If you know the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado's work, you know that he knows what modern devastation is--knows it, you might say, in the biblical sense. He photographs the desperate, the displaced--people running from war, from starvation, from earthquake, from plague. And yet, despite the overwhelming misery he's recorded, his work is never remote. He sees the people he photographs. They have names, every one of them, and he knows it, and so do you, once you've seen his work.
Salgado has spent most of his life traveling the world, chronicling what at times seems like the end. The end of the world, the end of the land, and so it isn't as if the feeling wasn't familiar when he went back to his father's ranch in the western corner of the state of Minas Gerais, about 110 miles inland from the coastal city of Vitoria, and found desolation in place of the productive land he used to know.
When he was a boy, the ancient trees had only recently fallen to the ax, and one could still raise ten head of cattle per alquiere (about one-and-a-half acres), and play tag with small alligators in the bottom marshes. Salgado returned to sixteen hundred acres of degradation--rutted gullies, wild erosion, exotic weeds where the trees used to grow. No alligators--those marshes were dried up now, and the land was sustaining only half the cattle it had fifty years ago, shortly after the trees were cut.
Not that this really should have come as any surprise. Brazil's Atlantic Forest, once stretching over 386,000 square miles, has long been under siege and now has been reduced to less than 8 percent of its original area. Where once primeval forest reigned, one now finds the largest industrial complexes, as well as the most intense urban concentrations in South America. Sixty percent of all Brazilians currently inhabit this region, along with most of the plants and animals currently listed as "threatened." All seven of the Brazilian species officially considered to be extinct died off as their native habitats disappeared along with the Atlantic Forest.
"Modern life," most people would have shrugged at Salgado's rutted landscape. The "disappearing forest," the world as we know it: the ever-smaller circle of peace and beauty, the ever-increasing environmental degradation, smaller forests, bigger cities, and, always, more poverty. "Inevitable," most of us would have concluded and then turned away, to other gardens. Our own comfortable lives.
But Salgado's wife...