest.

    Is progress worth it if we loose the forests or the virgin prairie grasslands?
    Not in my opinion.

    I know my views are not popular with many Albertans, but honestly we need to become much more vocal about the what is happening to our beautiful province.

    • missusk76
      September 26, 2010

      Hi Pete. I didn’t know you had a blog – I’ll have to check it out! The word ‘progress’ is overused, isn’t it? What the hell is it, anyway? It almost gives the subtle message that we can lay the blame at the feet of the big corporations, which we rightly can. But we also need to take responsibility. What I see is serious overconsumption and terrible waste by everyday people, especially the ‘younger generation’. So much stuff! Everything has to be new, and renewed constantly. When does one have enough? I think there’s a devastating trend to confuse needs with wants. That and the attitude that if it’s affordable, it should be purchased are using up our resources faster than we can control.

      I have a house full of second-hand stuff. Sure I’d love a new couch and hardwood floors – but I don’t ‘need’ them, at least until my son decides he wants his couch back, and I’m still thinking about a replacement for my 30 year old carpets that I can live with. I wish, when company comes that I had a lovely new bed for them, but so far everyone tells me the old one is comfortable enough. Clothes don’t last long enough, toys are disposable and furniture – that major consumer of wood – is junk. If everyone just thought for a minute beyond, “It’s a great price, let’s buy it”, to “Should I be contributing to the consumption of this resource and those used in its manufacture?”, I think we might have half a chance of slowing down the destruction of our planet.

      I didn’t intend a rant – my apologies – but you got me going! 🙂

  3. Tim Surratt
    September 27, 2010

    You write so beautifully Cindy… just as beautifully as you create images. I think a newspaper or magazine should be very fortunate to find and hire you.
    Thanks for pointing the way and I only hope someone or body of people do more than just listen. They need to hear and act.

    • missusk76
      September 27, 2010

      Your confidence in me feels so great! Thank you! Folks can’t help but hear this message nowadays – I’m really not saying anything unique. It’s the acting part that’s tough. We just need to live more simply.

  4. bobzeller
    September 27, 2010

    I whole heartedly agree with Tim, Cindy. I will be watching the magazines. 🙂


    • missusk76
      September 27, 2010

      Thank you very much, Bob. They’re not exactly tearing my door down. 🙂 However, I suppose one might have to actually submit something…maybe one day I’ll give it a whirl.

  5. photobyholly
    September 28, 2010

    I agree with everyone here, that you do write so beautifully to go along with your stunning photos! You find a way to actually “bring” the reader to the place that you’re photographing!

    • missusk76
      September 28, 2010

      Thank you Holly, I’m glad you enjoyed the trip!

  6. Captain Kimo
    September 28, 2010

    Very nice… love the tones you used.

  7. Roberta
    September 29, 2010

    Yes, yes…….and yes. And some gorgeous photos too. Have you noticed the wind picking up more with each new section of cleared forest? We do.

    • missusk76
      September 29, 2010

      Thank you very much, Roberta. Yes, I certainly have. My town sits just below a ridge that used to block the strongest blasts of the prevailing winds. Since it’s been almost totally clearcut the wind whips through like never before. It’s sad to see the narrow belts of trees they often leave standing along the highways leaning and falling one by one since they’ve lost the buffering forest that they grew up with behind them.

  8. julianhoffman
    October 1, 2010

    I’ve come back to this post a number of times now, Cindy; that’s how important I think it is. And it speaks to me on a number of levels. You’ve tapped in to what I believe is one of the greatest issues facing our time, the astonishing rate at which we’re losing the natural world in order to satisfy our consumerist ways. That “wild orchid and feeling of sinking into deep moss” is irreplaceable, no matter what the advertisers say. And it’s ironic that Canada, a country I grew up in and that often decorates itself in proud wreaths of environmental awareness, is now (and has been for some time) at the forefront of destructive practices. How do we connect these issues – the clearcutting, the habitat loss, the extinction of species – to people’s lives, so that they have, feel and want a stake in them? How do we make that world that you photograph so enticingly a significant aspect of our cultural way of life. I don’t suppose we’ll answer that here, but your post has touched me in a way that makes me want to try.

    On a related note: unless there is something wrong my link to your blog, then some of the post has been cut, which in my humble opinion is a loss. I loved the honesty of your words concerning how you live, the old furniture and floorboards that could be redone but aren’t. The old beds that are just fine for your guests. The more we hear of people living rich and wonderful lives without the ‘things’ that our modern, Western societies say are imperative, the easier it is for us to honestly ask questions of ourselves and our own ways of life. How did longevity and lasting qualities ever become bad terms?

    I wrestled with similar issues of betrayal when writing about and photographing some of the burnt areas near my home a few years ago; so often I discovered beauty. When I spoke about my concerns to a photographer friend he led me in the direction of the great American image-maker, Richard Misrach, who once said: “I’ve come to believe that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of difficult ideas…”

    Thanks again for this wonderful piece…

    • missusk76
      October 2, 2010

      You’re welcome and thank you so very much for your eloquent response. With regard to the missing part of the post – do you think you might have read my response to Pete’s comment above? I too feel that consumerism is the most ubiquitous destructive force facing our planet right now. Corporations and industry are its tools, but would be rendered impotent with a major change in society. Your questions are just what I continually ponder.

      There are more and more children being brought up without the experience of allowing nature to feed them; without the ability to be content with things as they are. I used to say that kids need to get out of the city and feel the elements; to be inspired by and create from nature. I still believe that of course, but even here, where bush is all around I see that the kids use it and fear it, but seldom truly appreciate it. There are ‘forts’ ringing the town – you know: tree forts and bush forts just as kids of all generations have been inspired to create in the forest. But rather than seeing the perfect cozy hideaway in a little copse and pulling deadfall over to stack for the walls and ‘furniture’, and pretending that they are within an elegant castle, these kids haul everything out from home and the forts are perennially strewn with discarded furniture, carpets, nails, quilts and junk-food packages until they are so disgusting that they are abandoned. They hack away at live trees with their axes and knives, with no regard for the trees themselves and for no reason other than amusement. The bush here is so abused, by industry, of course, but also by all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles that seriously erode their paths, which are cleared without regard for the habitat they destroy. The example of appreciation is not being set, because parents haven’t learned it either.

      Our consumerism is not only causing the destruction of our planet, but it is also causing the death of imagination. Sensory input is on overload from the first video and talking toy placed in a child’s hand at a tender age. In the well-meant effort to provide our children with the best ‘tools for learning’ we’ve forgotten that the best tool – the imagination – is being submerged. Children no longer ‘play make-believe’, they require constant external stimuli to amuse themselves. We spend more and more time indoors and therefore, must continue to buy these things to increase our comfort, decorate our nests and amuse ourselves and our children, for whom we have so little time since we’re busy earning the money required to keep buying these things!

      I was raised by parents with ‘depression ethics’ – you know, waste not – want not. If my folks bought anything it was examined for quality and potential longevity. They saved until they could purchase things that would last. We moved around a lot, so too much stuff was a bane. I suppose it rubbed in. The influence of my parents’ frugality combined with the fact that I absolutely hate shopping, (for me, the stores are a sensory overload), makes it easy for me to stand on a soap box and say, “Quit buying things. Quit throwing things in the landfill. Stop the waste!” So I’m no saint of self-denial, but I truly believe what I’m saying.

      • julianhoffman
        October 2, 2010

        My sincere apologies, Cindy! I got so caught up with reading the post and your comments that in my memory they all merged into one intense and seamless narrative. When I came back to reply I read only the post, hence thinking part of it was missing. Sorry for that…

        There’s a lot to consider in your reply and I’m about to go away for a few days so will have to write back later, but I agree completely. That childhood expanse seems to have been narrowed, but I believe (perhaps without reason) that the essence of childhood curiosity remains intact, a kernel of imagination waiting to unfold. I still witness that extraordinary relationship that children can have with the natural world, but not as often as I once did. And there is certainly a poverty of it in most, though not all, of their parent’s lives.

        Like you, merely stepping into a shopping mall makes me feel queasy. And don’t get me started on ATV’s, which have recently made an appearance in this little corner of the world. I plot their downfall secretly at night…

        Thanks again, Cindy, and sorry for the comment oversight. Will get back to you when I return.

  9. pixilated2
    October 1, 2010

    Cindy, your photography is stellar as always, but it was your writing that has shone this day! Your friends above are correct. We need to be reading more from you in a more public forum! I hope you will choose to submit some of your writings because this one needs publishing now, and for our grandchildren’s sake, I hope you do!

    • missusk76
      October 2, 2010

      I really don’t know how to go about doing that, but maybe I’ll try to learn. Thank you for your encouragement. There are many people saying the same thing, but I think we’re all ‘preaching to the choir’.

  10. Kia and Zeno
    October 11, 2010

    Wow, we have so much to catch up with here! Will be back with more time. For now: thanks for taking us all the way to Canada with your amazing images. It’s like travelling for free 😉 in your beautiful world. Will be back soon… happy Monday!

    • missusk76
      October 19, 2010

      I feel the same way about your images from Italy and Scotland. Places I may never see in person, but can get ‘the best of’ through your photography and narratives. Thanks for popping in! 🙂

  11. themichaellamcollection
    October 11, 2010

    Love the collective images, and the narrative is very evocative!

  12. photosbymartina
    October 20, 2010

    Cindy, these photos and your message is very inspiring. I am a nature lover and try to get my children outside as much as possible to parks, etc. What remains of your forest in years to come may only be the photographs you have wonderfully captured to tell the story. That can be sad, but hopeful knowing there are artists such as yourself, trying to preserve the beauty of nature. Thanks for the story. It should be published somewhere. (BTW – I would take out the word ‘amateur’ in your tags. I don’t see amateur work here) Also, I here you on too much stuff, I’m trying to control that at my house.

    • missusk76
      October 23, 2010

      Thank you Martina. I’m so glad that you consider getting your children outdoors important. I fear for a generation that has not experienced a connection with nature; that connects instead only to electronic toys and the simulation of reality. And with newer and better and more exciting ‘stuff’ on the market every day, children make the accumulation even more difficult to control.

  13. flandrumhill
    October 25, 2010

    What stunning images you’ve captured Cindy! The light in your landscapes looks so warm and inviting.

    I’m all in agreement with what you’ve written. Each generation of man becomes more and more disconnected with nature. It’s such a shame.

    • missusk76
      October 25, 2010

      It is a shame, but maybe things will turn around as people begin to realize the spiritual deficit of life without nature. Thank you for stopping by Amy-Lynn.

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