Saving America’s Amazon: Behind the Lens with Ben Raines

Writer, naturalist and documentary filmmaker Ben Raines shares the details behind some of his favorite photographs captured during the creation of his celebrated book, “Saving America’s Amazon.”

lotus flower along the riverbank
Lotus stands line the riverbanks of the lower Delta

I wrote “Saving America’s Amazon” as a love letter to Alabama, to make people fall for Alabama and her landscapes, to appreciate them and understand that they are valuable on a global scale. Too often, we have been suckered into believing that the fields and forests and streams of Alabama are inconsequential when compared to other places. It is an idea forced onto us by industry and politicians looking to sell, exploit and destroy our natural places to make a little money. Nothing could be further from the truth of Alabama, which has more species of plants and animals per square mile than any other state. Think about that for a moment. There are more kinds of creatures and plants occupying every inch of space in our state than you can find in any other state in the nation. Alabama’s hills and valleys rank among the most biodiverse spots on Earth. Why then does Alabama rank dead last for what we spend to protect our environment? Why do our pollution laws rank among the weakest in the country? Why have more than half of all extinctions in the United States since the Civil War happened in Alabama?  

The answer is that we, as Alabamians, have allowed it to happen. But we can do better. We can demand that industry and our state officials meet the standards enforced in other states. We can demand laws to protect our waterways instead of the laws we have that guarantee industry the right to use our waters no matter the ecological price. We can demand buffer zones around our streams to protect them from logging clearcuts, as required in Oregon and Georgia (the only states that harvest more trees than Alabama). The first step is for people here to realize that the landscape beneath our feet in Alabama is worth protecting. 

Pitcher plants

Pitcher Plants

Pitcher plant bog — an iconic vista of carnivorous plants For me, fields of pitcher plants like this represent Alabama in the same way shots of the Tetons represent Wyoming: an iconic vista that instantly calls to mind a very specific and wild spot on Earth. Think of an open meadow of carnivorous pitcher plants as a field of mouths gobbling bugs by the thousands every minute of every day. It is a magical thing that Alabama is still home to fields populated with plants that eat meat to survive. 

Field of irises

Field of Irises

Irises at Petit Bateau in Mobile-Tensaw Delta Irises are native to both France and the American South. That being so, it is a shame we let Louisiana and New Orleans lay claim to the fleur de lis as their symbol. The fact is, Mobile was the original capital of French Louisiana, and those irises the early French settlers first recognized from back home in France were here in Alabama, growing in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. I took this picture in a spot known locally as “Little Batty,” a corruption of the original name that obscures the most telling thing about the location. Originally, the spot was known by its French moniker, Petit Bateau, which makes sense if you see Little Batty from above. This small bay in the center of the Delta is shaped like a canoe, or, to translate the old French name, a “Little Boat.”  

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Grass pink orchid

Grass Pink Orchid

Grass Pink Orchid — once a common Alabama species Most Alabamians, seeing the big showy Amazonian or African orchids for sale at the local Home Depot or the grocery store, never imagine that such flowers used to grow wild in their own neighborhoods. This grass pink orchid was growing in a cow pasture near Loxley. I’ve found them in roadside ditches in Stockton and coming up in a vacant lot in Tillman’s Corner. The next time you ride through a subdivision, remember that several of the 54 orchid species native to Alabama probably lived in that very spot before they were buried under fill dirt and centipede grass. 

Emerald Virgin

The Emerald Virgin

The Emerald Virgin — a fly of surpassing elegance and beautyIn the 1800s, Alabama was known as a place where you could see things that existed nowhere else. Indeed, the specimen collections of The British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution are full of samples of plants and fossils collected in Alabama 200 years ago. Phillip Henry Gosse, an Englishman who visited Alabama in the 1860s and would later gain fame as the inventor of the aquarium, wrote elegantly about our wild lands in 1859. Behold his romantic description of one of the Delta’s damselflies: “He who would see the Emerald Virgin must go to some such hidden brook as I have described; over which as it flows silently — in a deep soft bed of moss of the richest green, or brawls over a pebbly bottom with impotent rage — three or four of these lovely insects may be seen at any hour … a fly of surpassing elegance and beauty, whose long and slender body is of a metallic green so refulgent that no color can convey any idea of it.” 

Sundew dragon

Sundew Dragon

Sundew Dragon — in its final moments I love using macro lenses to explore the tiny worlds all around us. The pathos of the dragonfly’s final moments, ensnared in the gooey tendrils of a carnivorous sundew, is inescapable. Imagine the dragon struggling, each helpless flutter of its wings only causing its body to become more entrapped in the plant’s death grip. And then, as seen in this photograph, the carcass is picked clean by ants crawling across its eyes and even inside its body.

Sand dollars along the river bank

Sand Dollars

Sand dollars on the river bank These sand dollars were my first introduction to Alabama’s ancient past and how much it has to do with the present landscape. Seeing them — millions of years old — poking out of a riverbank 90 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico set me on a course that ultimately led to my work in the Underwater Forest, the 70,000-year-old version of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta we found 10 miles offshore, 60 feet under water.  

Ben Raines

Ben Raines is an award-winning environmental journalist and filmmaker. In addition to “Saving America’s Amazon” (purchase the book here), Raines wrote and directed “The Underwater Forest,” a film about an ancient cypress forest found off the Alabama coast. In 2018, he discovered the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.

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