My first Gaia read for 2021 is another great Lifeline find, Kakadu: A Guide for All Seasons by Peter Jarver and Quentin Chester. I had never heard of Peter Jarver (1953-2003), but his photography in this book is absolutely stunning. Originating from South Australia, Jarver developed an outstanding reputation for his landscape photography. Completely self-taught he is one of the few Australian photographers to have received the Master of Photography. Teaming up with fellow South Australian, Quentin Chester, Jarver’s photographs showcase the stunning beauty of the Kakadu wetlands, as well as its flora and fauna.
Quentin Chester has contributed to Australian Geographic and is a well renowned writer and photographer in his own right, and his text in the book provides some valuable background information on the geographical history of Kakadu, its unique flora and fauna, and the knowledge held by its traditional owners. Kakadu National Park is located south-east of Darwin and comprises an area of 19, 804 km² – almost half the size of Switzerland! It is home to 1700 plant species, 64 different native mammals, 50 species of fish and about a third of Australia’s bird species. One species that I didn’t know much about were termites. I thought termites were just termites. But no, there are at least 50 different species. Who knew? While home owners might consider them to be public enemy number one, termites actually play a pivotal role in recycling nutrients and providing homes for birds and small mammals.
Of course, a book about Kakadu cannot go past one of the most formidable predators on the Australian continent – crocs. Australian crocodiles are divided into two camps – salties and freshies. While the smaller freshies are unlikely to attack humans, unless provoked, their saltwater cousins are another story, growing up to six metres long and often living up to seventy years or more. And yet, less than 10% of their young survive their first year of life.
While Jarver’s photography is definitely the stand out feature of this book, Chester equally captures life in the wetlands with his beautiful and elegant prose.
A billabong at dusk. The water is smooth, the air still. Hundreds of Plumed Whistling Ducks are quietly gathered on a grassy bank. Late afternoon light catches the water lilies, their large floating leaves crinkled at the edges like the ruff on a Frilled Lizard. The only movement is a Comb-crested Jacana, silently prancing from lily to lily. All appears tranquil. But appearances can be misleading and with the stab of a beak or the thrash of a tail everything can change.
The book concludes with a section giving advice to visitors. Keeping in mind the publication date of 1998, the advice is still very timely. Many people fly in, rush through the park in a day and head off to the next stop on their itinerary. However Jarver and Chester advocate that to fully appreciate the beauty of Kakadu, a slower approach is required. Visitors are encouraged to stay, to explore the park on foot, and stop, look and listen. There is also a very handy section on photography tips. Many people might only visit Kakdu once in their lifetime, so it would be disappointing to come away with lack lustre photos. Although I must say that Jarver sets a very high standard.
Although Jarver passed away in 2003, you can explore his photography and purchase his work here. I particularly appreciated his approach to photography.
A true photographic artist should be able to produce images which are not just technically perfect or aesthetically pleasing, but capture the emotion or drama of the place. Water should be heard to burble, leaves to rustle. The image should be swelling with emotion, the viewer drawn by the heart into the very essence of place.Peter Jarver
Both Jarver and Chester were committed environmentalists. I am sure that probably all landscape photographers are too, and the book led me to think about the role of nature photographers in the environmental movement. Flicking through the book inspires the reader to put Kakadu on the top of their bucket list, but it also drives home the importance of preserving these places. We can read many words about the importance of conservation and protecting our natural environment, but just one stunning photo can capture the hearts of numerous readers, no matter where they live across the world. This has been particularly important in environmental campaigns, and the Save the Franklin campaign immediately springs to mind. Many people had never heard of the Franklin River, but just one photo garnered support from across the world to mount one of the most significant environmental campaigns in Australian history.
Wetlands like Kakadu are not just a pretty place. They also play a pivotal role in regulating climate, controlling flooding and minimising storm damage. A recent article by Mulder and Kubiszewski notes that over the last 50 years Australian wetlands have helped to limit the damage bill from cyclones to around $3 billion. Without the wetlands, this damage bill could have been closer to $30 billion. Coastal wetlands cop the full force of cyclones, slowing down the winds, absorbing storm surges and trapping sea water. Even back in the late 1990s, places like Kakadu were identified as being at risk due to global warming. A significant rise in sea level would be catastrophic for the fresh water ecosystem of a place like Kakadu.
Mulder and Kubiszewski also highlight how over the last 300 years almost 85% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed. Just two days ago, the international community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands which was signed in 1971. World Wetlands Day has been commemorated since 1997 with the goal of raising awareness and promoting the importance of the conservation and wise use of the world’s wetlands. With cyclones and other extreme weather events predicted to increase due to climate change, the preservation of our wetlands is more important now than ever before.
Jarver, Peter. Kakadu: A Guide for All Seasons, Wildscape Australia, 1998.
Mulder, Obadiah, & Kubiszewski, Ida. Wetlands have Saved Australia, The Conversation, January 22, 2021.