Healing Landscape: A Damaged World in Transition
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I press my face against the cold plastic window of the plane, peering through the clouds and San Francisco fog, trying to get in position to see the bizarre unearthly landscape unfolding at 3000 feet beneath me as we descended to San Francisco International Airport. This airborne ritual is now an integral part of my return to the city I have now called home over the last two decades.
The San Francisco Bay Area Salt Ponds are bizarrely beautiful. This past year I was inspired to create this body of work, capturing their unearthly visual appearance and complex history. I wanted to document the razor-sharp lines and neon-hued colors of the Bay’s remaining Salt Ponds as they change throughout the seasons—and by exposure to heat from the sun—revealing far more than just an algae-tinted saline swirl of vivid colors framed by man-made mud dikes.
My Buddhist upbringing taught me not to dwell on the past; that is not something we can change or have control over. Yet when I dug deeper behind the visually stunning and captivating colors and shapes of the salt ponds, I inevitably learned of their dark past—a past scarred by both ecological and cultural disasters. So how do we react when something that has such great beauty is born out of a sinister history?
Long before the Gold Rush, the marshlands that the salt ponds destroyed were once home to a stunning array of wildlife and plants. Bizarrely, salt from these very ponds was even used to manufacture napalm during the 1960s. Searing memories of the effects of that horrific chemical in Vietnam—where I once spent my youth as a novice monk and caregiver—came rushing back. Reconciling the striking beauty of the current salt ponds with that history surfaces deep questions about how cultures and religions adapt and move on from the past. As humans, we often destroy and rebuild and forget over time. So should we take comfort in the future revival of this sanctuary for wildlife? Or should we simply enjoy this current display of amazing colors and shapes for what it is?
What inspired me to spend an entire year dangling from a helicopter in frigid weather to make these images? In the end it was not just the searing colors and swirling patterns of the salt ponds themselves: it was watching the wildlife and waterfowl return to the area, once again thriving in this land in transition—from canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, and scaups to dabbling ducks and buffleheads. Their return has a special resonance for me: as a Buddhist, the concept of rebirth defines how we grow and redefine ourselves by simultaneously shedding and embracing our painful past. Above all, the idea that an entire landscape can so suddenly be reborn in just one lifetime fills me with hope. What is there at any given moment will not be there soon after: that is why this ‘damaged’ landscape is now gradually being returned to nature as a wildlife sanctuary. So the airborne ritual that I look forward to on my return trips home also acts as a healing reminder of the worlds I have left behind.