Story & photos by Bridget Ye
As admirers, students, educators and conservators of our natural world, nature photographers strive to capture the essence of both the intimate micro and extraordinary macro. We might photograph creatures on the brink of extinction or landscapes in decay, yet rarely do we include ourselves in the portrayal and definition of “nature”. The presence and influence of humanity on the environment has often been detrimental and, sometimes, it seems that the environment reciprocates with natural disasters. A comparison of resilience, though, reveals that nature has a tendency to prevail over time and will probably continue to do so. Try as we might to build and rebuild in notorious flood zones or to erect dams that reconfigure river systems for our benefit, nature does not just meekly surrender to human desires. It often seems as though adaptation, a fundamental skill for survival for all things living in the natural world, is lost on us.
Our contemporary era is marked by climate change and species extinctions of unprecedented magnitude. These phenomena have taken time to reveal themselves fully, but now they hit us with such tangible and introspective force that we recognize we might not survive in an environment we have damaged. That has prompted some sense of urgency across the globe to address these changes. If both humans and nature are to prosper I propose, as an initial step, that we observe and learn the geographies of a land and landscape.
With photos that show the harmony between one human and one nature scene, The Scale of Impact is a personal project that showcases the juxtaposition in scale between the human physique and the grandness of nature. Each photograph is of a different place and context. Each story is about the relation between people and the environments they inhabited, altered, or succumbed to before achieving harmonious cohabitation through adaptation. Prompting a search for the human subject, The Scale of Impact aims to inspire introspective thought about the tangible and intangible, positive and negative, small- and large-scale implications of micro humans on macro nature, and vice versa. Consider it a variation of conservation photography that seeks to raise questions and spark dialog.
The “Land of Fire and Ice”. Straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland has long been a site of geologic and historical significance, where the unique union of glaciation and volcanism has forged dynamic landscapes and where humans and the environment have generated several catastrophes. When the Norse first settled in Iceland in the 9th-century, the landscape underwent unprecedented changes. The settlers’ agriculture, architecture, and animal husbandry practices demanded too much land and resources from an environment that was once forested but is now dominated by moss and low-lying flora. Sheep grazing, in particular, placed significant pressure on the local vegetation’s regenerative abilities and, before humans developed rotational grazing strategies, Iceland’s landscape grew increasingly barren.
In addition to coping with the implications of their own practices, the Norse settlers were forced to adapt to Iceland’s fierce landscape. Dense with glaciated volcanism, the geomorphology of Iceland is characterized by the interaction of fire and ice. An eruption here almost always occurs beneath an overlying glacier, a process that triggers infrequent but high-magnitude flood events called “jökulhlaups” (yaw-kuhl-aups) that are unique to these “glacio-volcanic” systems. Prior to being better understood, jökulhlaups were disastrous to human settlements, transporting not only torrents of water and ice through the landscape but also depositing volcanic ash that suffocated cultivated lands. The combination of unrestrained resource use and relentless natural processes tested the Norse’s adaptability in an environment that is at once fragile and fierce. With time and observation, however, the settlers learned how to navigate and coexist with the landscape and Iceland has since become an emblem of environmental and human resilience.
As the perils of contemporary climate change have gained worldwide recognition, changes in the Arctic have similarly entered the spotlight of international consciousness. Melting sea ice has opened the isolated Arctic region, generating geopolitical competition over accessing and developing the natural resources found there. That, in turn, poses profound implications for wildlife, environment, and indigenous communities. However, concerns surrounding climate change are voiced largely by a non-indigenous population and, at least for the Inuit of Qaanaaq, today’s environmental perturbations are changes they have been expecting and are prepared to and cope with.
Qaanaaq is an Inuit town in north Greenland, where the people have thrived with the indigenous knowledge their ancestors began developing a millennium ago. To remain in the Land of the Midnight Sun, a land of extreme climate and daylight, the Inuit have built a tolerance for environmental challenges. Hunters, for instance, still follow their elders’ “circle of life” philosophy, understanding their own survival depends on the availability and responsible use of natural resources. Instead of using motorboats as hunters in south Greenland do, Qaanaaq hunters continue to use kayaks that avoid disturbing marine wildlife and prevent them migrating away. Though the magnitude of 21st-century climate change is unprecedented, the Inuit of Qaanaaq are, to some degree, prepared to navigate environmental challenges.
The Scottish Highlands region has long inspired marvel and awe. A place of lore and Scotch whiskey and mist, it has undergone significant transformations, first by paleo ice sheets and later by humans. With more livestock than people, the Highlands is reminiscent of Norse Iceland in that human activity has exerted significant pressure on the landscape. The deliberate hunting and ultimate extermination of wolves, as a means to relieve threats to settlement and livestock, prompted unforeseen downstream consequences. For a time, it appeared their absence was harmless but there is always a lag in time before the negative extent of human intervention on the natural world is realized.
Without wolves, red deer dominated the Highlands, multiplying at an unnatural and unsustainable rate that, in addition to livestock grazing, has threatened native plant populations and biodiversity as well as disrupted local ecosystem equilibria. In response, a Highland rewilding initiative has sought to rediscover and recreate a kind of pre-human equilibrium through reintroducing near-extinct native flora and fauna. Such an effort is similar to the return of wolves to Yellowstone, though there’s no attempt to keep the Highlands pristine or otherwise untouched by human intervention. Thus far, rewilding has gained recognition as a potential conservational approach. Controversy has arisen about a literal reversal of species eradication and the use of extreme measures to offset extreme consequences, so some caution is advisable.
Ultimately, are such landscapes considered “nature” and “wilderness”? If National Parks, emblems of nature and places we escape to from our kind of human nature, are, in fact, born from meticulous human intervention, what does “nature” really mean to us?
Bridget Ye is a nonfiction storyteller, nature photographer, and geographer. As a photographer, she has always considered natural landscapes her ultimate muse and, while studying geography at The University of Edinburgh, found that her relationship with landscapes deepened beyond simply that of the photographer and the photographed. With every field trip around Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, and Iceland, her growing understanding of “place” inspired an excitement and curiosity to continue exploring the dynamics of space and time that has transformed into a desire to tell stories of science for the public.