I really shouldn’t admit it, entomologist that I am, but I have a soft spot for plants. Actually, the soft spot is for plants growing in a natural setting. Many of my zoological colleagues do not share this view. A rather famous Illinois scientist, who shall remain nameless, has written: “Plants can be attractive when flowering and might cause me to pause for reflection, but they are not compelling enough to cause me much excitement . . . Plants hold diminished interest for me and become a backdrop for more active wildlife.” In perceiving nature, many are similarly constrained or biased. I call this the “charismatic megafauna syndrome.” For example, millions of people travel to Yellowstone each year, and few, if any, traffic pileups are caused by a lone glacier lily or a clump of Indian paintbrush on a mountain slope. Let one bison, elk, bighorn sheep, or even a lowly coyote walk within viewing range, though, and all traffic laws are suspended. The park roads soon resemble the Dan Ryan at 5 o’clock on a Friday when the Cubs, White Sox, and Bulls are playing and Soldier Field is hosting a Grateful Dead concert. Perhaps we in Illinois are similarly biased as we zoom by that tiny prairie remnant, laced with compass plants and coneflowers.
At perhaps the opposite pole, from Charles Darwin, a person we instinctively associate with animal evolution, comes this perception: “A traveler should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock, even in the wildest forms, may for a while afford a sublime spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with bright and varied colors and they become fantastic, clothe them with vegetation and they must form a decent, if not beautiful, picture.”
During the past million years or so, we humans have spent most of our existence struggling for survival against an often harsh, chaotic environment. In today’s world, we have diminished the wildness and achieved dominion over the landscape. Humans have changed the wilderness into a tamed, dressed-up, formal arrangement. Flowers are grown with mathematical precision, and trees and shrubs are manicured to stylistic simplicity. Even our animals sometimes reflect this tendency (the poodle comes to mind). As a photographer, I find myself craving wildness—looking for what James Gleick called “the essence of the earth’s beauty . . . the tangled filigrees of unbridled vegetation.”
A photographic vision of wild plants in a landscape may allow a person to develop a rapport with and empathy for that landscape. These feelings can be established natural area by natural area, plant by plant, stamen by stamen, until an otherwise extremely intimidating, complex expanse of wild landscape (should we be able to find one) can be grasped and appreciated. I find that photography is an extremely powerful instructional and motivational tool, and the way we use it to introduce individuals to the wildness of nature can have a lasting effect.
A final comment about photographing plants: Perceiving a natural landscape, any natural landscape, regardless of size, is equivalent to viewing history. Species indigenous to a given area, or natural habitats that exist in relatively pristine conditions, are windows to the past. Knowing that George Rogers Clark or Père Marquette would probably have gazed upon the same scene I am viewing now is a seminal experience, far better for me than any museum visit. One thing that we, as conservationists, must remember: As wild places diminish, each succeeding generation of children is farther removed from contact with the natural world. In such conditions, plants (and animals) that still exist in wild settings become not only windows to the past, but our keys to the future.
To summarize, there is no right or wrong way to perceive plants (a.k.a. nature). We interpret, select, and filter images through our experience, our emotional responses, and our prejudices and preferences. I sincerely hope that your perception of plants will be both fun and provocative and that you will perceive them not as “a backdrop for more active wildlife” as our earlier friend stated but as entities unto themselves.