Photojournalists Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele want to show a side of science that often goes overlooked. Based more on observation and than hard data-based research natural history is science so soft as to be considered art. The role of natural historians has long been to document the current state of life on our planet. And in the hopes of capturing the thoughts and impressions of leading experts on the subject the Natural History Network commissioned Drummond and Steele to help tell their story.
“I’m a photographer so I’m really not the best person to say what natural history is all about,” Drummond said in a phone conversation. “It’s something that has not stayed neatly in someone else’s box. That’s what makes it interesting. That’s probably why it has stayed resilient for so long.”
The Natural Histories Project is a series of black & white portraits shot by Drummond and Steele that illustrate audio recordings of the top minds in the discipline. With research derived from personal experience rather that experimentation natural history offers an intimate look into expressions of plants and animals as they interact with the world around us. And with the rise of social media and the ease of storytelling online natural historians believe that we are on the threshold of a scientific revolution.
“The line between scientist and citizen is going to start blurring,” said Josh Tewksbury a conservation biologist and co-founder of the Natural History Network. “What is an expert will be changing and you will no longer have to have a PhD to be an expert in your field, because the means of communication and identification are no longer ‘go to the white-bearded expert with a PhD.’ It’s ‘go to the social network where the answer is’.”
Natural history is in itself a form of storytelling, an opportunity to express to others what the world looks like and how we might relate to it. Beyond a dispassionate analysis that seeks to measure quantitatively the elemental features of the environment, natural history tries instead to express qualitatively what the world means.
“It might vary depending on the kind of question you’re asking, or even the kind of mood you’re in or place you’re in,” said Terry Wheeler director of the Lyman Entomological Museum at McGill University. “I think that’s always been an accepted way of viewing art, but not necessarily an accepted way of viewing science. Maybe it’s okay to not be able to define something as precisely as we sometimes want to.”
It’s in that loose definition of elements in the environment that helps us to assign value to those things that we love most about the natural world. Though we can easily put a price on the timber, minerals or oil to be extracted from a parcel of land, it’s more difficult to ascribe the worth of an endangered plant species, the beauty of a mountain stream or the unobstructed pathways of migratory animals. It’s through the observations of natural historians that can we be made to realize the true value of the environment and why we must protect it. ~ JEM