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One Picture

Photo Essay
The Spectacle of Wings
In the newly released book Wild Birds of the American Wetlands, photography by rosalie winard captures the ethereal beauty of wading birds with the flair of a painter and the passion of an activist.


With a camera in hand and a heart as wide as the country she is seeking, Rosalie Winard has migrated in and out of America’s wetlands in search of her beloved long-legged birds. By now, after almost a decade of focusing on avian primitives—pelicans, herons, egrets, avocets, stilts, storks, ibises, and cranes—she is perhaps more bird than human.

If there was a conference of wings in the wetlands of Great Salt Lake, Rosalie was there. When the sandhill cranes touched down on the Platte River once again in the spring in Nebraska, Rosalie was lying on her back in the prairie, looking upward at nine million years of perfection. And when the wetlands of the Bolsa Chica were rejoined with the Pacific Ocean in a free-flow exchange, Rosalie was present to both document and celebrate the occasion with local activists, who never stopped believing in the power of restoration.

Through the act of witnessing these fragile, enduring birds of America’s wetlands, she refuses to let their noble and imperiled lives remain hidden. Each image is a reckoning with the Other. Only an artist who recognizes the redemption of the wild as it crosses and clashes with culture could create such an evocative and disturbing tension: absence and presence, at once.

These are shadowed days for North American wetlands and the myriads of shorebirds that inhabit them. Rich waters are being dredged, drained, filled, and developed at record rates. Millions of acres of wetlands have been lost.

What if we quieted ourselves long enough to listen to the collective wingbeats of avocets and stilts flying across Great Salt Lake?

What if we were able to locate a stillness so sweet and sublime we could hear the prehistoric cries of sandhill cranes rolling across the prairies like thunder?

What if we agreed for one short moment to suspend all manner of mechanical noises: cars, planes, trains, ships, motors of any kind; factories, whistles, horns, bells; even radios, iPods, televisions, and cell phones? And we simply made a vow that for one moment on the planet we would try to quiet ourselves long enough to partake of the natural rhythms of the earth and listen?

What would we hear?

Avian exuberance. The spectacle of wings. The whistling of wings cooling the planet. Our own primal longing lodged deep in our DNA released, revived, restored—we are part of the great breathing heart of beauty.

We remember what we have forgotten. All life is intertwined.

It is in our shimmering wetlands that sparkle and sing that our avian primitives make their stand. Who cannot hear their brackish calls or croaks or murky voices seeping out of the swamps and marshes and not be moved by a presence so much older than ours? Their lineage is linked to dinosaurs. Do they see us as a passing evolutionary disturbance, an aggressive fad, or partners in a dynamic world? There are those who say birds have no thought, only instinct. But if instinct is the cornerstone of survival, then we have much to learn from their primal stance in contemporary times and what it means to adapt graciously in a changing world.

When I asked Rosalie what she has learned in a decade of working with these avian primitives, her response was immediate: “The resiliency of nature. That against all odds, these long-legged birds survive.”

This is Rosalie Winard’s greatest gift to us as a fine art photographer, an avian artist. She has created a portfolio of hope. She has taken her artistry and put it in the service of her heart.

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Excerpted from Wild Birds of the American Wetlands, published in March by Welcome Books. Photographs copyright © 2008 by Rosalie Winard; essay copyright © 2008 by Terry Tempest Williams. All rights reserved.

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