Bil Zelman: And Here We Are

Stories from the sixth extinction

Published on 12/27/ 2019

Everglades, South FL

And Here We Are- Stories From the Sixth Extinction examines the current condition of our rapidly changing landscape, the punishing impact of invasive species, the incredible rate of extinctions and the fragile places where man and nature collide. Zelman travelled over 60,000 miles with huge power-packs and generators, was stung by 45 bees, and interviewed dozens of wild-lands directors to create this research based photographic record of the story of how North America got to the tattered state that it is in today.
The 54 stories in And Here We Are bring to light environmental issues that are being dramatically altered in front of our very eyes.
The Everglades in South Florida is North America’s battlefront against invasive species and myriad anthropogenic (human-caused problems) issues. Because of its unique, sensitive environmental features, the Everglades is often cited as the bellwether of how the massive transformations to our natural world will play out. It's fight against sea level rise will be watched by all. <

Often called the “River of Grass,” the Everglades is essentially a slow-moving, fifty-mile-wide river flowing south, which keeps the saltwater of the ocean out by the pressure of freshwater moving in. Its such an incredibly diverse and precisely balanced ecosystem that Zelman found himself making three trips to document it.

The low-lying peninsula of Florida has been oscillating above and below sea level for 180 million years, when it fractured off from what is now Africa. In its time under the ocean, a low-lying marine environment deposited the porous rock we can now stand on, and its the unique composition of this rock that keeps the hydrology in check.

Although mostly comprised of the sawgrass marshes we are all familiar with, the Everglades include many interdependent ecosystems, from tropical hardwoods like mahogany to open savannah, mangrove forests, and even pine rock-land. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in North America, and a rare ecological community where temperate animals such as white-tailed deer and black bears live alongside tropical species such as alligators and what remain of the American flamingo. In this century all of it may soon be nothing more than open ocean due to saltwater intrusion and rising sea levels.

The Everglades have been absolutely ravaged by human-introduced species, and what we can now experience and observe hardly resembles what once was there. Entire ecosystems that formed over tens of millions of years are now confronted with a potpourri of alien species from around the world. The invasive creatures and plants often extract much from the ecology yet give little back. They provide scant food value, meager habitat value, and unbalanced predator-prey relationships. Additionally, invasive species often out-compete native species for resources, inhibit reproduction, and sometimes completely alter biodiversity.

Rightfully, due to its twenty-foot size and voracious appetite, the poster child for all of this mayhem is the Burmese python. Originally from Southeast Asia and having been introduced through the pet trade, it has established a strong breeding population in the sawgrass marshes and has devastated mammal and bird populations.

Believed to be at least 760,000 years old, Mono Lake in California is one of the oldest and most unique freshwater ecosystems in North America. This desert lake is fishless but provided brine shrimp critical for feeding millions of migratory birds each year when their instincts steered the flocks to it mid journey.
In 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power extended its aqueduct system 345 miles northward into the Mono Basin, draining its tributaries, cutting its volume by half and dropping its surface 46 vertical feet (so far).

In 1948 nearly a million migrating ducks shared Mono Lake's surface while a census in the mid 1980s counted a stopover of only 14,000. These numbers say nothing of declines of more than three hundred other bird species that seek refuge there.

The rare and extraordinary tufa towers you see here were created over thousands of years as calcium-rich water flowed up through springs creating these immense, hollow limestone formations. Formations that should be forty feet below water.

In the hot and arid year of 1910, the Great Fire burned over three million acres in the West (the fire was started by embers from coal-burning locomotives) and its losses were the catalyst for the current Forestry Service’s policy of extinguishing every wildfire. This unnatural fire suppression has altered the landscape as much as clearing and cutting and directly produced the overly crowded and highly stressed forests we see across North America today.

Bil Zelman

Bil Zelman is a photographer and filmmaker based outside of Los Angeles, CA.
Historically, relatively cool-burning fires crept along the understory and stayed out of the canopies, leaving the mature trees unharmed. But now, immeasurable amounts of uncleared deadfall and trees of all ages and heights act as ladder fuels that lift flames into the canopies where they don’t belong. Fires, which were once essential, have now become enormous and lethal to the trees that formerly relied on them.