A Story to Tell

“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.” Joseph Campbell

Ever since I was a young boy, I found my inspiration and comfort in nature. It thought me about life, and death, about change and evolution, about challenges and perseverance. It thought me about perspective and balance.  Most importantly, it thought me about being humble and spiritual.

I started the Wild Image Project so that I could tell a story. A story about our relationship with nature, about our journey in this universe, a story about being human. Humans love to see the world within a limited frame, within a world that they can explain, control and manipulate. We forget that who we are today is the result of a process that has lasted several millions of years. We are also, just a chapter in the story of evolution. It is fair to say that if we had the ability to look into the future, most likely, we would discover that our appearance has evolved, changed, just like we have changed physically and mentally since the time we came down from the trees.

As our world is changing, so are we. Change is always hard. Change is by nature an unwelcome force. But change is the reason why we know so much and why we are so good at surviving – it forces us to adapt and thrive. Our unsustainable lifestyle has led us to re-question our values, the way we consume and the way we live. It is not just the last 50 years that have been damaging our planet, but the last 3,000, ever since we started to put Man as the perfect creation and saw nature as an imperfect reality: cruel, inhuman, obsolete…Since then, we have consumed our planet earth and manipulated her with no respect, believing that this land was only for our benefit. Just like a teen, who decides to egotistically deny his heritage and sees himself as the source of truth, we have strayed away from our roots bragging about our superiority.

In this period of change, it is important to remember that as we consume and destroy our planet, the people we hurt the most are ourselves. The planet will take a couple of thousands of years to recuperate, but we won’t. In fact, it has been proven, that the moment Man disappears, nature will flourish again. If we want the world to participate in this journey of growth, we have to change our line of thought. We have to stop seeing ourselves as saviors of the planet. The only thing we will save is us, our survival. This change of lifestyle must be embraced, not because it will save the planet, but because it will assure our survival and will provide a promising future for our children.

The story I want to tell is a story of hope and of unity. We are part of Nature, and it is part of Us. As someone said about my work: “Going beyond the rubric of “wildlife photography”, Daniel Fox’s images invite the viewer to act as celebrants/participants in a visual communion with Nature. Portrayed with a fresh directness that captures the immediacy of their natural environment, the subjects are offered not as “specimens” but as noble protagonists. Fox captures nature at its rawest and most challenging of states. He conveys its beauty and imbues it with exquisite poetry. Through this unique perspective, the natural world in its resplendence is both honored and transformed.”

It is my way to foster the flowering of our humanity, it is my own way of making the world a better place.

Refuge

I love the wilderness. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner who preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – the usual solution. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their fate took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.  With hunger for progress and gain, our modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures.

I am in Misiones, a province in the northeastern part of Argentina. It is a little narrow strip of land, squeezed between Brazil and Paraguay. While the neighboring countries have been leveling down the forest and replacing it with agriculture and cattle, Misiones has been more or less successful at understanding the economic value of the almost extinct Atlantic Jungle* and its inhabitants and the province has done what it can to preserve it. From the air, the area almost looks like a small peninsula of trees, threatened by a raging sea of deforestation. Its dark green color much in contrast to the surrounding plain landscape. In the 1990’s, Argentina put a lot in effort into establishing parks and natural reserves. In fact, the momentum for conservation was so strong that a total of 800,000 hectares, about ⅓ of the province, ended up protected, off-limit to logging companies and agricultural plantations. But at the turn of the century, things changed drastically. For the past 15 years, economic realities and a change in government, have shifted the efforts in conservation and now the forest is being cut down from the inside out. Logging companies are given more to cut, protected areas are being opened up to build new highways. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants from Brazil are squatting in the forest, slashing and burning the last remaining remnants of pristine wilderness, while local politicians are granting them asylum as long as they vote for them. In other words, the forest is the new currency for votes and the exchange for corrupted hands. Every year, countless new patches of jungle are being turned into tobacco and yerba mate fields or as silent barren land surrounding the immigrant’s makeshift shacks amongst piles of garbage. Even when so-called sustainable “Selective Logging” is performed, the damage inflicted to retrieve the trees is enormous. Parks and Reserves are still officially there when looking at a map, but on the ground the reality is far from what it should be.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been traveling through the area. I am here to photograph the country’s wildlife for a show that the government is giving me at the Consulate in New York. But honestly, I have been barely able to snap one single image. After staying at the Marcio Ayres Research Center located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Yaboti, at the ranger station of the Provincial Reserve Urugua-i and at the science research center of National Park of Iguazu, I am drained of any inspiration. Ever since my arrival, my days have been filled with horror stories. I feel more like a therapist, listening and taking in each person’s account of how the jungle is being cut, how the animals are being killed, how the local authorities are corrupted and how powerless they feel.

There are so many stories to tell. A report done by the rangers, on road kills on the new international road that cuts right thought the Uruagua-i reserve, counts 3 to 5 casualties a day, every day of the year, including jaguars and tapirs. When they presented their result to the government, they were told to do nothing and most importantly not to contact the media, if they wanted to keep their job.

A new super highway is being built right through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Yaboti to accelerate the logging traffic between Brazil and Paraguay.

Rangers that are so underpaid they have to pay for their own uniforms, hats, radios, and even for the badge that says “ranger” on their shirt. Rangers with no support whatsoever. Their job is to patrol the jungle, but they aren’t given enough diesel to do it. They have to chase down illegal hunters that are armed to the teeth, but don’t have the right to carry a firearm. An amazing research station, with brand new accommodations, a satellite, a computer station, running water and solar panels, sponsored by European organizations, left to decay with no one to care of it. Local conservationists who tell me how their work of over 30 years is now being trashed as if no laws existed and as if past agreements stood for nothing.

The list goes on and on. But the one I want to tell you is the one about a particular jaguar, the other one in the cage, lying next to the animal that I am photographing. It is the story of a male jaguar, in his prime years, one that should be roaming the dense forests like a stealth warrior, tracking peccaries, but instead is confined behind those bars. It is the story of how this mighty predator of South America got to loose all his teeth. Jaguars have the most powerful bite of the “big cats”. Their huge canines are used to crush skulls, break necks or pierce through the tapir’s one inch thick skin. So a jaguar with no teeth would be like a cheetah with no legs!

Even if protected, locals see them as a threat. When an animal is seen in a populated area, or near a farm, procedures are taken to capture it. At the same time, unfortunately but most likely, a team of illegal poachers is hired to hunt it down. Even if the traffic of jaguar’s pelt is not what it used to be, 18,000 a year back in the 1970’s, it is still extremely valuable on the black market.

When one was spotted near a school some years ago, authorities were called to secure the area. With children around, it didn’t take long before a trap was set up. Jaguars are by nature curious creatures, and often, to their misfortune, their curiosity spells disaster. In this case, a simple steel cage, with bait inside, was enough to lure the animal in and capture it. The problem was that the event happened on a friday, when the director, in charge of supervising the transport and logistic, was having dinner. When he learned of the capture, instead of excusing himself to attend the more urgent business, he decided that the big cat would be fine, in the cage, until the weekend was over! The rangers inI love the wild. I love being in it and feeling it. I love the humbling experience of feeling powerless towards it. I have lived in cities and I have enjoyed them. I love how convenient they are. I love their dynamics, their powerful energy. They are simply pure miracles of ingenuity. But at night, when the sun sets, when I close my eyes and seek my dreams, I long for the sound of the wind sneaking through the cracks, the rain tumbling on the roof, or the waves pounding on the beach. I close my eyes and retreat in my world where the Wild conducts her own symphony – the frogs croaking, the birds tweeting, the crickets chirping. I have often felt like a tamed wild animal, always looking out, over the horizon and wondering where I belonged. Many days I have felt caged, prisoner, torn between the comfort of a modern world, and the rawness and purity of the Wild. Yet, I have always had the freedom to choose, to move from one world to another. In all honesty, I consider my personal contradictions a privileged dilemma.  But the animal in front of me, with his mouth wide open fletching his razor sharp 2 inch long canines, a fur coat with patterns and hues beyond beauty, deep blue eyes with a piercing black iris fixed on me, this creature, this wild animal, has never asked for the conveniency of daily deliveries and a roof over its head. This jaguar, this magnificent predator of the jungle, is behind bars because it has been found at the frontline of an over expanding human world, with no room for the wild. This cage unfortunately, has become it last refuge, literally.  This wild cat was fortunate enough to find a land owner whom preferred to capture it and call the authorities, rather than killing it – a solution most of the time taken. For him and for all the other animals in this center, their faith took a drastic turn when Man showed up. It was either being killed or living in close confinement.

With hunger for progress and gain, the modern world keeps growing, infringing its reach, taking without asking.  And the last refuge for the wild has been parks around the world, created to protect nature’s treasures. The province of Misiones in Argentina is by far a pioneer in preserving its fauna and flora capital. It has one of the highest ratio of parks in the world. Its 79 parks total 800,000 hectares, almost a ⅓ of the province. It is also the only province in Argentina with a Minister of Ecology and their amount of rangers is one of the highest in the world.

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures. The fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot. I am not interested to know whether it is profitable to the human race or not. The pain it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis and sufficient justification of my enmity towards it without looking further. In studying the traits and dispositions of the so-called lower animals, and contrasting them with man’s, I find the result humiliating to me.” Mark Twain

Listen to the Land

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” — Masanobu Fukuoka, One-Straw Revolution

The day is coming to an end. The sun is slowly disappearing on the horizon, over the tall Eucalyptus trees. Soon, another cycle will start when the moon awakens and takes her place in the sky. I am sitting on the fence at the Las Marias ranch, in my hand, a gourd filled with Mate. I feel connected. I hear the Land talking to me. I hear the birds in the trees. I hear the bulls bellowing. I hear the horses, the geese. I hear the grunting of the pigs. I hear laughter. I hear kids playing. I even hear the monkeys howling in the forest not far away. Nothing could be more different than standing at the edge of a monoculture farm we have grown so accustomed to in the “Civilized World”. How many times have I stood in endless fields of wheat and heard nothing more than the sound of the wind frisking the golden grass. Our modern farms are lands of desolation and loneliness. But here, right in front of me, Life reigns. Everybody is free to roam. And everyone does. Even the cattle whom so many believe can’t run, are galloping. And the soil, this red dirt that everybody wears with pride. Their boots are covered by it, their trucks are encrusted with it. It is their way to honor what the Land has given them. They owe everything to it. This red dirt is more than soil, it is the heart, the foundation of their culture. No wonder why they drink Mate with such loyalty and honor, a tree that only grows here and from which Yerba is harvested.

Las Marias is a company that has made its mission to be in harmony with nature and its people.  Everything and everyone is connected. From the very beginning, Victor Navajas never saw himself as a simple farmer, but believed in enriching human lives. As his company grew, so did his desire to spread happiness. Today, Las Marias is more than just a Mate producer. Here, quality is king. Beside being vertically integrated, employees are offered a broad range of benefits. Free school is provided to the children. Housing is available on the plantation or in the “pueblo” nearby. Gauchos rule the ranch in the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Fields are rotated to allow the natural cycle. Tall grass is left alone until it is cut and becomes fertilizer. Lady bugs and rheas are used for pest control. There is no irrigation – the fields are managed to maximize rainfall. At the ranch, horses have no shoes, trusting the hoof of an animal that has survived for millions of years. Birds of prey glide over the land. Even the dangerous viper, mortal if bitten by, is kept alive to control pests. Everywhere you look, harmony exists between nature and the necessities of production.

Sipping the bombilla, I close my eyes and there, in my mouth, I taste it. I taste the land, the soil, the nature, I taste it in its purest form. Much like the French and their wine, Mate is the deepest and most honest gesture of hospitality when receiving someone, it means – “I welcome you my friend and I want to share my land with you.”  Now let me tell you about the beauty of  my country!