I like the weird and moving story of Job, which is preserved in numerous cultural traditions.
It’s one of the most ancient tales ever recorded. It’s about someone who thinks he’s living well in the world, but suddenly finds himself amidst a total collapse of everything that makes his life livable. This throws him into an anguished state of confusion and despair. Eventually he confronts God (the text is hazy about how exactly he accomplishes this) in an epic back and forth poetry slam that reads unnervingly like a rap battle about humanity’s place in the universe.
A wonderful set of phrases from one telling of this baffling tale can be translated into English like this:
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you or let the fish in the sea inform you.”
When I read these words, there are several things that make them personally meaningful.
First, the subject is teaching. It’s about education, and how to identify teachers. I’m a professional educator, so I appreciate any wise reflection about how people learn.
Second, it’s a passage that frames education in terms of asking questions. It presumes that education doesn’t happen when a teacher tells somebody a bunch of stuff. Instead, a learning process begins when a student asks a question, and directs it to the right place. I recognize this from my own experiences of both teaching and learning.
Third, it’s about animals and their environments, which captivate me. Animals are the central obsession of my life as a visual communicator. In this story about a person whose life has fallen apart, which prompts questions about what humans are entitled (or not!) to demand from the Earth – animals are identified as our teachers. These lines are spoken by Job, in response to his friends, who presumed themselves to be his teachers. They’ve come to him in his suffering to tell him a thing or two and check his attitude.
So he orders them to go to the animals to be informed about the questions that plague him.
In one of ancient literature’s great ironies, when Job finally airs his beef with God, the response God offers is pretty much the same thing: Shut up, I made a whale.
God takes Job on the weirdest nature tour ever. Check out these animals and the ecosystems they live in!
All the animals. Every ecosystem. Every size. Every weird and dangerous and pregnant and hard working creature. Take a look. Take a very, very close look until you see the scales on their bodies.
I’m a college professor who typically does what you’re probably imagining: I stand around students in a clean (wrinkled) shirt, lecturing to them, leading discussions, demonstrating Photoshop.
But a large part of my job also takes me outdoors, to the woods, in ratty old clothes, typically at night, in the rain, sitting or lying in the mud. This is when I engage in nature photography. In doing so I’m taking my questions to the animals.
The animals I photograph most often are small. They’re usually amphibians (salamanders and frogs – hence the rain and mud), or arthropods (insects, spiders, millipedes, and other bugs).
When I go out to find and look at a creature, I try to take as close a look as possible.
A close look, over time, can offer a glimpse of unexpected truths about living beings. I become aware of details that reveal how living creatures are similar to one another, and also to me. I also notice differences that arise between them, and in turn that set animals like me apart.
I can feel myself embedded in the vast surge of living beings, and I have to testify here: it can feel overwhelming, beautiful, and terrifying. Every human system that makes my life possible is collapsing as it strips me out of this embedded mass of life.
In many ways, every photograph I make is a sort of question about how to remain embedded in this incomprehensible ecological panorama.
The best nature photography is an open-ended, questioning process. Field photographers don’t capture animals to bring to our indoor world. Instead we have to go out into their spaces, where they live.
Who might we find out there? We don’t know. Where will we find them? We’re not sure. What will they be doing? How will it feel to be out there? What will happen along the way? Every time I pack my gear and hit the trail, the entire process is an enterprise into the unknown.
The recursivity of these questions startles me every time. Each photograph, when approached with a humble inquisitive mind, leads to another photograph. By following each question, a new question is generated. The chain of questions can be long.
It might start simple enough: What’s out there in the world? One answer: Water and light and stones.
What’s under this one stone right here? Look closely: A Salamander.
What species of salamander? Look closer: Desmognathus ocoee.
Are there other D. ocoee out there? Keep looking: Lots of them!
Are there other sorts of organisms out there? Look again and and again again: many, many others!
What are the eyes like? What are the hands like? What is the skin like? And so on…
I try to understand what I do in continuity with a long historical tradition. Making images of animals has interested humanity to such a consistent and intense level, that many consider it to be one of the founding cultural practices of our species. Some of the earliest marks our ancestors left on the land are mesmerizing cave paintings – dating to Upper Paleolithic times, or even older. The vast majority of these ancient images are representations of animals.
This is why I have such a high-falootin’ vision of what I’m doing out there in the mud with my camera. As far as we know, for as long as our species has existed, we’ve been opening ourselves to the world’s questions by taking our questions to the animals around us – and then expressing what we find in pictures.
When my neighbors encounter me lying on my belly in a ditch on rainy summer nights, they’ll often ask, “Why?!” It’s not a bad question, considering the number of other people out there in muddy ditches (so far where I live: zero).
I’ve long since stopped looking for any answer other than the most self-evident. I do it because of love.
I love them. The animals, the ditches, the questions, the world that helps me in my ravenous search for answers about how to live in an unsustainable system, which may be destined for collapse as surely as Job’s fell apart.
I’m not the only one. This is an open secret among nearly all people I meet who are engaged in some process of asking questions about the natural world and what we might do about the grim prospects for changing how humanity’s relationship with nature seems to be playing out.
When you get us talking after a day in the lab, or during a stretch of hike through a forest, or hanging out between seminars at a conference – what nearly all of us tell you is that we do what we do because of love.
This shouldn’t be misunderstood as some saccharine set of sentiments to make us feel fuzzy and warm in a morally complicated world. As anyone knows who’s ever loved someone, love is mostly about the hard labor of commitment, justice, and joy.
People I know who ask questions about living well in the world, and facing the collapse of what makes life livable, are not necessarily sweet-natured and dewey-eyed. Many of them are like this, but others are downright jerks. Being in love doesn’t make you nice.
But love does make you work. It makes you ask real questions, and return again and again to the land and its animals, despite discouragement and set-back.
Why is it important to be honest about this? People in love can be really annoying, especially to people who aren’t. Is it really practical to go on about it like this?
In the end, it might not matter. Being “practical” is rarely a priority for people trying to save those they love. Appeals to truth don’t budget for bad education. Calls for justice don’t come with a costs/benefits analysis.
Are there really people who hate animals? I’m told that some people have a hard time with animals who get in our way, or ooze slime, or have too many legs, or defend themselves.
When Job confronts God in that famous myth, and God starts throwing images of animals at him to overwhelm him with the smallness of his embedded place in a wild world, Job sees some scary stuff. Even God comes across as a bit uneasy about some of the biggest monsters of the deep. I guess it’s complicated.
But what’s love for, if not to help us deal with what’s complicated?
What I’m trying to do by communicating about nature is provoke wonder as a path to empathy. This is something amazing that humans can do. We can communicate in such a way as to “feel into” (this is empathy’s etymology) the lived experience of other creatures.
So many of our long traditions of language, storytelling, picture-making, and question-asking are undertaken to draw each other into complicated experiences – even experiences of love.
I’m not so romantic as to think that love is the only thing that will save us. But based on how the land and its denizens yield unexpected and powerful answers, I’m growing in confidence that love is at least one of the very important things that might save us.
That’s what I want people to know about looking closely at animals, through photography, and what this can sometimes accomplish . Photographs can be powerful because they can be expressions of love.