Photos: Katherine Montgomery
Witnessing the enormous wildfires scarring large stretches of California a few months ago, followed by the subsequent mudslides, it’s been difficult to see past the very real threat of nature. Lively green hillsides became charred and empty, and rain has made them destructive. I’ve struggled with mounting questions related to what these threats mean for life in California moving forward.
It’s well documented chaparral plant species have evolved with wildfires, sometimes requiring the burn to regenerate. The California Chaparral Institute has championed this unique ecosystem. Their articles have helped me better understand the chaparral; I now bristle when our native habitat is referred to as ‘overgrowth’ or ‘fuel’. However, the increased frequency and scale of recent fires – caused by humans – exceed what chaparral has evolved to withstand. The California Invasive Plant Council has also researched the correlation between wildfires and invasive species. Can these ecosystems adapt at a reasonable pace, or will they need to be managed?
Birds act as indicators of a landscape’s health. After the Thomas Fire, birders congregated for their annual Christmas Bird Count where they found a surprising amount of avian diversity, if not quantity, had returned to the depleted but regenerating landscape. For immediate survival birds are able to fly away from a fire. These observations left me wondering how much resiliency can be designed, and at what point do humans just need to get out of the way?
Since September, I’ve returned to hike through La Tuna Canyon. Along the canyon’s trails I’ve seen life begin to spring back from under the surface, giving me reason to reflect on survival and grit. Plants shielding themselves from death, their cells evolving to survive extreme heat, or seeds requiring fire to propagate – it’s reassuring to see nature’s resilience in person and consider how to best to mimic it.
I’ve found myself returning to the pages of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature again. I’m digging further into how others process the cycle of destruction and regeneration. Articles by experts – naturalists, engineers, birders, landscape architects, etc. – vacillate between managing the wildness and keeping a safe distance from it. As wildfires become more extreme and frequent, and as the boundaries between nature and city blur, how can we as designers protect habitat for both wildlife and humans?
““The unfathomable, gloomy elegance of this splashing and rumbling landscape painting — the movement of the waves, the circling of the birds, the lifting of the cloud cover — is followed by an arc shot resembling a brushstroke that tells us about everything we have already forgotten while gazing at the static and precisely framed mountain: the world beyond the image.” – Alejandro Bachmann
Austrian artist Lukas Marxt initially began in search of landscapes untouched by humankind – remote places across the globe unknown or forgotten, existing in what is often referred to in geological durations as “deep time”. Across these increasingly disappearing spaces devoid of human activity, Marxt’s solitary interactions and observations within barren landscapes conjures the temporal nature of humankind’s imprint upon the planet, appearing in an instant, then as quickly fading back into the confluence of time. Over time his work has evolved to fold humankind into the narrative of the greater landscape, superimposing our world back onto a holistic perspective. His works evoke equal moments of wonder and sadness, connection and solitude.
Currently residing in Southern California during a six month residency researching the ecological and socio-political structures surrounding the Salton Sea, seven of Marxt’s videos will be screening next week on Wednesday at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. Even if you’re unable to attend next, anyone can immerse themselves into the flow of Marxt’s deep time work thanks to Vimeo.
“Aerial photography has existed since we flew balloons. What interests me is that everybody now has access to it. It has sort of become a common object. I would no longer call it a god’s-eye view because it has become so present. What interests me most is that you can steer it yourself and direct it. You can take flight and rescale the landscape in ways in which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the macro and the micro.” – Lukas Marxt
If you’re like me – and I figure most people in 2017 are – you listen to music while walking, running, ride sharing, or driving through the landscape. Music has the power to express complex emotional and spiritual concepts, teleporting the mind to a certain time and place, or even bring about an altered state.
Beyond its role in audio-visual bias in spatial perception, your earbuds and track 13 on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu album can heavily influence experience and emotions, or even spiritually connect to your surroundings.
This augmented experience becomes landscape around you.
When I think of the tie between music and landscape, or music and nature, I think of a few examples of music augmenting the landscape. An artist can teleport you to a certain setting. An artist can reify a natural landscape’s unpredictability or ominous scale. Music can explain concepts within nature that are too broad for our consumption. Music can mimic nature. An artist can capture and isolate parts of nature.
That is a lot to think about!
Before we get into it let’s get some definitions out of the way:
- Landscape n. – in a broad sense, the features of an area of land and its landforms; how these features interact with the broader nature and man-made features. This includes features both physical and cultural, natural and anthropological. Landscape can also be described as setting, a geographical location at a moment of time.
- Music n. – sounds combined to produce a beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.
- Nature n. – the physical world and its organisms; features and products of the earth as opposed to humans and human creations.
In addition to chronicling my recent circumnavigation of the Icelandic landscape via the production of a feature film, we also took plenty of still images – digital and analog. At each stop for camera adjustment, file backup, or leg-stretch, we whipped out our trusty Polaroid OneStep 600 Express instant film camera – because is there really a better format to capture the subtlety of this jaw-droppingly dynamic landscape of geysers, glaciers, and gas stations?
One issue: where to get film? I got puzzled looks from the Walgreens downstairs from the office; apparently sold out. By chance, I overheard a conversation on the Red Line – two patrons talking about a place on the internets called “the Amazon”. I rushed home and fired up my Hayes Smartmodem 300, logged onto CompuServe, and eureka – my dream of shooting Polaroids in Iceland would come true – and at only $2.81 a pop!
Upon our return these archival quality prints were scanned and cleaned up a bit in Photoshop – a painstaking process documented in the accompanying video below.
Once you have absorbed these prints in all their high resolution glory, you will probably feel as if you have also experienced the dreamlike Icelandic landscape itself.