In the distance, ten or so kilometres away, we see the snow-covered Mount Lebanon range, the peaks of varying height obscured by an atmospheric fog creeping in from the right edge of the black and white photograph. In the foreground, occupying nearly half of the composition, are glaciofluvial deposits that cascade downwards right to left into what appears to be an outwash plain, both the products of Pleistocene glaciation from 12,000 years ago. And at the base of the range resides a small grove of trees—Cedrus libani or “Lebanese Cedar”—of several hundred in number. This grove, known as the “Cedars of God,” is one of only twelve remaining in Lebanon due to climate change, and was fortuitously documented by the English photographer Francis Frith (1822-1898), made in 1857 on one of Frith’s three trips to the Middle East. Frith made several other photographs of the Cedars of Lebanon, as did his assistant Frank Mason Good. These photographs are of renewed significance today, and function as material witnesses: the images present a forensic scenography to global, human-made climate change in today’s age of the Anthropocene.
The rapidly disappearing Cedrus libani are of theological, historical, political and scientific significance. Frith’s photographs facilitate a reading of the intersection between these four historiographies, beginning with their textual appearance in the Books of the Bible, to Frith’s photographs and use by the British Palestinian Exploration Fund, to their ongoing material disappearance. These four photographs reside temporally somewhere in the middle when we consider the exponential rate of the trees’ erasure today. The cedars, up to 3,000 years old, are described in the Scriptures as “the glory of Lebanon” and are referenced in the Bible over 75 times. From the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, to Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar, Romans, King David, King of Babylonia, Herod the Great, Ottoman Turks and Lebanese today, all utilized—and exploited—the cedars as both a functional building material and fuel. Today, Cedrus libani is of significant symbolic importance to the people of Lebanon, and is depicted on the national flag, coat of arms, the national airline (Middle East Airlines), insignias from numerous political parties, and as a sign of political will in the 2005 Cedar Revolution.
These photographs of the Cedars of Lebanon offer forensic documents that bear witness to the slow, incremental devastation wrought by climate change, yet captured within a photograph. In conjunction with 19th century forensic scientist Edmond Locard’s guiding principle that “every contact leaves a trace,” this project is an inquiry into the status of the photograph in the Anthropocene today. This project asks:
a. What do 19th century photographs of biological and geological subjects tell us about climate change today?
b. How might the photograph, entered into a juridical arena as a legal document, act as a witness and provide testimony to its own disappearance?
c. Can a photograph act as, or depict, a model of its erasure? That is, wherein the photograph is conventionally understood as offering a marker of the past, and the model offers a blueprint of what might become the future, how might these images by Frith serve to blur this boundary between the two forms?
d. How might Frith’s photographs constitute an atemporal index of appearance and disappearance, from the very first Cedar forests in Lebanon to their mention in the Bible; to the numerous textual accounts of the effects of deforestation on both the Cedars, the environment; to climate change in the Anthropocene, and the looming disappearance of the trees?
e. How might photographs act as a weak sensor that has the potential to warn of impending danger, disaster, or erasure—and might this awareness or photographic sensibility require a new way of reading images and thus, making legible? And how might plant vigor provide a political sensor to conflict?
f. What do theological texts tell us about Frith’s images? How do these texts inform our reading of Frith’s own writings, and our reading of the writings, as well as the images today? And vice versa: how might these photographs inform Biblical scripture?
g. How might these photographs of the Cedars be understood as “orientalist”—and how can they be decolonized?
“The Cedars know the history of the earth better than history itself,” wrote French poet Alphonse de Lamartine—and yet the Cedars are now disappearing, threatening the erasure of this very history. Echoing Marx’s proclamation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon—that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce—this process of erasure, astutely portended by Frith’s photographs, anticipates the subsequent historical amnesia that is ever-present in Lebanon after the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War(s).
As of 2013, the Cedars of Lebanon are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In July, 2018, the New York Times published an article titled “Climate Change Is Killing the Cedars of Lebanon.” This essay by Anne Barnard outlined how the biblical Cedars of Lebanon face extinction, possibly by the end of the 21st century—due to climate change. Yet this recognition of the deleterious effect of climate change on the Cedars was not the first. In Edward Hull’s 1886 The Survey of Western Palestine: Memoir on the Physical Geology and Geography of Arabia Petraea, Palestine, and Adjoining Districts, we find a reference to the trees’ slow disappearance in a remarkable passage where Hull locates two causes: the first is “cosmic” and beyond one’s control, and the second? Climate change due to human activity. Hull writes:
The cutting down of cedars and fir-trees in the Lebanon on such a prodigious scale as described in the Book of Kings may be supposed to have been only the chief part of a very general system of disafforesting… The effect, however, on the climate could not fail to be marked.