BEATING WINGS, BEATING HEARTS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OF THE OVER 73,000,000 ACRES OF LAND IN THE STATE OF ARIZONA, only 43.2% is in private hands. That might, on paper, seem to weigh in nature’s favor, if “favor” means being protected from the more horrible by-products of human activity. However, from my the vantage point of my twenty-three years in Phoenix, the state’s largest urban concentration, it can seem like nature is either whipped to a draw by civilization (on a good day) or bound, gagged and locked in a dark closet by it (on all too many other days).
A bald eagle finishes a meal atop a concrete platform, just yards away from the 202 freeway in Tempe Arizona.
Nature photography in such a conflicted reality can be a challenge, but not because wildlife cannot be found near Arizona cities. In fact, rather than fleeing to the open desert or mountain ranges, it often thrives literally feet away from the most invasively harmful aspects of what we term “civilization”. No, the problem with making pictures of Arizona wildlife is in being tempted to do what I call “template photography”, to take the expected route toward idealization of animals, displaying them in the pristine conditions in which we wish they lived all the time. And yet, if we are to follow any tendency toward photojournalism, toward honestly chronicling the lives of these creatures in such a place, we must also make images of their struggles and triumphs within the world we have actually made for them. And that can be heartbreaking.
This is especially true in the case of birds, and most dramatic with larger varieties like raptors. The bald eagle you see in these images has learned to make his way alongside freeways, electrical wires, air traffic and other delights of the modern age, choosing, as seen here, the concrete footing for a bygone bridge over an urban stretch of the Salt River as the roosting point for enjoying a fish captured from what was, very recently, a dry bed deliberately replenished and stocked by the same governmental agencies charged with making the desert, well, “livable” for humans. It’s a strange and sad symbiosis, but it makes for enduring images. An eagle left to his own devices exists in an interlocking gearbox of interdependent ecosystems. It exists in balance. It’s brushing up against us that makes his life more hazardous than anything encountered in the wild.
Strangely, we begin to address this problem by addressing our own. If power grids go down because of birds becoming entangled in our wiring systems, those systems need to be re-designed, which has the dual effect of protecting more birds while guaranteeing that we keep our lights on. People are becoming more aware of how our own lives are impoverished if we make it impossible for creatures to grow and hunt and prey as nature intended, but, my God, the learning curve has been slow. How many of the motorists seen here, made aware of the majesty couched just yards away from their elevated roadways, might pull over, park, gawk and wonder? How many beating wings and hearts throb on, outside the scope of our impaired hearing? And how can we point our cameras at the wildness left in the world without also showing how our own untamed selfishness threatens that divine, raw beauty?