Managing Eden / For the past fourteen years I have been making photographs that question how we define wildness and how we value nature. I have photographed hunting, habitat manipulation and animal research, looking for moments of contact between man and animal. I feel these moments tell us something about the complexity of our relationship to nature. Through making this work I have come to realize that our perception of nature and our relationship to wildness is precarious and full of paradox. Nature does not possess endless bounty. It is not self-renewing. It can no longer thrive unassisted. More than ever before, it depends on us. Wildlife has been forced into a strange symbiotic relationship with mankind: when we intervene, we take away part of what is wild; if we do not intervene then wildlife itself may disappear. Our impact on nature, our self-imposed stewardship of all that is wild, has made our touch essential to the lives of the animals we have imperiled.
On the federal, state and local level, biologists and chemists, conservationists and naturalists, are working in laboratories and the field, conducting research on animals trying to maintain the delicate balance between human concerns and wildlife populations. As a natural resource, wild animals are regulated and manipulated in every state. Game animals such as deer, elk and bear are hunted, trapped, tagged and monitored. Fish and fowl are raised in captivity to be released in the wild. Animal habitats are burned, plowed, fenced, planted and transformed to increase or decrease animal use. Nuisance species are relocated, exterminated and controlled with chemical contraceptives. Threatened and endangered species are brought back from the brink of extinction through extensive monitoring and captive breeding.
In the past one hundred years we successfully eliminated the wolf from the United States. Today we buy wolves from Canada and reintroduce them into the very places that we worked so hard to eliminate them from. Across the country we have built countless new golf courses, suburbs and business parks with waterways and green spaces that have become perfect habitats for thriving Canada goose populations. Increased numbers have resulted in feces covered bike paths and contaminated waters. Canada geese are now a nuisance species. In the mountains black bears break into trash cans, homes and bird feeders, looking for food in areas that once were their domain. In recent times we have come very close to eliminating the bald eagle. With great effort this magnificent bird has been nursed back to life yet its future is still uncertain. Organizations and politicians are lobbying to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list. The very measures that ensured the birds survival are in jeopardy along with the endangered species act itself. As a symbol of our country the bald eagle represents power and freedom. It also represents our potential to destroy nature and our ability to bring it back to life. The impact of our presence in nature has forced us into a time where we literally hold the future of wildness in our hands.
The extent to which we manipulate nature is surprising to me, and like many others I am reluctant to let go of the romantic myth of nature. But I have come to understand that there is a price to pay for wildness. To guarantee wildness in our backyards we have no choice but to intervene. In New Jersey, proceeds from deer hunting supports a black bear project that monitors and tracks females and cubs. This beautiful and powerful animal, the embodiment of wildness, is trapped, tagged, collared and monitored. The goal of this research is to identify their habitat and denning areas in order to create statistical arguments for the preservation of their habitat with the hopes of staving off industrial and suburban development. In order to become the best possible stewards of our dwindling and battered wildness we must embrace a new definition of wildness that acknowledges complexity and the difficult challenges of realizing a future with wildness in it. In his book “The Diversity of Life”; Edward O. Wilson writes, “For what in the final analysis, is morality but the command of a conscience seasoned by a rational examination of consequences? And what is a fundamental precept but one that serves all generations? An enduring environmental ethic will aim to preserve not only the health and freedom of species, but access to the world in which the human spirit was born.”
Joann Brennan is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Colorado in Denver, who received her BFA and MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, MA. For the past fifteen years Joann’s photographic work has explored the complex relationship between wildlife and human concerns. In the spring of 2003 Brennan was named a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Before arriving in Denver Joann taught photography and digital imaging at The School of Art and Design/Alfred University in Alfred, NY, and Princeton University in NJ. She is an active member of the Society for Photographic Education, the co-founder of the studio art program Progetto Perugia in Italy, and served as curator for the Women’s Study Gallery at Princeton University. Her work has been exhibited at Southern Light Gallery at Amarillo College in TX, Robert C. May Gallery at the University of Kentucky, University of California Berkeley Extension Center, and Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Joann has lectured widely at venues including the State University of New Mexico, Colorado State University, and Ball State University. Her work is included in the collections of New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, Princeton University Art Museum, and the Danforth Museum of Art.