Phantoms in Photographs

contributed by: Lorne Fitch, P.Biol.

Old photographs can speak to us, providing context for our world, and perhaps speak about us with the changes that our cumulative wishes and desires have created. I’ve pored over hundreds of photographs from local museums, provincial archives, and family albums. These are snapshots of a time—with faded sepia tones and still crisp black and white prints—that provide a record of lost memories.

The images are a window on the past, often a haunting one. In these photos are the ghosts of past landscapes, of fish and wildlife populations, and the hubris that changed, sometimes forever, the place we now live. Some might argue there are no ghosts, just fanciful tall tales to entertain and fool us into believing nothing has changed.  It would be hard to fake the stories embedded in these images.

A picture might not convey the full reality of the situation. It is just a moment frozen in time, but a story develops with the spark of that one image.

What is portrayed in the pictures forces us to come to some reconciliation with the changes that have happened, which we scarcely pay attention to, because of the passage of time and imperfect memory. Three archival photographs stand out to me, for the stories they tell about the lost worlds of earlier eras and our forgetfulness of the past.

The first image is a stark black and white winter scene in 1882. Eight bison carcasses dot the snow covered prairie. A Sharps rifle, the favorite of bison hunters, leans against one of the dead animals. Two hides lie flat, pegged to the ground, just as they would have been pulled off the animals. The date suggests the event would have occurred in the dying days of the great slaughter of Plains bison. 

It was the juncture between one form of resource exploitation and depletion and the beginning of the next. It signalled the death rattles of one economy which had sustained native people for thousands of years. Within two decades came the mining of the prairie soils for farming, the further disruption of a landscape finely-tuned to the vagaries of weather and moisture, and heartache for those settlers who believed the lies of the federal government, the railway companies, and promoters that you could get rich on 160 acres of arid land.  

When I look at the image and what message it conveys, I wonder, did we learn anything from the elimination of bison from the plains?  Was it simply the cost of “civilizing” the landscape? Has the passage of time erased any thought of the lessons we might have learned?

In The Ecological Buffalo, Wes Olson points out the interconnectedness of the prairie landscape and other species with bison—that bison defined the landscape and vice versa. Without bison, the landscape has lost a vital ingredient. What we might learn is, lose enough of the essential cogs, toggles, and gears and what is left is the ghost of a landscape. The soul of it appears to be living, but is gone in real and functional terms.

The next image is from 1902. Four men and a child pose with two long stringers of trout and an additional pile of trout on the ground in front of them. It appears to be the result of just one days fishing. Stacked firearms and cartridge belts suggest these were wilder days and you went armed for a fishing trip.

The fish are cutthroat trout, well over a hundred of them, maybe 75 kilograms in total. These were the predominantly native trout, years before the stocking of non-native rainbow trout occurred and diluted the wildness. Just out of sight is the stream these trout were yarded out of, conveniently called Trout Creek. It flows off the east side of the Porcupine Hills in southwestern Alberta.

There is a sadness in the archival image of such an exuberance of wild trout. Today these fish are categorized as Threatened, with population numbers so low as to be of major concern for their survival. To achieve a similar catch to that of the one depicted in the 1902 photograph would completely deplete the population of a single stream, maybe several streams, where the trout still hang on, precipitously, by a fin. These fish are becoming the aquatic equivalents of the bison.

It is hard for today’s anglers, and fisheries biologists, to conceive of such prolific productivity from a tiny creek that you can jump across. If you don’t know where you started the benchmark quietly moves and our goals become based on a diminished state. It sets up a sense the future is just more of the present, that we understand the laws of progress, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really needs to be done. In the politics of inevitability, as Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian terms it, we need not fear ecological collapse, we needn’t concern ourselves with inaction, and technology will solve everything.

In reality, native trout follow an annual cycle that has been forged over time, dictated by genetics, and nursed by the ebb and flow of streams and rivers. Block, modify, or tinker with the cycle and the consequences are dire. That includes turning the watersheds that sustain trout into scabrous openings and scarred earth.

An image from the Highwood River in 1911 depicts a log jam reported to be eleven kilometres long. You can’t see the river—a jumbled mass of cut logs jam the channel from bank to bank and beyond a bend in the river. The sheer scale of it suggests the resource-rich nature of the forests of the Eastern Slopes, including a cornucopia of trout.

Early federal civil servants envisioned the Eastern Slopes as first and primarily a place for watershed protection. Use of the timber was a secondary consideration, in spite of what the 1911 scene implies. Logging was selective, horses provided the motive power to move logs to the rivers, and rivers were used to float logs to sawmills.

It is likely that the early logging footprint was minimal, impacts on water quality and the hydrologic regime insignificant, although the impact of log drives on rivers might have been periodically devastating. In many ways, we are fortunate that those early loggers had only axes and crosscut saws—not chain saws, feller bunchers, bulldozers, and skidders.

Today’s industrial-scale logging, with massive clearcuts, a tangled web of roads, and a corporate and bureaucratic indifference to other forest values has completely flipped the vision for watershed protection as a priority. 

An extensive and growing logging footprint disrupts the ability of forests to capture, store, and slowly release water. Clearcuts and roads exacerbate spring floods, increasing the frequency and severity of flooding, especially to downstream communities. Sediment bleeds from these areas, increasing the risk to aquatic life, especially native trout. In large part because of this logging footprint, native trout are now mostly shadowy phantoms, up and down the Eastern Slopes. 

These three old photographs provide us benchmarks to consider. The reality is the cumulative impact of many logging cut-blocks, wellsites, roads, pipelines, dams, mines, water diversions, wetlands drained, rural subdivisions, urban sprawl, and cultivation of native grasslands has significantly changed the health, function, and resiliency of the landscape. Ecological lines in the sand may be faint, but are still real. Once these are crossed, the consequences are profound and restoration prohibitively expensive, challenging, fraught with uncertainties, and in many cases, impossible. 

When we fail to look back and recognize the intact ecosystems of the past and their abundant biodiversity in contrast to today’s depleted, damaged, and missing ones, we set ourselves up to continue the trend. We forfeit the future, mostly for an economic imperative that ignores the reality of ecological values.

Pondering those old photographs might persuade us to refrain from altering or developing some places, where past expressions of landscape integrity and biodiversity still exist. It is part of remembering our origins and who we are. Each of us harbours places and things (like photographs) that function as touchstones, sacred locations, and important memories. Whether or not these exist individually or societally they are the strands and threads that connect us with our pasts and guide us to our futures. It would be wise to keep as many guideposts as we can.

As Charles M. Russell, an American story teller and artist of the old west, asserted, “The iron heel of civilization has stamped out nations of men, but it has never been able to wipe out pictures.” The photographs are there reminding us we could, we must do better to avoid making further ghosts of our landscapes. 

All we need to do is open our eyes.

November, 2022

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a past Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

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Home is the southwestern foothills and mountains of Alberta. Born and raised here into a fishing and hunting heritage which morphed into a fascination with nature, a commitment to conservation, a home place on the Oldman River, and a career in landscape ecology. Still in love after forty years of marriage, and proud of the good people our three offspring have grown up to be. No less proud of, and grateful for, the friends and neighbours whose community spirit, stewardship ethics and good humour make this such a good place, and a good life. Worried about their future, which is why I can't stop working to keep my home place good. I write books and things too.

One thought on “Phantoms in Photographs”

  1. The Trout Ck photo depressingly hits home. There was a relatively heathy remnant population of westslopes in the upper reaches until the huge changes of 2013 and the more recent drought cycle. we will be extremely lucky if there is any cutthroats surviving.


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