Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh post to the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
Author’s Note: What follows is a two-part experiment in communication and redaction, corrugation and method. I employ a photo journaling project I’ve been working on since November of 2020 as a tool to explore multimodal equivocation1 in the context of ecological storytelling. I’ll first introduce the context in which this project takes place, followed by my photo-journaling method and the journey that created the conditions for this experiment. Then, we’ll see what possibilities emerge.
In my research I think about the way people think about riparian habitats, the habitats that form, and are formed by, the margin between a flowing body of water and abutting land. The body of water I work most closely with is called Brandt’s Creek and currently flows through the city of Kelowna, British Columbia, unceded and occupied Syilx territory. Headwaters gather in agricultural and suburban hills, coalesce, and reach a channel at valley bottom through a series of storm drains and culverts. Before valley-bottom settlement, before drainage and channelization, before impermeable surfaces, this water that now collects as a coherent flow moistened and meandered over a much larger area of the Kelowna floodplain, sustaining a low-lying marshy habitat and providing an important source for plants of sustenance and traditional Syilx construction materials.
Collected and under pressure, the water transitioned the low-lying marshy vegetation of a meandering floodplain into its own version of the tree-lined riverine habitat seen along other creeks and rivers in the valley. Trees grew from seeds dispersed through the air, many of which come from the Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila), a tree that thrives in the disturbed riparian soils of this dry valley and was once championed by the City of Kelowna as a fast-growing, shade-making street tree.
A Siberian elm tree proving that it cannot be done in with a simple beheading.
Brandt’s creek is demonstrating what it can do, the riparian habitat it can create, in spite of the challenges it faces: industrial encroachment and waste, hard-packed soils, resultant inability to meander, and culverts to navigate. It has nursed trees to life, created shade and shelter, and provided sustenance for many beings. By nurturing this habitat daily, Brandt’s Creek previews its capacity for flood mitigation, humidity retention, and riparian thriving. This capacity is crucial in an increasingly erratic climate.
The history of this northern portion of the Kelowna floodplain moves through different forms: marsh, ditch, and now, the assertion of itself as a creek. This is one of its histories, as told by me–a visitor in this place and student of the watershed’s riparian habits and habitats–through the stories I have been gifted. Riparian habitats makes life possible here, holding water, creating shelter and passage, and accommodating for inevitable fluctuation. Living where water wants to be necessitates flexibility. We can learn from the flexibility demonstrated by Brandt’s Creek. When life gives you Siberian elm seeds, grow the trees you need for shade and bank stabilization. When life gives you inherited settler colonial settlement patterns and space devouring industrial infrastructure, acknowledge that unruly heritage, learn from it, and figure out how to do better.
My relationship with Brandt’s Creek is that of a researcher, thinking about the way people think about riparian habitats, those habitats that exist alongside and are brought into existence by flowing water. My storying of this creek is articulated through a multi-year photo-journaling project and supported by archival images.
In January and February of 2023, I went traveling with these riparian histories, to Penryn, Fal watershed, Cornwall, United Kingdom. We were elsewhere, far away from the Okanagan and its socio-eco-political context. Photos were stuck to the walls of a small exhibition space, photos from encounters and archives, alongside some recently rendered maps. And just like that, I found myself uneasily in the role of ecocultural translation.
Communication is squirrely. Things don’t always align quite right; what I understand myself to be saying is never exactly what you understand yourself to be hearing. Yet we try. We try across oceans, mother tongues, accents, corporeal norms, and visitation statuses.
The images I plastered on the wall in Penryn are layered artifacts. The photos that I took myself are slivers of my own encounters in/with Okanagan riparian habitats in the preceding three years, moments paused. These photos carry captions and descriptions (alt-text).2 Captioning and describing photos helps me enhance the stickiness of the encounters.
The captions are whatever comes to mind for me when I return home and review the photos I took during that day’s riparian visit.3 These are often jokes for myself, or in reference to something obscure and with little apparent relevance to anyone else. The descriptions though began as a medium of accessibility, a way of taking multimodality seriously.4 Describing an image is a way to open up access to folks who are blind or low-vision (BLV) and may otherwise miss or skip over the information that a photo communicates to the sighted. Describing an image well is hard. Defining what “well” means in this context is impossible; BLV communities are composed of as many preferences as they are people. There are only guidelines of varying quality and origins and what you learn when you try, try, and try again.5
Interacting with the photos and their captions on the walls, visitors to the exhibition responded to the prompt “What do these photos bring to mind for you?” by adding notes. This process created conversational marginalia between the story of Brandt’s Creek, myself in the role of ecocultural translator, and visitors to this space. All collected, for the selection of my own photos and the archival images that were on display, each has five layers, five layers of a mini-story.
- the image
- the description I wrote of the image
- the caption I gave to the image
- the reflections visitors pinned to the wall around the image
- my response to the aforementioned reflection that most elicited a response
Here we are experimenting. I’ve used a random number generator to select three of the five layers from each of the 26 mini-stories to display. Two, therefore, are missing, intentionally redacted. You may find yourself lost in translation or instinctively filling in gaps, accurately or otherwise. Let’s see what story comes through.
human patterns are organized in very predictable ways in contrast to other patterns in images here. In this photo—primitives like squares + lines human landscapes are less random?
An aerial view of a large body of water abutted by a dry, house-lined shoreline cut by a ditch emptying into the prominent waterbody.
This we can find on Google, on OpenStreetMap, on the City of Kelowna’s website. This is something we take for granted now. This is a blanket statement. Is this place in the photo so far away from the place we are now—/were when you wrote this/when we wrote this together, me presenting the photo, you responding—that you take nothing about the context described by this photo for granted?
Long, round, green reeds cluster and fold over each other, exhibiting the jester’s hat style brown flowers at their tips.
I thought of having these translated by an old friend, or the new friend who wrote them. Is it okay that I love the shapes no matter what they mean? Is this objectifying a language I have access to? What if I can seldom remember to take in the shapes from right to left?
Cast those shadows.
people seem to react well to “cast those shadows”
The image of the shadows overlaid onto the “real” objects is interesting.
The image or the caption? Are you taking them in as a unit as I had hoped? Thank you for the quotation marks; maybe we need some of those around objects as well.
A dry, undulating, and old-school industrial place. Seemingly still water in a creek, the bank of which is steep, crumbling, and directly below a road for cars. One street sign perches on the precipice.
“water and road have a plan” Is my favourite—the stacked layers inform the viewer above the space, and the contrast between natural and man-made is very poignant
You got it! These are stacked layers of information.
Run paused. Fluff too alluring.
I love the golden light flowing through the right hand side of the image illuminating all of the hair like strands of the plant. I almost want to sleep in the textures, looks comfy.
Plant strands. Strand planten. Overzone. Over zoning.
Bright yellow leaves reflect the sun’s light from themselves and the red stems on which they stand. In the background their once-green selves can just be seen in the final stage of their transitions.
Long, cylindrical, ash white metal rods collect together in a somewhat parallel clump in grass.
That was most certainly intended.
A cinder block smudged with colourful paint holds dry, decaying leaves inside its cavities while separating bare concrete from an entirely leaf-covered surface.
It disappears (,) the art.
Yes, those insects.
Is there any textures of prints you would like to print the images onto?
Hmm, I had imagined the prints were texture. Though I suppose they collapse texture. I’m not sure it would feel good to impose new textures of my choosing. Maybe that’s where my artistry stops.
Walks with my mum
May you and your mum have many more walks available to you.
Where does a “spy image end and a “satellite image” begin?
It is not in the beginning but the ending that this distinction is made.
There are lines and patterns similar to the lines and shapes within the water that was covered up.
Lines Pushing me in the grass
Shapes naturally forming
Contrasting against the “man made” maps and objects.
Feeling of information and data against the natural free forming Mother Nature.
I would want you to print these images upon the maps of the land. The shapes of lines cascading over each other.
The lines and shapes of water covered up. We’re close to a band name I think.
Many iterations of home.
Bind weed, gone to seed, curling around neighbours at sunrise.
Rise and bind.
Huh. How did that word get over here?
How’s this for a riparian fringe?
Willow catkins lined up on thin red-brown branches. Curly miniature seed pods covered in fuzz being caught in the wind.
Okay, I see that.
Slightly waxy green leaves with prominent yellow veins protrude from red-purple stems to present clusters of newly emerging tiny white flowers.
Is that knotweed?
A star exploding.
Name the pasta, again! This one’s for sure my favourite photo of the day.
I really like the variety of images and the contrast between urban & natural
I love how you’ve included archival work like historical photographs and maps. I feel like it provides an interesting wider context.
Many sticks from many trees aligned parallel to each other at the edge of the lake, not floating, just resting on the sand under about 10 centimetres of water.
Yes! Eels are so cool! I love a beyond-science mystery.
Nature still thrives around man made objects—maybe man should learn to thrive around nature
Nature as a figuration seems mostly to come out when the man-u-fact-tured is presented, apparently in contrast.
A branch of narrow willow leaves covered in boil-esque blemishes of brown and green.
Willow taking after the geese.
A swarm of small brown ants both penetrate and spill out of a crack between two sidewalk panels.
The ants and the crack in the pavement that they are inhabiting seems to me really reflective of the straight section 6—they are like displaced people.
Macro + Micro relationships
They are like remnants
Two rainbow sherbet dogwood leaves, splotchy and in transition.
Stress + disease and pests but looks pretty to humans?
So, what story did you read? Was it the story of a creek paving the way to flexibility and respectful cohabitation from Part 1? Did the vitality of the riparian habitat come through?
This is an experiment; I have redacted bits and pieces of an already small collection of data, exaggerating equivocation. “[T]o translate,” writes Vivieros de Castro, “is to presume that an equivocation always exists; it is to communicate by differences.”6 This is the work we do when we travel with place-based research, communication by differences. It is neither bad nor good, like the riparian habitat created by a creek–itself created by valley bottom settlement, the pouring of concrete, and disrespect for water’s ways–using the seeds of plants labelled highly invasive. There is much to be learned from extreme examples.
As the reader you have access to just three of five parts of a collection of non-verbal conversations. Sometimes you read the description I have written for that image without the image being visible. Often I think my descriptions are more fun than the photos; I imagine you creating the image yourself or perhaps engaging with the story outside the realm of imagery. In some incidents the image and the description of the image have been omitted: the layers that remain approximate the information communicated to a person who is blind or low-vision when no alt-text is provided for digital images. This kind of redaction is unnecessary. Most digital image technologies used widely today have an alt-text function embedded. Not writing alt-text because it’s hard or time consuming is a self fulfilling prophecy. It is hard and time consuming, it also gets easier and faster with every stitch of practice, and it’s worth it.
Revisiting these moments of riparian encounter in different ways, through image, memory, and text, folding experience into ideas into experience is a process I’ve been referring to as “corrugation.” Attending to the practice of corrugation has thickened my engagement with these places and the beings of which they are composed. Practising corrugation has created a dense thicket of mini-stories through which I walk whenever I enter a riparian habitat.
1 “[E]quivocations are a type of communicative disjuncture in which, while using the same words, interlocutors are not talking about the same thing and do not know this.” Cadena, Marisol. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 27. Citing Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. ‘Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies’. Common Knowledge 10, no. 3 (2004): 463–84; Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. ‘Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation’. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2, no. 1 (2004): 3–22.
2 Alternative text or alt-text is rich descriptive text that describes an image. In a digital landscape, this text is read out by screen readers to people who are blind or low-vision and who use that technology to engage with screen-delivered content. Often, if a user is only seeing a screen displaying a user interface with their eyes, they will not see the alt-text. In its most inclusive form, alt-text describes the relevant content and information shown by an image. This practice enhances the content from the outset, not as an afterthought of accommodation.
3 This process became embedded in my practice thanks to Instagram, where a version of this catalogue is ongoing (@alsdeeend)
4 Thank you Dr. Emily Murphy for this phrasing and encapsulation.
5 I have spoken at length about my own trying, trying, and trying again. A recording of that talk can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVKVNE_ZK9U
6 Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. ‘Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation’. Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2, no. 1 (2004): 10.Cited in De la Cadena, Marisol. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 27.