Three years ago, Gardiner native Walter Beckwith was working at a dig at a very old, very high altitude archaeological site in southern Peru, searching for insights into the people who lived there millennia ago, when someone found an obsidian projectile point.
Beckwith, who was working on his master’s degree in climate studies from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, got out his camera and took a photo of the point, its shine and sharp edges juxtaposed against the muddy hand of the person holding it. It’s a powerful image, and one that is now part of the “Art of Climate Science” exhibit of photography and artwork that is on display at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast through the end of September.
The exhibit showcases the work of Climate Change Institute faculty, staff and students who have gone on expeditions to some of the most far-flung corners of the planet — and also sometimes in our own backyard — to try and understand the past, current and future of earth’s climate.
“Students are expected to have a project, and go to these places, and do this work,” Beckwith said. “These photos are a testament for that. And for me, I hope it inspires others to explore. I feel there are still a lot of unknowns on the map, and that there’s still a lot to be learned from exploration.”
The photos and artwork at the exhibit show glimpses of places in the world where many people will never get to visit themselves. Those include a shot of a trio of colorful king penguins in the Falkland Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic; an evocative photograph of a Peruvian woman in traditional garb, a Mona Lisa-esque half smile on her face; an impossibly blue and pristine-looking pond in Montana’s Glacier National Park; a delicate pen-and-ink drawing of Maine’s Schoodic Mountain and much, much more.
Some of the loveliest landscapes in the show were taken by Mariusz Potocki, a glacio chemist and University of Maine doctoral candidate from Poland whose photographs have been featured in National Geographic. Potocki has an eye for the dreamy, with one of his shots showcasing a university campsite on a zero degree night about 18,000 feet up on a volcanic crater in South America. In the striking scene, the tents glow against a dark sky dotted by hundreds of stars.
Another photo, this one taken by Peter Strand in 2016, is of a cold glacial stream running through a monochromatic mountain landscape in Mongolia. The scenery seems almost impossibly remote, and appears stark, forbidding and unsusceptible to manmade change. But that, of course, is one of the points of the exhibit, and also the institute. No landscape on earth is remote enough to be unaffected by climate change.
In a recent interview with UMaine Today, Paul Mayewski, the internationally recognized climate scientist who is the director of the Climate Change Institute, said that just 50 years ago, many scientists believed that the planet was so huge it couldn’t be altered by humans, regardless of our actions.
“At the beginning of my career, the thought was we couldn’t do anything to Mother Earth — but we’ve done a lot and we’ve done it fast,” he said in the interview. “And the ramifications of those things are unbelievable.”
Although the art on display doesn’t show some of the more cliched images of climate change — think sad polar bears adrift on a shrinking iceberg — it does powerfully present some of the places that have been, are being and will be affected by the changing climate. And it shows some of the most remote places in the world where the University of Maine has left footprints.
Nancy Bergerson, the gallery coordinator at the Hutchinson Center, said that the exhibit was curated by the Climate Change Institute, and she didn’t know what it would include until the photos and art were unpacked and hung up in Belfast. When she saw them up, she was struck by the unexpected and “amazing” creativity of people who work in scientific fields.
“I was just in awe of the diversity of the work,” she said. “I think it just draws you into what is happening in all parts of the world. Most of us get to a point where we’re just living in our little bubbles. We’re really not aware. This exhibit opens your eyes, I guess you’d say.”
That’s the hope, according to Beckwith.
“We can save these places or understand what these places can tell us, and how important they are,” he said. “A pretty landscape absolutely makes a good photo, but it can also tell us a lot about the planet and the future.”
“The Art of Climate Science” will be on display through Friday, Sept. 29, at the H. Allen and Sally Fernald Art Gallery at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast.