In my last post I introduced the idea of nature as “island”—the pieces we have left are small, isolated, and rare. For better and worse they’re precious objects that, even if isolation once kept them safe from our impacts, we now “control.” They’re fully within our physical grasp (i.e. their fates are in our hands), but our perceptual grasp as well. The former is dispiriting yet I find the latter empowering; together they make up my “protective impulse” driving the worldviews.
(There is a negative aspect to that perceptual control too, however. The feeling of being dwarfed by nature’s scale and mystery, of being overpowered by it rather than it by us, puts our humanity in perspective and is one of the reasons we “need” a nature that exists apart from us. That feeling has become very difficult to experience today. It doesn’t factor much into the worldviews (though you can find it in the great majority of nature-themed art), but I should make it clear I wouldn’t think twice about giving up that feeling of control for getting those endless tracts of nature back if we could.)
There are many kinds of islands, but for now I’m going to spend some time on oceanic islands and their ecological “sub-islands.” As I’ve mentioned, oceanic islands as a whole tend to be biologically unique given their historical isolation, but often their height also give them a surprising internal diversity of climates and ecosystems. Experiencing the diversity of a continent compressed into a few square miles might be the ultimate example of the empowering feeling I’ve been talking about.
I’ll start with the Canary Islands (named for dogs, not birds), where in 2014 I visited the islands of Tenerife, La Gomera and Lanzarote. Located off the southern coast of Morocco, they incorporate seven main islands and make up two provinces of Spain. They’re part of the ecoregion known as Macaronesia (“Islands of the Fortunate”), encompassing the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape Verde.
These four volcanic archipelagos share a number of biological characteristics that are unique to the region, most notably a form of temperate rainforest known as laurisilva because it’s dominated by species in the laurel family. This forest type was once widespread in the Mediterranean region but contracted to the Macaronesian islands during an earlier period of drying climate. Today it’s found in upland parts of the higher, wetter islands, in small pockets where agriculture hasn’t replaced it. Toward the southern part of the region, desert or semi-desert is more dominant. The Canaries, located at roughly the latitudinal midpoint of the ecoregion and with the greatest ranges in elevation, feature a mix of both in addition to alpine landscapes.
Tenerife is the largest and tallest of the Canary Islands, containing Spain’s highest peak and the world’s third-largest volcano—12000’ Volcan Teide. The island’s elevational range has also created the archipelago’s most diverse assemblage of ecosystems, including desert along the southern coast, laurisilva on the northern slopes of the volcano and of the northeastern peninsula, forests of Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis) on the volcano’s southern slopes and upper northern slopes, and alpine desert in the Caldera de las Cañadas at the top of the island. The native vegetation that remains is reasonably well-protected, but much if not most of it has already been lost to agriculture and coastal development, and the laurisilva in particular will be threatened by a newly warming and drying climate.
Reveal, completed this past spring, captures my experience of Tenerife’s diverse environments, with a focus on sightlines between the summit and lowlands. I was on the island for about a week with very changeable weather and the high elevations often hidden in clouds; this particular work depicts a “version” of the island when those sightlines were clear (hence the title), providing that world-shrinking experience that I find so moving. Given that the crater of Pico del Teide is relatively tiny—only about 300’ across—that experience included a sense that the entire mass of the island was being “gathered” up into that tiny point. (That feeling would’ve been much weaker had the peak been simply a summit without a crater. I think that’s because the shrinking sense is more empowering with clear evidence of volcanism—the landmass involved isn’t simply an entire island, but one created by forces that are powerful and dangerous rather than empowering. Until the next eruption at least, they feel “tamed.”)
The plan is to at some point create another work, maybe entitled Concealed, in which cloud cover instead masks these landscapes from one another. This was more often than not the case during my visit, and the resulting experience was empowering in a different way that I’ll get into after that work comes into being. Mostly likely that’ll be after I manage to make another trip to the islands to fill in some gaps with the photography, and to add another island or two….