NWNL Press

NWNL Press

In addition to providing sustenance for wildlife, wild berries in the coastal temperate rainforest of North America provide economic, health and cultural benefits to the region’s people.  ·  Photo by Amy Gulick.

The Gifts of Gaia

Story and photograph by Amy Gulick

Reprinted from NANPA Currents, Spring 2011

Note: Amy Gulick writes for NANPA on conservation photography, quoting Alison’s No Water No Life mission on page 3 of this article.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. – Albert Einstein

QUICK – name three things you can’t live without. Wifi? Caffeine? Photoshop? Hmmm… these things may make life easier, but we can survive without them. How about water, air and a livable climate? Now we’re talking.

Many in the industrialized world take the most basic life-sustaining elements for granted. Enough generations have grown up with indoor plumbing and other modern luxuries that when asked where water comes from, a child will likely answer “the faucet.” Where does food come from? “The store.” How about the air we breathe? “Dunno.” Climate? “Huh?”


These most basic necessities created by Earth’s natural processes are referred to in scientific and policy circles as “ecosystem goods and services.” But it’s tough to get people excited with a wonky phrase for the crucial things that all life depends on. I prefer “gifts of nature” or “gifts of Gaia,” for the Greek goddess who personifies the Earth. “Mother Nature” to us mere mortals. The list of services is long and includes: purification of air and water, maintenance of biodiversity, pollination of crops and natural vegetation, groundwater recharge through wetlands and greenhouse gas mitigation. These gifts – which provide for health, social, cultural and economic needs – benefit all living organisms, and there is a growing awareness of their importance to society.

“All life on Earth depends on health ecosystems – they provide many services to humanity and are the foundations for all economies,” says marine biologist Christina Mittermeier, president of ILCP (International League of Conservation Photographers). “If we fail to protect large tracts of natural, health ecosystems we will see more shortages of some of the services we ll rely on to survive: clean water, clean air and genetic diversity.”


As nature photographers, we can help people understand what nature provides for us. As visual communicators, we can show in pictures the value of things like intact watersheds, healthy oral reefs and biodiversity. We can also document the threats to these life-giving essentials. But this is no easy task, as the concepts are difficult to explain and even tougher to depict in photographs.

“The first step is for photographers themselves to understand the different kinds of ecosystem services and how they work from an ecological point of view,” says Mittermeier. “Healthy streams, for example, provide the foundation for inland fisheries, clean water for communities downstream, and even healthy forests, which in turn act as carbon sinks. How we choose to photograph a stream can help show all of these services and, more importantly, how people benefit or suffer from their availability or absence.”

Water is one of the most essential gifts that nature provides. Former NANPA board member Alison Jones, through her project No Water No Life, is raising awareness about the vital importance of freshwater resources worldwide. “Pictures can help subtly spur people to protect our fresh water by portraying the beauty of waterfalls and waterfowl, of quiet coves and clear streams. Images of erosion, dried-up swamps, pollution and those dying of thirst provoke more visceral reactions and can become a call to action,” says Jones. “Photography is a valuable go-between connecting science and the general public. Scientists interpret their study of data largely through words, but many experiences and realities can be better shared visually than verbally.”

Probably one of the most difficult concepts to portray in pictures is the threat to a livable climate due to global climate change. NANPA member Gary Braasch has extensively photographed this topic, the results of which are showcased in his book Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World (www.earthunderfire.com). Braasch’s work illustrates ongoing shifts from weather extremes and melting glaciers to disruptions of animal migrations and plant growth, and the impacts on human life, cities and cultures.

“The most potent way that photography reaches people with information about climate change is to illustrate how others are already affected and how a person’s home and land is changing,” says Braasch. “When I show erosion, sea level changes, water supply problems, and can link them to climate science, people get the message.”

Showing “then” and “now” photographs of the same area, referred to as “repeat photography,” is a powerful way to depict changes over time. Braasch has used this technique effectively to illustrate melting glaciers and deforestation due to climate change. He has also used repeat photography to show positive changes in nature such as the ecological recovery of the Mount St. Helens landscape in Washington state since the volcano’s eruption in 1980.


With a greater understanding of how we benefit from nature’s processes, the hope is that more people may alter their own behavior to minimize their impacts and maintain a livable world.

“It is easy for all of us as city dwellers to forget or feel detached from nature, but the undeniable fact is that we are all intimately connected to it,” says Mittermeier. “The best hope I have is that many people are doing their part to conserve nature – buying local, recycling, using public transportation, consuming less, and understanding the ecological footprint of products and services.”

So the next time you think you can’t live without your cell phone or favorite lens, take a deep breath, drink a glass of water, and picture the gifts of Gaia.

Amy Gulick is a photographer and writer based in North Bend, Washington. She is a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers and the 2008 recipient of the NANPA Mission Award and Philip Hyde Grand. View her work at www.amygulick.com.

This article was reprinted from NANPA Currents, Spring 2011, published by the North American Nature Photography Association.