Thursday, March 04, 2010

Mona Lisa and the Pixelation of Nature

Back in my twenties, when my argument with the world was about the very foundations of our culture, I often thought of nature as a work of art (the Mona Lisa always came to mind) that was being defaced by freeways and other human impositions on the landscape.

It was surprising to hear people speak of nature as chaotic. They saw plants springing up helter skelter in the woods, while I saw a sophisticated order, with each species adapted to a particular niche. Red maples, for instance, weren't just growing anywhere in the woods. They were typically in low wet areas, turning floodplains into a haze of red in the early spring, while sugar maples thrived on higher ground. Soil, sunlight, water, slope--all helped determine what would be found growing where. The order and synchrony were there to be found by anyone with the patience to learn and observe.

I recently found this sequence of photos in the hallway at the Princeton University's Friends Center. Listed in the credits are J. Alex Halderman and others at the Center for Information Technology Policy.

Though the purpose of the sequence is to show how computer data lingers for seconds or minutes after a computer is turned off--something called "memory remanence"--it accurately portrays the status of landscapes as their natural order and ecological balance is slowly undermined by development, invasive species introduction, heavy deer browsing pressure and any number of other impacts. Habitat restoration is in some ways like art restoration, removing the accumulated glaze of exotic species so that the hidden remnants of a pre-existing balance can rebound.

With time, some of the original colors will come back into view. At Mountain Lakes, this will be seen early this spring as spicebush gives a soft yellow hue to areas where it was formerly being eaten to the ground or shaded out by exotic shrubs.

There is, too, an analogy with digital photography. The sparse understory of most any woods appears pixelated these days to anyone with a memory of the rich, diverse array of wildflowers that once carpeted the ground. Though the woods still appears green, the patterns of a healthy order have sometimes faded beyond recognition.

No comments:

Post a Comment