Southern Appalachian bogs are amongst the rarest habitats in Western North Carolina. Without them, we would lose a vital source of flood and pollution control. In North Carolina alone, bogs provide habitats for nearly 90 plant and animal species that are considered rare, and 17 bog species are either federally listed under the Endangered Species Act or are of conservation concern. In an effort to bring awareness to this endangered yet vital ecosystem, WNC-based photographer Michael Oppenheim partnered with the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain chapter of The Nature Conservancy to develop a new photography exhibit, A Year in the Life of a Mountain Bog. On display in the upstairs gallery of The North Carolina Arboretum’s Education Center through October 1, 2017, Oppenheim’s exhibit captures the flora and fauna of a local bog over the course of four seasons. I recently had the opportunity to ask Michael a few questions about the exhibit and his work.
You’ve been working as a photographer for decades. What got you started in this field?
I still remember when I got my first camera as a child (I think I was five) from my mom’s friend; it was a Kodak Instamatic. When my family moved to New Zealand when I was 8 years old, my mom invested in a Canon camera system to feed her own passion for photography. At that point, I would often photograph alongside her or on my own. This continued through high school and college, where my camera was always pretty close at hand. After college, I moved to Seattle and taught Kindergarten for two years and then connected with a local product photography studio. Over the course of the next six years, I built my own photography business before moving to Asheville almost 20 years ago. Since moving here, I have been very fortunate to work with a diverse range of local and national clients, including The Nature Conservancy, The North Carolina Arboretum, New Belgium Brewing, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Biltmore Estate and the Grove Park Inn.
How did you get involved with The Nature Conservancy and this project?
I had heard through the grapevine that Megan Sutton of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain chapter of The Nature Conservancy was looking for someone to document the restoration efforts of a local bog. I had been looking for a personal project to work on for a local non-profit, and this seemed like a perfect fit. As a freelance photographer, I photograph a diverse range of subjects, and so I wanted to immerse myself in nature and do something totally different from what I had been shooting. The bog project was just the eye-opening experience I needed.
A Year in the Life of a Mountain Bog is exactly that; you spent a year on this project. Can you describe what it was like to experience the changing seasons, the decay and rebirth within this habitat?
My first introduction to the bog was in February, and it was the first time I ever traversed a natural bog and saw wild pitcher plants. The carnivorous pitcher plants grew in clumps, and the flowers, dried out and brittle from winter, were totally fascinating as they still clung to the curved stems. My third trip to the bog was early spring and I was treated to a green frog warming itself in the sun amid an array of flowering yellow trout lilies. By May, the pitcher plants had exploded with new flowering blooms alongside a wild iris, an arrowroot and a diverse range of flora. At this point, the “trails” through the bog were still very muddy and required knee-high boots, rain pants and a long-sleeve shirt. I was often kneeling in mud with my tripod as low as it would go in order to get the best vantage point of these rare specimens. During the summer, the channels through the bog actually dried out a bit in spots and it was easier to traverse, although the vegetation around those trails were thick with briars, poison sumac, mountain laurel and giant cinnamon ferns. In October, the flowers of the pitcher plants were starting to dry out again, the weather was moderating, early morning fog seemed to become the norm, and the cycle appeared to be complete. My only regret was that I did not get to experience the bog in snow. I still may try to revisit the site during a winter snow at some point.
These photographs speak to the incredible beauty of bogs in Western North Carolina, but there is a definite urgency within this exhibit as well. What did you learn from this project?
The urgency that you speak of is simple. We are losing habitats like this at a rapid rate due to development, farming and a lack of awareness of their importance to our world. Bogs are mysterious and increasingly rare habitats. They are easily overlooked and misunderstood, and they are beneficial in acting as a natural reservoir for water runoff during storms. The bog I photographed would never have been recognized while driving by its border, and its postage-stamp size would have belied the rare diversity and treasures held within its small boundaries.
Just as importantly, as I started photographing the bog, there were already efforts to establish the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with non-profits and private landholders. Only five percent of bogs remain since 200 years ago, so it is increasingly urgent to preserve these habitats. In fact, the bog I photographed over the course of four seasons was only possible due to the commitment and foresight of a private landowner who saw the value in this incredible, yet tiny ecosystem. Hopefully, through the continued efforts of environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, private landowners and environmental activists these treasured habitats will be preserved and restored.
What brought you to exhibit your work at The North Carolina Arboretum?
I have worked with The North Carolina Arboretum for many years since moving to Asheville. Once the photography project was complete, it seemed natural to host an exhibit of some sort. Originally we had discussed doing a traveling educational exhibit, but funding, scheduling and logistics proved difficult. I decided to make the leap and invest in a more artistic-themed exhibit with the hope that we can build on it for a future educational documentary, including a video and book component.
What do you hope for visitors to learn from A Year in the Life of a Mountain Bog?
I hope that visitors will appreciate the diversity and beauty in these small, fragile and disappearing ecosystems. Most people will not come across or venture into a bog, much less see an endangered, federally protected mountain sweet pitcher plant or the threatened bog turtle. I hope that by opening a window to this lush, primordial world, viewers will be inspired to learn more about bogs and support those organizations that are trying to restore, preserve and advocate for bogs in Western North Carolina and beyond. I recommend visiting the Mountain Bogs National Wildlife Refuge website, as well as contacting the Southern Blue Ridge Mountain chapter of The Nature Conservancy. And, of course, The North Carolina Arboretum is a great resource for learning about our regional plant life and varied ecosystems.
The “A Year in the Life of a Mountain Bog” photography exhibit is on display in the upstairs gallery of the Arboretum’s Education Center. The exhibit is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 1, 2017. For more information, please click here.
About the Author
Tommy Young is a communications intern at The North Carolina Arboretum. He is currently enrolled at Appalachian State University where he studies English. A native of Asheville, Tommy enjoys hiking, reading and writing. He has published several poems and hopes to become a teacher.