Two things really captured my imagination and inspired me last week, linked by an unexpected thread. They were a piece of news about an ancient fossil forest in New York, and the Edward Burtynsky photography exhibition I checked out.
First up, the discovery of a 385 million year old forest floor, fossilized in New York state USA. The “Gilboa forest’ was originally discovered in Schoharie County in 1850, with further discoveries of the fossilised tree stumps happening in 1920, 2005 and 2010. The trees present in the Gilboa fossils were named Eospermatopteris, or “ancient seed fern” believed to resemble modern day tree ferns, and are acknowledged to be the earth’s oldest trees.
This latest discovery by New York state museum and university researchers sheds light on the complexity of the forest, having found the root systems of a variety of fossilised plant species, giving evidence of an intricate forest floor and canopy system. The fossils create a picture of the planet as vastly different from the one we live in today. The Gilboa forest area of New York would have been a tropical wetland coastal plain environment 385 million years ago when these plants existed. Scientists are now using the information from this fossil forest in relation to information about global climate patterns of that time, to further understand the links between the trees, drops in global carbon dioxide levels and climate change leading to glaciation during that period.
“The complexity of the Gilboa site can teach us a lot about the original assembly of our modern day ecosystems…. As we continue to understand the role of forests in modern global systems, and face potential climate change and deforestation on a global scale, these clues from the past may offer valuable lessons for managing our planet’s future”- Dr. William Stein (associate professor of biological sciences at Bingham University).
If it is true that “failures are fossils” and that what is living on the planet is the key to success through trial and error, as the biomimics state, we can learn a lot about survival and adaptation from these fossils. Learning from ‘failures’ is as critical as leaning from success, and learning about adaptability is probably the biggest take home lesson here. In fact I think it is one of the most fundamental lessons that we can learn and emulate from the natural world: Nature is adaptable.
Implementing adaptability in design is crucial for survival in rapidly changing times like now. Adaptability not only in our physical structures, architecture and products, but also adaptability of systems, policies and technologies. Stagnant political and commercial sectors rigorously cling to old damaging ways of doing things, reliance on fossil fuels, meaning that we continue destroying the natural environment and inevitably ourselves. If our human systems were quicker to adapt and change to suit the current reality of our environmental situation, we would be in a much better position now to avoid ending up as a fossilised civilization ourselves.
There is an irony here, the very fossils we can learn so much about global sustainability from are what makes the crude oil we are so dependent on, and that it’s often the mining of land which leads to these discoveries. The Gilboa site was discovered from the excavation and building of the Gilboa dam in the 1920’s; a couple of weeks back a 300 million year old fossilized forest was found below a coal mine in China; and a few days ago an employee at an ammolite mine (only an hour drive from where I live) found a 75 million year old marine reptile fossil. It makes me very uneasy that this ancient biological database being in the hands of mining companies. The preservation or destruction of the fossils relies on one employee’s ability to notice an archaeological gem from the regular dirt and rock they are paid to excavate. What have we lost already that we didn’t even know we had?
This brings me in sideways to my second piece of inspiration for the week, the photography of Edward Burtynsky that was on exhibition here at the Glenbow Museum. Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who focuses on altered landscapes and industrial intrusions into nature, which remain beautiful while revealing some confronting environmental realities.
I hadn’t seen his work before this exhibition, and it had an unexpected jaw-dropping-eyes-widening affect on me. The abstract beauty of the colour and composition of his pieces, and the realisation that occurs about the scale and destruction that is being shown was transfixing.
“These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times”. – Edward Burtynsky.
Burtynsky doesn’t politicize his images, although they could obviously be used for environmental protection campaigns etc. Instead he lets you ponder the images and really absorb them in a different way, from the perspective of art and beauty first with the slow realisation for what is really going on in the picture. This angle might reach people who otherwise would shut off if confronted with the environmental protests behind it, especially here in Alberta, oil and resource extraction capital of North America (and proud of it).
In his documentary ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ Burtynsky talks a little bit about this approach, and how he doesn’t want to label things as right and wrong and try to punish the wrong doer, but rather make us all realise that most parts of our daily lives are reliant on these resources industries, we are all accountable, and we need an entirely new way of doing things. I really respect this approach and agree we are all currently dependent on these industries and a complete paradigm shift is needed. However I still believe there is a place for naming and shaming companies who spend millions of dollars on political lobbying to prevent change and block new innovation (who really killed the electric car? and why are solar technologies moving at snails pace?) just to ensure the continuation of demand for their industry, regardless of the environmental cost.
Photography can be an extremely influential tool for raising environmental awareness, it can change your perspective and understanding of a topic in a very powerful, non-verbal and emotional way. I came across Garth Lenz’s work and Blue Earth Alliance while I was exploring Burtynsky and was also very moved by his images. Lenz captures industrial destruction from landscape and human perspective. They are beautiful visual pieces like Burtynsky’s but with loud environmental protests clearly attached. Lenz’s TED talk was an impassioned plea to be aware of, and to end, the destruction caused by the tar sands mining operations in Canada. I hope that his exhibition “The True Cost of Oil” also makes it here to Alberta, the scene of so much crime, and home to the most “collossal fossils” on the planet.