Life at its most beautiful
A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70
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SCM: And yet somehow, truth and beauty become wound up in the whole big picture. As much as you isolate the creatures and plants you photograph, they don't become removed from the greater sense of creation.
Middleton: They are the exemplars of creation, to me.
I love reading a well-written book, but I'm very visual. And our culture is so visual; we've been trained to be visual. That also presents a challenge, because we're inundated with images continuously. That's not lost on why I work the way I do. I want images that are graphically strong. I want images that have a variety of feelings.
SCM: You mentioned that you grew up in the Northwest.
Middleton: In Seattle. My dad loved to fish, so we were oftentimes out on the Olympic Peninsula, salmon fishing. He had an incredible garden, and we had a creek in the back yard with a salmon run. That's why it's nice, now, to go up to Friday Harbor: I get out of the car, and I breathe in, and it's like a second childhood. Some of the marine creatures, like the jellyfish, I remember seeing when I was a kid. Most of these that I'm photographing now are all new to me. I'm learning that you couldn't see them.
We need to see some of what's out there, better understand our oceans. For example, working in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, I learned about marine debris firsthand; it's not neatly cleaned up and put out of sight. It's there—on every single one of those atolls, there's tons of junk on the beach: plastic, TV sets, big pieces of plastic cushiony stuff from producing flip-flops. When they cut the foot form out, there are big pieces of plastic with all these foot forms cut out. You see those on the beach.
You see the junk coming from the floating gyres. The lesson there for me was, first: Nowhere in the world is remote anymore. The Hawaiian Archipelago is, geographically, the most remote archipelago on the planet; there are no continents anywhere nearby. One would think that it would be more pristine. You go out to the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which is an amazing sanctuary for wildlife, yet there's so much debris out there, and it's human debris. Way out there, and nobody even lives out there.
Sometimes I'll show pictures of the beaches strewn with all this junk, and people say, “Wow, how many people live out there?” Nobody. It's all coming from the oceans.
The oceans are so key to our own survival. For a long time, we thought they were places where we could just dump stuff and that they were inexhaustible: Out of sight, out of mind. That's not the case.
On some of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessels that I've been on, there have been scientists who are studying ocean acidification and taking water samples up and down the water column. They're terrified because of how acidified the oceans already are. Acidic water melts anything that's calcium-based—a hermit crab's house, another invertebrate's shell.
Most invertebrates depend on calcium for their exoskeleton, or even for their skeleton inside, in the case of cuttlefish. All the urchins. That's what I say in the hermit crab film I produced. I don't like the idea of a world without hermit crabs. What a great, resilient adaptation they exhibit, and how beautiful they are, and how diverse. Everybody's kind of intrigued with hermit crabs. But they're threatened by ocean acidification.
Part of my hope is that revealing some of the inhabitants of the world under the waves will help people understand that there's a lot of life there—and we're really connected to it. We're part of this. We're connected to these creatures. I think of them as next of kin. We don't have to just think of ourselves as the evil, bad, nasty demons. We're the protectors, too, and we're the appreciators. We're the only ones who can actually turn this around.
But it's hard. People need to feel inspired. And the way to feel inspired is to feel connected to life itself. Life is what's inspiring, and life is inherently divine. There's so many forms of life, and so many ways that it reveals itself. And they're all like God-given manifestations, exemplars: life at its most beautiful.
And fun. Some of them are kind of amusing.
We're all in this together, on the planet. If they go, it's not going to be a very happy situation for us. But if we don't know about them, then we end up being impoverished. Because they bring a great deal of delight.