Is There Any True Wilderness Left?

On one hand, there's no place on Earth human beings haven't made an impact. The burning fossil fuels has led to heavy metal contamination in fish, birds and other animals on entirely separate continents from the power plants. Climate change melts ice sheets around the world. A plastic cup used once ends up in a whale's stomach in the middle of the ocean, killing him. Sea salt harvested from an unpopulated coast contains microplastics.

On the other hand, there are maps and charts showing areas of the Earth with so few people that most of us would call them wilderness — and probably even suggest preserving them as such. But how to do that? E.O. Wilson suggested we set aside 50 percent of the planet for nature. The Wyss Campaign for Nature is using a billion dollars in seed money to begin protecting 30 percent of the planet. Meanwhile some reports say 96 percent of the mammals on Earth are humans and livestock — so every wild mammal you see is part of the mere 4 percent remaining.

Hunter River estuary, Kimberley, Australia. © Peter & Beverly Pickford, from Wild Land by Peter & Beverly Pickford.
Hunter River estuary, Kimberley, Australia. (Photo: © Peter & Beverly Pickford, from 'Wild Land' by Peter & Beverly Pickford.)

These are sobering statistics, but they aren't the whole picture, either. Enter Beverly and Peter Pickford, a couple with multiple decades of experience exploring and photographing the natural world. After extensively working in and documenting the African continent, in 2011 they embarked on "their most ambitious journey yet – they spent the next four years travelling to all seven continents, in search of the last wild land on earth."

That work resulted in their latest book, "Wild Land," the mission of which is an "unprecedented quest to document and preserve our planet’s last remaining wilderness." The large-format book includes over 200 images of wild places, including Alaska, Antarctica, Australia, Namibia, Tibet and the Arctic.

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Upon opening and reading through this book, I got a unique feeling of how it is to be both lonely and free, perhaps the way some of the animals pictured might feel. It also helped me understand — a little — what it's like to be away from human beings, in a world that people aren't really a part of, though they may affect it from afar. It's not a feeling I'm used to having, as much as I enjoy spending time in natural spaces. The book is taking me some time to get through, pausing on each page to take it in. It's truly a work of art, as well as a remarkable piece of conservation work — to show us what places are like so we can understand enough to protect them.

I wanted to know more, so I asked the Pickfords about their project.

MNN: You write in the introduction to your book that your friends didn't believe that there were still wild places left without humans in them. So, how did you decide what areas to shoot in? Were there other places you went to but that didn't make the final cut?

Peter and Beverly Pickford: Finding areas that would suit our project was one of the challenges of the "Wild Land" project. We chose, finally, to look at areas around the world where we found there were very few or no lights present at night. We then decided to select only one destination per continent so that "Wild Land" would then be a representation of wilderness around the world.

Yes, there was one area that did not make the cut once we went there to investigate, which was northwestern Europe. We opted instead to concentrate on the Svalbard Archipelago as the Europe section.

How did you define a 'wild place' in terms of this photography project?

Our definition of wild land, for the purpose of our book, was vast land in as pristine or as natural a state as possible. The emphasis was on vast: We wanted land that extended beyond national parks, beyond protectionist decrees, land that existed in its natural state on a scale to induce our humility and wonder. It was also part of the definition that wild land should not exclude humans, but that where humans were present should be in association with the land, not in domination of it.

You have already published many incredible photo books and shot photos around the world. Did you prepare differently for these shoots in any way?

Yes, we developed a very specific brief for the photography for "Wild Land" because we knew that we wanted to make a book that had a strong and recognizable central character. What we did was to stand back from our subject and place whatever it might be in a context within the landscape, so that the images developed both a sense of place and a sense of scale.

We then went further and worked with Edwin Veer in Amsterdam to create a style of photography for the book that harks back to yesteryear. It was a move away from the hyper-realism of modern digital photography, with its super-saturated color and excessive definition, which to our mind attempts to improve on a reality that is already perfect. The final images in the book were chosen because they do not shout for your attention, but rather encourage one to pause and offer the opportunity to have a conversation with the image.

Which of these locations was the hardest to edit down to the images shown? I would guess you had many more images of every place than you included, but was there one that was more difficult?

Perhaps, our most challenging edit was the Arctic. Not because we lacked in choice — we were overwhelmed with the volume of work we had — but because we really sought to give each chapter pace and variety, and in the Arctic the repetition of snow and ice made it difficult to find images that would create a strong and different impression as one turned the page.

How did you choose which pictures to include and which not to?

The initial selection process was very long-winded and required months of selection and culling, until we had reduced thousands of images down to just 100 for each chapter.

We then set out to evaluate those 100 images by three teams: Beverly and myself, our New Zealand originating publishers Blackwell and Ruth, and finally the Magic Group in Amsterdam, who were grading the photography for the book. Each of us selected our top 25 for the book.

Cameron Gibb, the book designer, had the final word of course, but most of those that received a unanimous vote got to be included, those that two out of three were next in line and so on. Only on one or two images did Beverly and I have to use a very persuasive argument for Cameron to change the design so they could be included.