Clyde Butcher: the Voice of the Land

The photographer and conservationist warns of climate destruction. His concerns echo in this weeks COP25 summit as world hopes for progress from governments. 

By Christopher Vincent Bared

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Clyde Butcher Outside his home in Big Cypress Natural Preserve, Florida.

A lot of photographers of the past, photographing the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East, have been photographing it to show what’s happening, but it hasn’t stopped war.

The point of no return is no longer on the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us.

Watch: Exclusive Interview with Clyde Butcher.

            When I arrived to interview him, just two years after he suffered a stroke, I was apprehensive. I had a list of vague questions pertaining to his creative process and his advice to the next generation of artists. Despite his recent health scare, I expected much of the same responses I saw in my Clyde-Butcher-research on YouTube prior to meeting him. 

            In our conversation, what I received instead was a bleak warning.

            “If we don’t get out of this greed thing, you won’t have a chance,” Butcher told me.

            I had asked him what his hopes were for the future of my generation and the environment. When we started to discuss the environment, Butcher began taking longer pauses and deeper sighs.

            Three weeks after I sat down with Butcher, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released it’s latest climate report, called the Emissions Gap report. The findings showed that humans are currently on a path towards climate catastrophe if global greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced to 1.5 degrees Celsuis above pre-industrial levels.

            After his son Ted was killed by a drunk driver, Clyde Butcher found solace in the swampy, vivacious landscapes of the Florida Everglades. For 16 years, he lived, with his wife Nikki, in Big Cypress Natural Preserve. It is where he became the Clyde Butcher familiar to Floridians and admired by photographers around the world. It is where, several years ago, one might find him as (or mistake him for) part of the landscape.

            “It’s just you and nature and everything is okay,” Butcher said, “there’s no politics anymore, and it’s just you and, as you might want to call it, God, or life.”

            Butcher would set his camera in tall grass or waist deep in gator-filled water for hours, days, even two weeks at one point, he claims, waiting for the perfect moment to take one photograph on his large-format film camera. He saw something surreal and primordial about the environment he was photographing. For years, he trudged through it and let himself become a part of it, creating large film photographs that drew global recognition. According to Butcher, he still feels a “life force” in the Florida landscape—something divine to be preserved. 

According to the report’s executive summary, “by 2030, emissions would need to be 25 per cent and 55 per cent lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2˚C and 1.5°C respectively.”

            That’s no small task, especially in a world that is seeing an increasing rise in right-wing nationalism, consumer capitalism, and ignorance of climate change.

            Clyde Butcher has now lived most of his life in the wilderness, away from cities, but he is, in fact, well aware of what is going on. He is at the forefront of what some are calling the most pressing issue of our time—climate disaster.

            “There’s such a removal from the Earth for people in cities. Where do they think their air and water comes from? It doesn’t just appear,” he said.

            Butcher’s words called to mind those of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist and leader of a global movement against climate change. His words did not come from suits and ties in New York City or The Hague. Instead, Butcher, who several years ago one would find deeply engrained in the bogs of Big Cypress, spoke on behalf of the land itself.

            “I don’t know how you get people in New York City, the stock market or the federal reserve, to understand what’s happening,” he said, “We have to understand that we need nature.”

            Though he has been considered a humanitarian and conservationist mainly because of his landscape photography, he doesn’t think it will make a difference to those in power.

            “A lot of photographers of the past, photographing the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East, have been photographing it to show what’s happening, but it hasn’t stopped war,” he said.

            When it comes to taking action, however, Butcher is both talk and walk. He has completed six Public Broadcasting programs on the environment of Florida, according to his website. He also says his family drives an electric car and has 11,000 watts of solar energy and three tesla batteries to power his 900-square-foot Big Cypress home.

            “We are trying to do things right,” he said.

            While Butcher, Thunberg, and their respective followers have helped stoke the fire of policy shift from the ground up, those in power have turned the other cheek, according to the UN’s findings.

            The executive summary of the recent report says, “Countries have collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions.”

            This week the UN Climate Change conference, called COP25, kicked off in Madrid. The aim of the conference is to accelerate political action to curb emissions before it is too late.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “the point of no return is no longer on the horizon, it is in sight and hurtling towards us.”

            And while the world’s governments meet to decide our fate, the current trend of global emissions still puts us at 3.2 degrees over pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

            To make matters bleaker, the United States pulled out of the Paris agreement in 2016. Whatever decisions are made by governments at the COP25 summit, Butcher’s home state of Florida will still face threats of increased temperatures, rising sea levels, plastic pollution, and much more.

            So where is the hope? According to Butcher, it lies in reconnecting with nature.

            “That connection is disappearing,” he said, “we have to get people to connect with this. People that come here and do swamp walks become ambassadors.”

            Clyde Butcher will continue his conservation efforts through his photography and activism. And, the rest of us will await the decisions made at the COP25 and by those in power, in the hopes that we too may continue to find solace in swampy, vivacious landscapes, coral reefs, Big Cypress bogs, and mysterious “life forces” in nature.  

See more photos of Florida

Clyde Butcher's Gallery is located in Big Cypress National Preserve, just off the Tamiami Trail East.

(Top) Alligators on Loop Road near Big Cypress Gallery. 

(Bottom) Clyde Butcher at Big Cypress Galley.

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