Tom Barnes doesn't mind the darkness. With walking stick in one hand, tripod in the other, and camera and lenses in a knapsack slung across his back, he plunges along a narrow, nearly invisible forest trail two hours before dawn. Cumberland Falls roars far below; one misstep could end in a serious drop. It doesn't faze him. What's important is getting his camera set up in time to catch the sun's first rays on Kentucky's famous waterfall.
This UK forestry professor has spent most of his adult life searching out perfect places under perfect circumstances to shoot the perfect photograph. And he has the photography awards and the international reputation to prove he's been successful.
Except for this particular attempt, when an impenetrable fog refuses to lift until mid-morning. No dawn's rosy light today. It's one of the hazards of his business.
Hepatica, a member of the buttercup family, is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. Its color can vary from white to pink to blue. Tom Barnes photographed this cluster at Natural Bridge in Powell County, but Hepatica can be found throughout Kentucky.
Hello, who's there? Barnes was photographing this Kentucky lady's slipper when he noticed a dark splotch behind the lip. He managed to get three images of this miniscule Upland Chorus frog, which had probably been lying in wait to catch a bee for breakfast.
A message to share
A hike in the woods with Barnes yields more than fresh air and exercise. Every few feet, he points out something of interest. "That's sourwood. If your mouth is dry, chew on a leaf." The photographer in him is immensely pleased when he notices a striking cluster—"Foamflower and blue phlox make a great combination." The conservationist in him is downright ecstatic when he finds a rare plant—"I found the biggest population of rare nettleleaf sage in the state! There were 300 individuals in the population."
If that seems like a lot of excitement over a clump of sage, Barnes' experience and research have convinced him there is reason for concern when it comes to environmental issues.
"We're in a time of unprecedented species extinctions," he says. "In Kentucky, we have the ninth highest species extinction rate in the country."
"Just another day in the woods" to Tom Barnes, who was visiting Cumberland Falls State Park when he rose before dawn on a spring morning to take this photograph of the Cumberland River above the falls.
A call to arms
Barnes is trying to relay a wake-up message to as many people as possible: there's still time to make a difference, but we no longer have the luxury of putting it off. His conservation beliefs energize his work as the state extension wildlife specialist in the College's Department of Forestry. His extension efforts focus on providing agents, faculty, and the general public with information on protecting biodiversity, conserving urban wildlife, and managing wildlife damage. As he writes on his website, managing natural resources more effectively makes "the world and environment a better place for humanity."
Barnes uses his photography, which has been seen in the Smithsonian Institute, Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, and the Bronx Zoo among others, and his five published books (two more are on the way) to help educate the public on what could be lost.
"You can't love it and care for it, unless you know something about it," he contends.
He doesn't just encourage people to save "beauty," but to consider their own responsibility in fixing a larger problem. His conversation is sprinkled with references to clean water, the death of freshwater mussels being the "canary in the mine," and the impending destruction of hemlock trees by the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid and what that will mean to stream habitats. And he speaks passionately about how climate change could cause sea levels to rise and flood poor coastal regions without the resources to protect their people.
"This is where environmental issues become huge moral issues. What we do now will mitigate to some extent the human sacrifice in the future," he said. "And that's got to be a moral choice that we make."
Prairie born, Kentucky blessed
The South Dakota native, born and raised on the unbroken western prairie, moved to Kentucky in 1988 and fell in love with the state's rich environment. Several of his books, including Rare Wildflowers of Kentucky, The Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, and Kentucky's Last Great Places, focus on the state's diverse, often rare, habitats.
In The Gift of Creation: Images from Scripture and Earth, Barnes preaches the gospel of stewardship by weaving his photographs of the natural world around theologians' essays. In the process, he reveals a bit about himself.
He is a spiritual man, a man who counts priests and monks as his friends and intellectual companions. He believes humans were given dominion over the earth, not to exploit it, but to protect it.
"In Extension we try to make a difference in people's lives. And I want to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "I want to make their lives better or make the environment better. So I think about the moral aspects of it."
Barnes liked how the broad, variegated leaves and yellow bloom of the trillium broke up the pattern of the iris. It's one of Nature's striking compositions that often catch Barnes' eye.
The image as teacher
"Photography is a medium that, particularly within natural resources, has great potential for teaching and/or conservation," he said. "There's a long history of photography, going back to Ansel Adams, for protecting outstanding natural lands."
Barnes purchased his first Nikon camera when he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after graduating with a master's degree in wildlife conservation from South Dakota State University. His first sight of a Texas spring, lush with blue bonnets and paintbrush, bowled him over while he was working on his doctorate at Texas A & M University, and he began to develop an interest in native plants.
"That's how I learned to identify plants," he said. "I would see this beautiful flower, take a photograph, then go back, look it up, and study it. Over the years I've developed a knowledge base based on my photography."
Dog Slaughter Falls, a few miles north of Cumberland Falls in the southeastern part of the state. Barnes waded across the creek on this spring day because he saw the marsh violet growing out of the crevice in the rock (foreground) and wanted a composition that other photographers hadn't taken.
He can spend an hour or more getting the perfect shot, removing intrusive debris, waiting for the right light, and making sure nothing draws the eye away from the focal point in the frame. To see him kneeling on the damp, humus-y forest floor, leaning on his forearms, tossing aside a twig or a leaf, is to see patience in action.
"People don't like going into the field with me, because I'm slow and poke around," he said.
On that early morning at Cumberland Falls, Barnes had a lot of time on his hands waiting for the fog to lift. He used it productively—to study all the minute details of the forest. After more than 25 years of experience in nature photography and wildlife conservation, he still learns things in those timeless moments of quiet.
"It helps tremendously when you sit and observe," he said. "Like wild ginger—it's a pretty nondescript flower that's on the ground, and you think, how's that pollinated? It's not a showy flower, so it's probably not a bee or a butterfly. It turns out it's pollinated by ants. The flower kind of stinks, which is what attracts ants."
Hearing the admiration in his voice for those little details inherent in nature, it's pretty obvious that Barnes found his true calling.
"There have been some great moments. There have been some scary moments, moments of great joy and sadness," he recalls. "There are plants I photographed that aren't there anymore; their habitat had been destroyed."
Through it all, Tom Barnes perseveres and keeps sending out his message through his Extension work and his photographs: Stewardship is our responsibility. If we don't take care of our world, who will? ◆