Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Frans Lanting's lyrical nature photos

By Luke D.

Frans Lanting is extremely talented. Not only is his photography incredible in quality and artistic vision, but his writing and oral communication creates a very engaging atmosphere. His commentary in his “Ted Talk” is both scientifically informative and artistically romantic. He also displays incredible talent in sharing his vision with the world, using whatever resources he has. How? Set to a beautiful new-age soundtrack by Philip Glass, Lanting shows us the history of life on our planet by using only photographs taken within the last century. Time travel may not be possible physically, but trust me, when you see Lanting’s slideshow, a part of you will be there. It goes a little something like this…

Some of the first pictures shown in Frans Lantings slide show don’t look like they are of Earth. Any volcanic planet from Star Wars maybe, but not Earth. It was a simpler time. It was a hotter time. Until the heat from within resulted in the eruption of geysers, leading to the birth of the oceans. And then, as Lanting explains to us in his narration, something emerges from all of this. Like lighting in a clear sky, life appears. At first, the most simplistic of bacteria and stromatolites, living, breathing structures created by the coming together of microorganisms. Then, Lanting suggests that meteors crashed into our planet, delivering the chemistry needed for life to create membranes. Life needs a membrane to contain itself in order to replicate itself and mutate. This led to the origins of plankton.

In the shallow seas of the days that followed, life advanced. Defensive and armored coral evolved. Jellyfish and sea cucumbers learned how to move by themselves. And with the first predators, the trilobites, came the first eyes. Life could now see the world that it had been living in, blindly, for millions of years. Horseshoe crabs improvised upon this vision (no pun intended) when they crawled upon land to lay their eggs, as they still do today, in an age where they don’t have to worry about massive sea scorpions following them.

Plants such as lichen and moss took the leap from water to land, transforming the barren, life-less landscape into a green wonderland. Eventually true land plants emerged from this garden, in the form of primitive ferns and foliage.

The trend of leaving the water caught on. Predators followed curious prey. Prey left behind aquatic predators. This is the time when the iconic image of the fish leaving behind the water came about. Some fish eventually abandoned the sea and evolved into amphibians. Amphibians became just as at home in swamps and floodplains as they were in the ocean. Photos of frogs almost completely submerged in mud and water illustrate this time period for us.

Then came a leathery skinned class of animals called the reptiles. With them, life had turned tough, with shells, spikes and scales so it could venture farther inland. As Lanting tells us with his photos, today’s leatherback turtles and lizard-like tuataras are echoes from the era of reptile dominance. He also illustrates to us that land-bound life still sometimes wants to go back to the ocean with a photo of massive tortoises wading around in a pond. Several awe-inspiring pictures of lizards such as Galapagos iguanas, chameleons, and thorny devils are presented to show just how diverse life was getting.

It didn’t take long for reptiles to become kings of the Earth. When the dinosaurs finally evolved, the Earths landscapes had become a breathtaking sight. Lanting shows us pictures of modern day Madagascar and Brazil. The landscapes that we are shown here are breathtaking and evoke thoughts of a lost world. And to think, they were taken in this century. The picture shown of a plain in Madagascar looks as if a herd of sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) could be grazing in it. One of a sunset in Brazil would not look strange with a pterosaur in the sky. As Lanting says, “Jurassic park still shimmers.”

As any natural history buff will tell you, birds evolved from dinosaurs. The missing link between the two was a creature called Archaeopteryx that looked like a small, meat-eating dinosaur but with the wings and tail of a bird. In the introduction to birds, Lanting shows us the iconic fossil of the Archaeopteryx and then beautiful images of birds on wing. Sea birds, flamingos, and water fowl are shown soaring and migrating across a sky that very well could have belonged to the late Cretaceous period. He also shows us flightless birds such as the kiwis of New Zealand and a flightless species of hawk from islands close to Antarctica.

Birds were followed shortly after by flowering plants. These began as water lilies but later evolved into thousands of different species. Some even became trees like the silver sword plant in Hawaii and a grass tree of Australia. Frans moves on to the breaking up of Gondwana, a super continent that had contained Antarctica, South America, Australia, Africa, Madagascar, India and New Zealand. With this continental shift, a new diversity of plants and fungi emerged. Amazing flowers had begun to grow and develop genitalia for luring insects. We are shown the largest one on earth, the Rafflesia. Lanting also tells us of the interdependence between birds and insects to flowers and pollination with some awesome shots of hummingbirds.

Then from this Eden comes an apocalypse. Something, an asteroid perhaps, has caused the planet to go up in flames. We see amazing pictures of a volcanic lava field and forest fires to see how devastated the world was during this time. But, even with the world on fire, there were survivors. Crocodiles are captured, huddled together in the dark, waiting for the storm to end.

When the dust and ashes cleared, it was a different world. The mighty saurian dynasty had all but been erased save for the birds and crocodiles. There was more room now. But for what? The answer lay hidden in burrows, underneath bushes and in the branches of the recovering trees…mammals. At first in tiny forms like shrews and tenrecs. But it wasn’t too long before mammals became the new rulers of the world in as many shapes and sizes as one could imagine. Bats began to fly in the sky. Small creatures like civets developed in forests. Predators like the ones we know today began to develop. Images of hyenas and cheetahs illustrate what life was producing at this time.

Grasslands appeared all over the world and created new ways of life for mammals. Living in herds was a good way to develop sharpened senses. In the cases of giraffes and elephants, growing big was the answer. Some mammals, the most advanced form of life, went back to water. Hippos, walruses, seals and cetaceans all have returned to the cradle of life in some way or another. We’re shown how diverse mammals have become today with a series of pictures consisting of a kangaroo in Australia, a horse of Asia and an anteater of South America. To think, it all started with just one self-replicating cell in primeval mud. And here is life now.

Lanting saves the evolution of the strangest animal for last. At first it’s a photo of a very cuddly looking primate called a tarsier (the being looks like a cross between a kitten, a monkey and Dobby the house-elf), clinging to a tree. This is followed by pictures of lemurs, the tarsier’s decedents, exploring the world around them. Lanting tells of how, a million years later, the forests began to dry out, forcing advanced primates out into the open plain. It was there that the next landmark of life’s journey would take place. The ability to walk upright. The rest is the celebrated evolution of mankind.

Only one other time in my life have I seen such a brilliant, moving and captivating account of the history of life on our planet. This would be Disney's Rite of Spring from 1940's Fantasia. That magnificent piece of art, like Frans Lanting's slide show shows the origins and chronology of diversity of life on our planet. What sets the two apart is that Disney's work, being animated, was able to show the viewer many majestic and fascinating animals that no longer exist on our planet.

However, I don't think this makes Lanting's pale in comparison. If anything, it makes his presentation look even more amazing. The man is able to tell us the story of life on earth, right from its humble beginnings to what it is now, with just photos from our own time. It’s amazing. The photos may not actually have shown me dinosaurs or mankind’s ancestors but I still saw them very clearly in my imagination as I watched this amazing video. Only by looking at nature today and applying our human imagination to what it shows us, can we truly envision and appreciate lost species that we never saw. Lanting succeeds in giving us inspirational photos to spark the imagination.

Lanting closes with a very inspirational passage about humans, our planet and the force of life itself.

So who are we? Brothers of masculine chimps. Sisters of feminine bonobos. We are all of them, and more. We're molded by the same life force. The blood veins in our hands echoed a course of water traces on the Earth. And our brains -- our celebrated brains -- reflect drainage of a tidal marsh. Life is a force in its own right. It is a new element. And it has altered the Earth. It covers Earth like a skin. And where it doesn't, as in Greenland in winter, Mars is still not very far. But that likelihood fades as long as ice melts again. And where water is liquid, it becomes a womb. For cells green with chlorophyll -- and that molecular marvel is what's made a difference -- it powers everything. The whole animal world today lives on a stockpile of bacterial oxygen that is cycled constantly through plants and algae, and their waste is our breath, and vice versa. This Earth is alive, and it's made its own membrane. We call it atmosphere. This is the icon of our journey. And you all here today can imagine and will shape where we go next.

These words are very beautiful and inspirational. It’s a subtle but very powerful reminder that the planet gave birth to us, and we’re part of it. There is a force from within the Earth keeping everything we know going. This force, and what Lanting’s “Ted Talk” so wonderfully celebrates, is called “Life”.

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