A Series by New Scientists
A richer, more comprehensive story is revealed only when you dig below the surface; when your ability to see place involves more than just looking.
When I step out of the truck, the first thing I notice are the cicadas. I don’t see them, but their high-frequency buzz hits me like a sudden breeze. Eventually the roar dulls as my ears acclimate and push it to the background, where it blends with the rustling of grass and the crunch of gravel underfoot. Then the heat, or rather the sun. In the Sonoran Desert, the sun attacks exposed skin. Unlike a humid climate, however, heat will not follow you in this mountainous terrain. If you are lucky enough to find shade, you will find cool relief.
My hiking partner and I have driven to a wash about a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border in the Patagonia Mountains of Southern Arizona, and luck has it that this one contains several groves of stately cottonwoods. As we work our way down the wash, we stop several times under their canopies to escape the sun and check our GPS coordinates. Heavy camera gear slows our pace, and I remove my backpack frequently to air out my sweat-soaked shirt. We reach our intended destination and look for a tree trunk prominent enough to support a metal box but discreet enough to blend into the surroundings. We identify our tree and I begin to unload my equipment.
We feel like the last two people on Earth, scrambling through rugged terrain stretching past the horizon, void of any living creature. But we know we’re not alone, and soon enough my motion-sensor camera will reveal just how active this landscape is.
The desert terrain forces wildlife to follow predictable patterns, and those patterns revolve around access to water. On the surface, water here appears to be transient. For several hours after a rainstorm, torrents of water will tear through these washes and rush out of sight, leaving behind small pools and muddy pockets that quickly dry out when the sun returns. Wildlife know these torrents and pools well and make good use of them.
I strap my camera to the tree and aim it at one such pool, and we begin to make our way back to the truck. Along the way, we notice coyote tracks in the hardened mud and stop to inspect. My hiking partner, accustomed to this landscape, studies the wash for several minutes and says, “I think we’re in a blind creek.” Unfamiliar with the term, I ask for an explanation and he recalls a definition by Barry Lopez in the book Home Ground:
To most eyes a dry creek is a place where a creek once ﬂowed and after a rain will likely ﬂow again. Such a waterway is an ephemeral creek, technically. But by another way of seeing, some such creeks never entirely disappear. A ghost, if you will, holds the creek’s place, moving slowly in darkness below the dry, sun-baked surface. In the mind of a local resident ﬁnely attuned to such things, you’ve come upon the invisible but real when you stand above a blind creek. Dig, and the water will come to light, like the blind ﬂoor revealed when the carpenter’s ﬂoor is taken up.
In a dry section of the wash near the tracks, we begin to dig and quickly discover damp sand just a few inches below. Further down, our hole fills with water as we continue scraping. Here in this remote landscape, the naked eye uncovers only half-truths. A richer, more comprehensive story is revealed only when you dig below the surface; when your ability to see a place involves more than just looking.
Conservation biologists and geneticists at the University of Arizona have been trying to unearth one such story through nearly two decades of research. With hundreds of motion-sensor cameras placed in nearly a dozen mountain ranges, they have been accumulating vast amounts of data in an attempt to understand wildlife activity and trends over time throughout the Sonoran Desert.
As a member of the team, I have been tasked with installing and monitoring several cameras of my own. But I am not a biologist, nor do I claim expertise in any environmental field. As a graduate student pursuing a fine arts degree in photography, my work explores our ever-complicated relationship to the environment. Perhaps it’s my attraction to complicated topics, or my love of the natural world. Or perhaps it’s my fascination with deep mysteries and our quest to solve them. Whatever my drive is for doing this work, I know I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
For the biology team, the quest to solve these mysteries means seeing more, and part of seeing this landscape involves utilizing technology that pushes beyond what our human eyes can observe. After my friend and I made our way out of the wash and drove off, after the scorching sun set and the bleached golds and silvers of the cottonwoods and grasses gave way to darkness, my camera was there to record anything that passed through the frame. In this part of the Patagonia Mountains, where several biomes converge to provide some of the highest biodiversity on the planet, that “anything” could be a lot of things. In darkness and silence, everything from northern jaguars to black bears to striped skunks move through an intricate web of corridors in search of water and food. Several bobcats, I discover on a return trip, have taken a liking to the pool in front of my camera. I know this because the camera’s infrared sensor has been discreetly recording their moves in total darkness for weeks.
But logging these pool visits in only part of the story. Just as importantly, the element of time is essential to understanding what is happening in this part of the world. Increased development, resource extraction, international border activity and climate change are all disrupting wildlife migration patterns and populations throughout the Sonoran Desert. With years of data from each of their camera sites, the biology team has been able to monitor these changes.
How to tell this story? One way is with reports and spreadsheets, detailing camera sites and wildlife counts. This is certainly the most comprehensive and accurate way to relay data, but there is little visual impact.
As a photographer, I’m keenly interested in finding ways to depict this research photographically. With hundreds of thousands of motion sensor images to mine, I began to compile my own “reports” by layering photographs on top of each other. By selecting photos from specific timeframes, I can depict fluctuations in activity over months or even years. I can show you how a mountain ridge, once teeming with bears and mountain lions, is now virtually empty. I can show you how deer, once only a small fraction of the animal count, are now the dominant species, replacing predators. I can show you how forest flora, once abundant, is now declining due to increased deer grazing. When you look close enough, a complex network of interspecies relationships begins to emerge. But as with any diverse and fragile ecosystem, pulling at one thread begins to unravel the entire fabric.
The final pictures can be compelling, but the process of creating them is an exercise in tedium. Hours pass as I cut illuminated animals from their murky black surroundings in Photoshop. Still, pasting and layering the figures into detailed landscape photographs taken from the same angle as the infrared cameras, I’m able to create a much more immersive and intimate depiction of these places. Editing on my laptop in my apartment, I’m far removed from the nocturnal desert landscapes I photographed. Yet I feel instantly transported: every detail is now visible, as if the pixelated and fuzzy infrared footage is suddenly rendered in high definition. As if I had hiked there in the middle of the night and let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
As the work comes together, I notice something intriguing in the almost luminescent, ghostlike infrared compositions: these wildlife corridors appear to have a visual current to them. But much like the blind creek we uncovered that hot summer day, some currents take considerable effort to find.
It can be challenging to understand our impact on the environment, since so much of the natural world operates out of sight from the casual observer. But that should not deter us from trying. Dig, and the current will reveal itself.
Header image—8 Captures of 2 Coyotes, Abandoned Endless Chain Mine, Patagonia Mountains, AZ—by Alex Turner, 2019.