It was thirty-one years ago that I was sitting in a tree in Manu National Park, Peru. I was participating in a survey of birds in the lowland Amazonian forest canopy. A black hawk eagle landed on the same branch ten feet away from me. It merited only a glance before it continued its own surveillance over miles of jungle. It was just another animal and Manu was an Eden where humans, rarely seen, were of little consequence.
That experience haunts my work today as I photograph my constructed theaters and create dramas of wonder, grief, and solastalgia. I construct images with the flora and fauna I find, and photographs of what used to be on my farm. They are imagined landscapes that I hope will give voice to what we are losing in the natural world. They are also still lifes in the spirit of vanitas paintings, speaking to the passage of time and the inevitability of death—what is and what was—presenting the evidence and eliciting the memory. They also represent a deeply personal diary of injuries to the land where I have lived for forty years, where animal populations are declining, trees are dying, and a prolonged drought has forced me out of farming.
I think of generational memory. Every year we adjust to a new normal in what remains of our fragmented natural world. What will happen when there is no one to remember when the skies were darkened by birds and forests stretched for thousands of miles? Will we condone and accept absence? With my work I want to explore and engage with what is missing and what remains. I wonder what will happen to our spirit if we lose the opportunity for renewal and inspiration that comes with being in nature? Sometimes when I work, I think of the line from The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against these ruins.”
History is recorded on our landscapes and the landscape in turn speaks to us. As we march through the Anthropocene, I think of the thousands of years of cultural shifts that have also isolated humans from the natural world. My work wants to engage contemporary myths and beliefs. This is critical if we are to confront human-generated climate change. Like my farm I fear that Manu is no longer a thriving ecosystem. How can I live with the grief? My series, The Weight of Memory, is the burden we carry of knowing what used to be, and I ask: “Can art carry the knowledge of lost worlds while confronting what the future may bring, and can we find beauty in what remains?”
Image at top: Suzanne Theodora White, Hanging By a Thread, archival pigment print, 20 x 25 in., 2021.