Orange fish in the ocean - photo by Hiroko Yoshii - photo by Hiroko Yoshii

The Matter of Life and Death

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As a lifelong photographer and multi-disciplinary artist, I am repeatedly drawn to the harsh beauty of the elemental transformations that occur in our everyday lives. I have photographed birth, death, illness, changing skies, and most recently, the effects of drought on the landscapes and peoples of northeastern New Mexico.

I was fortunate to attend the Fires of Change workshop at the Grand Canyon in the fall of 2014. This event gave me the opportunity to focus on one of the most transformational elements in our lives and world — fire — and to learn about the management of forest fires from the experts.

Like many people who reside in the western United States, I have witnessed the increasing threat of forest fires. I have lived for weeks in the smoke of distant burns and wandered among their charred remains, but I never fully appreciated the necessity and life-giving potential of fire until I attended this workshop. I learned that life does not exist without fire. The landscape renews itself through fire when overcrowded with invasive species or from the abundance of good weather conditions. When the forest floor is thick with grasses and competing new growth of trees, fire comes in to clean it out giving the older trees the ability to thrive. Dead and down limbs are burned, keeping the forest healthy. In contrast, if an area has not received a fire entry in many years, the litter and waste build up and create high competition for water and very ripe conditions for fire. Fire is life-giving through its destruction, burning through the clutter making room and renewing life. It is the matter of life and death.

I found myself wanting to get up close and personal with this mysterious force we call fire. When I returned to the Grand Canyon as artist in residence (AiR) in February 2015, I met with Windy Bunn, the fire ecologist and one of the presenters at our workshop. I asked to see a prescribed burn in the area, and “Burn Boss” Josh Miller was happy to escort me to a small fire they were conducting in the Kaibab National Forest, where I photographed and filmed.

Upon returning home to northern New Mexico, I had the opportunity to capture another prescribed burn in Carson National Forest. Later I visited the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Taos, which was ravaged by a human-caused fire that I witnessed from afar in May of 1996. They kindly met with me, invited me to join their morning circle and let me wander about, filming the growth that has occurred since the fire.

In creating this work, I edited footage from all these places and decided to project a life-size video on the wall to enable viewers to experience it as close to the first-hand experience as possible. I chose not to include an explanation of what was happening, but rather to offer an experience with sounds of the forest and fire, accompanied by two powerful statements about fire and human nature. 

The eight-minute piece titled “the matter of life and death" speaks to the transformations the forests and land must go through in order to sustain our environment and ultimately our lives.


All images are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of Kathleen Brennan.

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