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Lanting on life

Stromatolites, Western Australia © Frans Lanting
Stromatolites, Western Australia © Frans Lanting
Moon Jellies, California © Frans Lanting
Moon Jellies, California © Frans Lanting
Giant Tortoises in Pond, Galápagos Islands © Frans Lanting
Giant Tortoises in Pond, Galápagos Islands © Frans Lanting
One spring evening seven years ago I stood at the tide line of an estuary in the eastern United States watching something that took me far back in time. I saw horseshoe crabs come out of the water to spawn, an ancient ritual that goes back hundreds of millions of years. That experience made me realize that I could see the past in the present. And I wondered whether it might be possible to tell the story of life on Earth from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity by capturing images that evoke nature through time. That is how the idea for this book was born. Ever since that encounter with horseshoe crabs, I’ve been on a personal journey through time, looking for situations in the natural world that provide a window on its past.

I made pilgrimages to haunting time capsules like Shark Bay, a remote lagoon in Western Australia, where lifeforms whose lineage goes back more than three billion years still dominate the landscape. I joined an expedition to a secluded valley of spewing geysers and hissing hot springs in Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula for a glimpse of the conditions that may have nurtured the birth of life itself. I immersed myself in museums and research collections to photograph the bewildering shapes of microscopic diatoms, the fluid geometries of oceanic jellies, and to visualize patterns inside the human body as parallels to patterns on the surface of the Earth. And I gained a new perspective on the snails that slide silently through my own backyard as echoes from an era when life was just crawling out of the sea.

Nature in most places appears as a chaotic mosaic of species that live together in the present but have their origins in different times. My challenge was to untangle nature from its entwinements in the present and represent the strands separately and chronologically. My goal was to create a sequence of images that can be viewed as slices through time. Out of necessity, this book presents a very selective interpretation of the history of life. My approach has been that of a storyteller who draws on characters for the sake of telling a larger tale. To weave my ideas together in a sequence that makes sense chronologically and thematically, I wrote a script, “A Journey Through Time”, which summarizes the main events expressed by the photographs.

The book’s first chapter, “Elements”, interprets Earth’s early history, before there was life, and consists of images that show interactions among the five classical elements originally recognized by Greek and Hindu philosophers: earth, air, fire, water, and space. “Beginnings” traces life from its single-celled origins through its evolution into more complex forms in the sea. “Out of the Sea” deals with the phase when life ventured ashore but was still dependent on water as a medium for reproduction. “On Land” covers the period when plants and animals succeeded in colonizing solid ground. “Into the Air” highlights the evolutionary innovations of birds and flowering plants, a chapter that ends with the cataclysmic events that caused the demise of dinosaurs and many other life-forms. “Out of the Dark” portrays the rise of mammals, and the concluding chapter, “Planet of Life”, envisions the collective force of life as a sixth element that shapes our planet.

We are living in an extraordinary time: Our knowledge about life on Earth is growing rapidly through advances in scientific disciplines ranging from microbiology to paleontology, from geology to astrobiology. The integration of that knowledge is increasing our understanding about the interconnected nature of life, and the role it plays as a whole in influencing the conditions that make this planet hospitable to life. That realization has inspired my work.

This book is a synthesis of my career. I started out as a wildlife photographer pursuing animals one at a time. As I learned more about their lives, my view grew to include their habitats, and animals became ambassadors for ecosystems. Biodiversity superseded ecosystems as a concept for understanding nature as a network made up of untold numbers of species. Yet every one of those living organisms has a unique origin in time, and that is the dimension I have attempted to convey in this book. It is humbling to imagine the immensity of time covered by the history of life on Earth. But that is what I plunged into, with curiosity and wonder. And I emerged from this journey with a different sense of myself in time. Life follows in the wake of Eye to Eye, which expressed the kinship of all animal life, and Jungles, which explored the complexities of nature in the tropics. I hope this book will contribute to bridging the gap between a naturalist’s appreciation for nature and a scientist’s understanding of life. It is my tribute to the kinship and continuity of all life on Earth.

Photographs and Text © 2006 Frans Lanting, Santa Cruz, California