Wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet—indeed, a passion—of the environmental movement, especially in Australia . For many Australians wilderness (benign nature) stands as the last remaining place where a (malign) civilization has not fully developed the earth. Wilderness is a haven in the polluted world of urban-industrial modernity, the one place we can turn for escape from our time poor and stressed urban lives.
Has there been a conceptual shift from the “wilderness” understanding of nature associated with the emergence of this Victorian landscape photography? especially when it is compared to the picturesque conventions of Australian Geographic’s nature photography. After all, Mt Arapiles is hardly wilderness in the sense of being pristine nature and an empty landscape. It is heavily populated with people camping and climbing, it is a small state park managed by Parks Victoria, and it is surrounded on all sides by agricultural landscapes. Secondly, the FoFG excursion was social, and the members were not engaged in the traditionally, serious bush walking.
These observations are not to deny that Mt Arapiles itself is wild nature (wildness). Nor do the observations mean that should we forget to applaud the historical efforts to set aside large tracts of wild land as national or state parks, and the current attempts to protect Mt Arapiles from human destruction. Mt Arapiles is a special wild place that needs caring for at a time when human individuals are privileged over and above objective nature and when the state’s economic mode of governance and its calculative thinking (or instrumental reason) regards all elements of the world as ‘resource’ to be potentially used by consumers and industry. As Heidegger puts it “Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”
What we do need to do is to make a distinction between a wild place, such as Mt Arapiles, and wilderness as a complex cultural construction. The latter refers to pristine or unpeopled, and so remote from humanity and untouched by our common past. It dies when we humans enter it. In this construction wild nature is the only thing worth saving, and if our mere presence destroys it, then we cannot enter it. This dichotomy between the human and nonhuman world is a problematic position in environmental ethics: how can humans live sustainably on the earth? How can we care for the natural environment in those places in urban-industrial modernity where we actually live? How can we be part of, or immersed within, the natural world?
I suspect that the poetics of the landscape photographers in FoPG generally follows, or rather continues to work within, the conventions of the romantic sublime in that they find the mountaintop more glorious than the plains, the ancient forest nobler than the grasslands, the mighty canyon more inspiring than the humble wetland, the rocky coastline more photogenic or inspiring than the Mallee scrub. In the Romantic sublime there is a desire to become part of the mountain and the storm.
The problem with the sublime as the common root to aesthetics and ethics is that a lot of the natural environment at Mt Arapiles is lacking in grandeur, the monumental, or the awe inspiring. A lot of it is ordinary, mundane and prosaic without being picturesque, and it is overlooked and remains concealed. Yet the very ordinary entities of the natural environment are important, given the increasing extinction of plant and nonhuman animal species, the rapid disappearance of habitats (including old-growth forests), the growing mass of plastics and pollutants, and the impact of the acceleration of climate change.
The beings in this ordinary environment (trees, rocks, bushes, insects) and the biodiversity of the environment also need to be respected: not because it resembles humans, not because it is valued by humans, not because it is experienced by humans, but because of their own being, or their independence beyond their relevance to human needs and desires.
What needs to underpin the poetics of landscape photography is a mode of meditative thinking that is receptive to non-human beings, lets these entities be in terms of their own nature and their unfolding over time. We grant the entities we encounter their presence, independence and self-standing, and this in turn shapes our relationship (ethical comportment) to the nonhuman world. Large format landscape photography has affinities with this mode of thinking as it is a meditative process in which we attune ourselves to things and whose language gathers things including humans together.
This kind of photography in a world of practical experience (making photos) is a poetic dwelling:- ie., a staying with things.