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Why I Photograph Plants

by Steve Anderson

On a hike with my four incredible nieces and nephews several years back, they asked me, “Uncle Steve, why do you take so many photos of plants?” I surprised myself with the depth of my answer. So let me share with you why I photograph plants.

Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) leaf in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in NC. Photo by Steve Anderson.

What emotions do you feel most when moving to a new state, county, city, or neighborhood? Is it the sorrow of leaving friends and family behind? Stress about not knowing anyone, or the opportunity to meet new people in the place you are headed? Are you thrilled to experience new foods? Different weather? Change certainly offers a broad array of feelings for anyone going through it.

The idea of moving from one region to another has always created anxiety in me but also excitement for new possibilities. Several years ago, I moved to Durham, NC from Syracuse, NY for a job. Here, I substituted snow for humidity. Needless to say, this was a stressful period but also an opportunity to meet new natural habitats maintained by unique and diverse assemblages of species and past and present environmental conditions. Getting the chance to explore these new natural places got me more excited about the move. In parallel, I also joined a new community of people, all brought together for various reasons.

Zigadenus glaberrimus (Sandbog death camas) at Ft. Bragg in the Sandhills of NC. Photo by Steve Anderson.

What a new environment offers to a new human resident is excitement for new experiences, including the joy of learning to identify each new community member, or in this case, new plant friends, each with a wondrously unique natural history--each a work of art waiting to be admired by a pollinator, or a new neighbor like me seeking to praise it for its exceptional beauty.

When I relocate, I am a thrill-seeker, that is, I seek the thrill of finding a beautiful new-to-me grass, herb, shrub or tree. A chance to photograph what my eyes are seeing, and share that view with the world.

A Cypress swamp at Merchants Millpond State Park in the NC coastal plain.
Cypress swamp in Merchants Millpond Preserve in northeast NC. Photo by Steve Anderson.

Even if I hike by myself on the trails of Merchants Millpond Preserve in the heat of the summer;

Flowering Utricularia spp. (Bladderwort). Photo by Steve Anderson.

or explore Hyde, Dare, and Tyrell Counties in eastern NC;

Cyrilla racemiflora (common name "Titi") at the Carolina Beach State Park in NC. Photo by Steve Anderson.

or take a late afternoon stroll through a Longleaf Pine Savanna at Carolina Beach State Park;

or spend a Sunday evening meandering along the banks of the Eno River...

Pinus taeda (Loblolly Pine) is common at the Eno River State Park. Photo by Steve Anderson.

Silene virginica (Fire Pink) at the Eno River State Park in the NC Piedmont region. Photo by Steve Anderson.

...I am never really alone.

I capture images along the way and hope the photos might inspire others to follow in my footsteps hoping to be graced by the same landscape or plant. And maybe my photos give indirect access for those who may not have the ability to visit these special places.

Capturing a still-frame of plants and the ecosystems they embody, gives me the chance to examine and explore a species at a deeper level. It also enables me to relive a joyous moment a ten days or ten years down the road. Every time I look up at the photo above my desk at home of the Sandhills of southeastern North Carolina, I can feel the warm summer shining on my back, the humid air condensing on my skin, the smell of pine needles baking in the sun, and the overwhelming excitement of inspecting

"A chorus of tall, elegant, and fragile yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava) lining the banks of the Sandhills’ seasonal ponds." Photo by Steve Anderson.

a chorus of tall, elegant, and fragile yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava) lining the banks of the Sandhills’ seasonal ponds.

Chaptallia tomentosa (Woolly sunbonnet). Photo by Steve Anderson.

Much like a favorite song or distinct scent transports us back to a time or a place, a photo of a breathtaking, or even mundane, plant can do just the same.

Further, photography empowers us to document the existence and intrinsic beauty of plants in a way that

can transform the way we look at all of life and enables us to witness the invaluable.

Plantanthera ciliaris (Orange Fringed Bog Orchid). Photo by Steve Anderson. In a secret spot somewhere in the coastal plain of NC.

Like ecosystems, our individualized experiences in life are shaped by change. When we experience new places, how is it that we connect with our surroundings or community? For me, it’s meeting a new forest, wetland or stream, and getting to know them by observing the crowd of new plant friends that call it home.

This is why I photograph plants.

Steve taking a break from field work in a NC coastal plain wetland that was formerly drained farmland. Photo by Bonnie McGill.

Steve Anderson, @smkanderson, is an ecosystem ecologist pursuing an M.S. at NC State U. in Forestry and Environmental Resources. He studies plant responses to salt and flooding stress in coastal and river floodplain wetlands. Steve is also a drummer and lives in Durham, NC with his partner, Katie, and one-year-old schnoodle puppy, Meatball.


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