by Whitt Birnie
After a recent show of some of his work, a former university lecturer and life-long photographer responded in an interview with the following remarks:
Press: What do you mean by the title, “Climate Change: aren’t we cutting it close?”
WB: “Well, the phrase implies that we are approaching a limit or a time when important decisions must be made. In this case, it refers to the urgency of limiting unwanted changes to the world’s climate. With the Philippines’ storm and its disastrous consequences fresh in people’s minds, I first tried to picture what it must be like for people to see nature’s boundless fury, then, make an opinion on the important issue of climate change, and finally, to share the photographic work with the public at large.”
Q. Did you intend to frighten people with the pictures?
A. “No. These are not trick photographs or combinations of pictures meant to fool people. They come straight out of the box, a non-waterproof, everyday-type, typical, moderately priced digital camera. I picked a good vantage point and photographed the real world. The waves look menacing for several reasons. The sheer volume of water moving rapidly is enormous. The phase angle, or line of sight, is directly into the sun, making shadow and shade ominous. Stop-action freezes the image and can give a chill. I was cutting my images close.”
Q. How big were the waves?
A. “Very big. I didn’t bring a sextant to measure their heights, so I can’t give you a precise figure. The mountain ridge in the background intentionally gives the impression of great altitude. The high surf and heavy breakers were loud and big enough to frighten me into questioning my safety and wondering if the pictures were really worth it. The roar was deafening. There were no brave surfers for company. But I had several big advantages: one, I wasn’t responsible for anyone else, and two, no one could tell me what I could or couldn’t do. Freedom of choice amidst the wild elements, on the edge of paradise. Yes, in that sense, I was cutting it close…”
Q. Why did you include this shot?
A. “Today, most people live in cities or away from the coasts, so it’s difficult for them to imagine that these pictures are real. Many photos seen on the Internet are artfully manipulated for wow effect. I needed to include a valid reference point, a reality check. Here I included one wide-angle shot for perspective. The horizon is visible to the far right. Going left, what looks like small islands are, in fact, the tops of trees out on the outer edges of the neighboring island, Moorea, about 25 km. or 15 miles, away. From there, behind breaking swell, the slope of the old volcano, now lush in luxuriant vegetation, rises gradually into the clouds. The foreground is a stark view of a long, barren fringing coral reef, strong in its resistance to the high seas, but fragile and sensitive to man-made pollution and human generated climate change.”
Q. Why didn’t you sink?
A. “I didn’t sink because I was cautious, but I did come close to falling in. Seriously though, and importantly, from my early youth I’d developed a great affinity for the sea, and a deep respect. I treated her like a beautiful woman who’d gained my admiration. But loving my life as well, I wasn’t foolish enough to throw it down the drain. I suppose the greater powers and the sea itself forgave my folly and spared my life. But to be more worldly, the coral reefs found throughout the tropics are strong, while at the same time fragile structures living in harmony with the sea. Much like the rainforests which produce water and oxygen, the coral reefs protect islands from erosion by the sea, and produce the environment for fish to nourish populations. It’s part of the precious balance of nature, permitting all of us to survive.”
Q. Why did you include a man-made sailboat into what would be a dramatic nature series?
A. “Actually, I wanted to say something with pictures alone, but then realized that people might miss the point. What is the use of pretty pictures without a pitch? A reference point is needed to anchor the story. In fact, no boat is visible in the pictures, just a hint, and an idea. The sail is enough, because it is an old-time, traditional means of moving vessels, goods and people around the world. Besides clean locomotion, sail doesn’t pollute or influence climate change. Rain is often caught aboard small craft for drinking, sunshine provides warmth, and solar panels nowadays generate enough electricity to run lights, instruments, charge batteries for cameras etc. and additionally, power connections for an Internet to bring you this report. I try to live responsibly. ”
Q. Why didn’t the cameras get wet?
A. “The cameras stayed dry because of the second element in the photos, wind. A strong breeze, a force five, was behind my back and blowing out to sea. This made for the brilliant white spume, which streams off the tops of wave crests. The wind also drove the breaking water even more vertical, higher and higher, as the air and water stood battle over strength. Gravity always wins, but the spume is terrific. If the wind had come from any other direction, the pictures would be less dramatic and the salt water would have ruined the delicate optics”
A. “The boobies? They are affectionately named ‘blue-footed boobies’. The origin of the name escapes me. They are riding the updrafts from waves below. Like gliders and surfers, they take advantage of what nature so generously offers. We need to apply our mental assets and creative resources to utilize the renewable energy sources nature always provides. We need to raise our level of consciousness and develop personal responsibility. Otherwise, we are boobies too.”
Q. Okay, what are the white lines in the waves?
A. “Light streaming through water. As the waves become vertical, they thin, and because they are backlit, sunlight streams through. Perhaps they are windows to another world, sort of like the ‘Stargate’ portals.”
Q. How do you see the future?
A. “Try to lead a life commensurate with sustainable human existence. And legislate. Remember refrigerators with CFC’s burning huge holes in our atmosphere. Banned. Remember Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring.” DDT banned. Remember whale populations close to extinction. CITES brought revival. Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve already produced a more dangerous world than what we inherited. We do have the capacity to push ourselves to extinction. We almost did it with atomic weapons. Remember Nevil Shute’s, “On the Beach.” And MAD, mutually assured destruction. We could easily do it by ignoring climate change.”
Q. What’s next?
A. “Look, we all die one day anyway, so perhaps all this is hot air, ‘of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Then again, we can plead common sense to our legislators, our leaders, and our friends. Every step, every voice matters. Everyone, except those with vested interests, agrees, time is running out, we’re cutting corners. We’re favoring short-term comforts instead of facing hard decisions. We are cutting it close. Will it be a bright future, or gloom and doom; it’s a close call.”
Q. “Can I just watch the movie?”
It’s a close call.
by Whitt Birnie
‘At sea for forty days and nights. Alone.’
Tell that to someone today and a puzzled expression will surely cross their brow. “Did you have a breakdown, get dismasted, fall overboard? What in heaven’s name happened?” they’ll likely ask, their curiosity piqued.
Well, time marched forward more slowly back then. The rush to arrive at a destination, to achieve a goal, to finish a project was less pressing then, during our previous century. People took more time to savor their journey through life, making free-time a priority above making more money. And therein hangs a tale.
In my youth, I’d fallen headlong for the benefits of exploring the open sea as a vocation. Once, fast asleep on deck, the equatorial night sky a canopy of brilliant tiny points of light overhead, my dreaming far from worldly, I was oblivious to the vessel and it’s progression through the dark void. Out of the depths of this unconsciousness, I was suddenly jerked awake by a loud roar, followed almost instantly by a strange thin mist falling across my exposed face. In the fractions of seconds which followed, I was lost in the unknown, only vaguely aware of my surroundings. Yet, instinct had taught me to cautiously pause and count to three when waking up at sea; any sudden reaction would be dangerous. My brain needed several seconds to reset, reload, to build back the what, where and when, to coordinate.
I wasn’t experienced enough yet to know what was happening. Looking to windward, the sea looked dark, the occasional breaking crest light and audible but not threatening. The night air smelled like low tide and the moisture tasted salty, like saliva. A ready explanation escaped me. Glancing first at the compass, then the sails and finally the lashings on the tiller, I could find no fault, no evidence, no one. I even began to wonder if all this was just a dream, of mermaids, something that happens to sailors far from shore, cut off from the habitual sensations of everyday existence.
In the dark of the moonless night, no lights aboard, with only the stars for illumination, my attention was drawn overboard into a blurry glow deep beneath the surface of the ocean. Tracking below and alongside the vessel, a white glittering form grew brighter and bigger until it stretched the full length of the vessel, just out of reach. Eerie. I was so struck by the novelty of the experience that I momentarily stopped searching for an obvious explanation, devoting all my wits to observation, transfixed.
Then, a flash of recognition arrived. There, gliding just beneath the surface, I finally saw the form of an enormous whale, clothed in glittering phosphorescence, swimming alongside below the waves. ‘The White Whale?’ I shuddered. This is no fiction. Quickly sifting through whatever else might possibly explain this midnight apparition, I shook again as the truth struck home. The sea appeared brighter than all the stars overhead as this enormous creature, a leviathan from the depths, churning the sea’s phosphorescence into brilliance, kept company with the vessel as we drove forward together into the night. Had he come looking for companionship, tempted in close by the silence of the gently sailing vessel with no engine noise? Was he attracted to the rounded form of the sleek hull, illuminated for him by that same ocean phosphorescence, drawn in by the light of the moving orb, fascinated with a sparkling trail astern, glowing like a distant comet’s tail?
It was one of those strikingly brief moments which seemed to last an eternity. Curiosity had replaced any notion of fear. Observation of the phenomena was paramount. The rest of the world disappeared as I fell into a vortex with the white whale, that ‘Moby Dick’. No one had prepared me for such drama at sea, where spectacular events might occur, even in the pitch of night.
The whale headed off silently underwater, beyond the bowsprit and the foresail, swimming under the cover of dark, a mystery, a ‘Secret Sharer,’ to join the unknown. He showed no running lights other than the eerie glow of natural ocean illumination. He must have sounded, but I heard him no more, his presence now just a luminous memory.
From then on, I refused to hurry to get to destinations. It is always life’s voyage which matters most. I took time to slow down, to live at a slower pace, to expose myself to the marvels of nature. Long sea voyages of forty days had every reason to be. The modern world might say I was shirking responsibilities, that I must always press on, become more rapid, more competitive and efficient, to hurry back and forth in life, that I should pour on more coal and set more sail, to avoid their worst imaginable insult, that I’d become a slacker. Forty days? Why did it take so long? What happened?
The long-term result was a search for a more spectacular life afloat than I could find ashore, one filled with the pure and exhilarating thrill of fresh discovery.
by Whitt Birnie
One of life’s greatest pleasures is letting yourself get hypnotized. Adults do it all the time when they lose themselves in lovemaking, or experience a related feeling while sunbathing late in the afternoon on a quiet secluded beach, the warmth and rhythm of gentle waves lapping on the shore casting a spell. It happened for me again just the other evening while concentrating on the cascading undulations of light grass skirts and long dark hair while islanders performed an ancient ritual dance surely invented to hypnotize.
The small town of Papeete is more than a traditional tourist setting. Gathered outdoors under a starry sky, a warm breeze stirring the palms, the barefooted dance groups were entertaining their families, friends and a few curiously idle outsiders in the annual July fête, Tiurai, now called Heiva. Easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm for the refined ‘noble savage,’ very alive in the Fenua, their own natural habitat. Months of effort go into the festival preparations: handmade skirts with decorative headdress, scented leis and flowered tiaras, original choreography of traditional legends, new songs and old chants, all are set and recreated for just this occasion.
Whites of darting eyes gleaming, smiling faces with pearly teeth, slender scantily clad bodies decorated in vivid natural colours, raised arms and the universal hand gestures of primitive storytelling, it’s more than a healthy dose of exotic enchantment. I sensed my mind slipping away as I lost control to an overwhelming power in the native dance. The deep percussion of wooden instruments, blocks and drums, transmitted synchronized sounds at the deepest end of the audible range, the vibrating syncopated rhythms pleasingly loud, entering the body more through the skin than the ears. Only half aware of the others around me, out of the corner of my eye I could see that they were goners too.
And then, all of a sudden, a gentle sprinkling of rain began to fall. No one in the audience moved; we were all under a spell. The dancing female and male bodies, already wet and glistening from exertion, took on a slippery sheen as the cool refreshing droplets encouraged them to redouble their efforts. The dance floor became a shimmering mirror. We were all vibrating with the drumbeats, captivated, the dancers undulating their bodies, throwing wave after wave into their shining grass skirts. Wet, somewhere between warm and streaming, we passed over a bright line into a timeless oblivion. It passed through my mind that I might already be waiting at the pearly gates, these young adult dancers being just the angels I one day hope to see.
There seemed to be a long moment of silence at the end. I felt like Rip Van Winkle waking up after 250 years, thinking, is this what James Cook and his crew were talking about? Is this why the missionaries were so anxious to intervene? Isn’t this part of the Enlightenment’s idea of the ‘noble savage?’ The silence gave way to bedlam. People started stomping their feet on the bleachers, hollering for more, encore et encore. The dance troupe wore a single smiling and pleasurable expression of utter exhaustion; no one had the energy to move, let alone wiggle their hips.
So there, that’s what the Tahitians do for fun: they write their own songs, then make costumes and musical instruments from what nature grows and gives them. They are unique. They create dances from their Polynesian legends. The world beyond their shores is ignored. They spend months of evenings learning and practicing their art, socializing face to face, getting lots of exercise in all the right places, playfully joking and flirting while acting and dancing with their many close friends, happily laughing and singing and having the time of their lives.
That’s the truth, the whole truth, I tell you no lie. It was a brief glimpse of paradise; I saw angels, I felt an afterglow, I’d witnessed some of heaven’s chosen creatures dance.