The tour in Colby Art Museum this afternoon showed me how artists carried out the idea of origins in different disciplines and expressed them in the form of arts. I was particularly interested in Gary Green’s photograph Prairie Fire #2 near Liberal, Missouri. Recently in my ecological history class, we have been discussing the pre-agriculture societies and early environmental management actions by humans. Slash-and-burn was a widely influential agricultural method that contributed significantly to early ecological history, especially on the American continent. Whether or not the Native Americans intended to burn the forests and plains to manage the environment has long been a controversial question to many scientists and historians. On the one hand, evidence shows that Native Americans set up fires on a regular basis to control natural successions, communicate through signals, and surround and hunt the animals, etc. On the other hand, they were also criticized mainly for the long-lasting environmental degradations, especially after the idea of wilderness was introduced in the mid-20th century. Whether the slash-and-burn method of living had a positive or negative influence on nature remains a question, but the fire itself can lead all the way back to the beginning of humans’ intervention on the environment. This intervention, therefore, connects Gary Green’s photograph to the origins of humans’ awareness of the environment.
Meanwhile, the action of regular firing also brings a new origin to nature. My ecology class last year introduced us the idea of intermediate disturbance hypothesis. The theory hypothesized that local species diversity is maximized when ecological disturbance is neither too rare nor too frequent. With disturbance of high levels, all species are at risk of extinction because the ecosystem is too fragile to be stable. With too weak disturbance, the ecosystem will likely be dominated by particular species, and the biodiversity is inhibited. Therefore, the balance of nature is regulated by the regular and appropriate disturbances. Another ecological term that closely related to the fire is ‘succession.’ While the primary succession refers to the gradual growth of an ecosystem on a bare rock formation, the secondary succession refers to the development of an ecosystem based on a pre-existing soil after significant disturbance. In fact, fire is the most common disturbance type to trigger a secondary succession. Therefore, when humans apply fire to the plain or the forest, just as Gary Green showed in his photograph, they bring the succession stage of this ecosystem to a new origin and keep it balanced by regular disturbance.
Connecting my environmental studies perspective to the artworks shown in the art museum, I found the expression of these photographs extraordinarily powerful. Although the photo was printed on a small piece of paper, the gloomy colors and the scale of the plain make the audience feel like standing in the grass and being swallowed by the smoke. By connecting the ecology with art, I better sense the power of nature and thus gain new insights on the topic of origins.