Along the northern reaches of Canada sits the Boreal, the largest intact forest in the world. It covers nearly 60 percent of the Great White North in blanket of timber green. Many people around the world, and in Canada in particular, know very little about this immense swath of land, stretching more than 10,000 miles across the country and home to the largest amount of unfrozen fresh water on the planet. In fact, many consider it uninhabitable–a barren wasteland moldering to the north.
But to Canadian photographer and photojournalist Eamon Mac Mahon, raised in the heart of this expanse in Grande Cache, Alberta, the Boreal is something different. For Mac Mahon, the forest is a living, breathing, inherently complex canvas, a body of work that he has been sharing with the world one frame at a time.
His work in the Boreal has been encapsulated in a project titled, “The Amazon of the North,” a collection of photos that highlight both the area’s natural beauty and the encroaching influence of industry on the region. In 2015, a portion of the piece won a Canadian National Magazine Award, and his photos have appeared in the Art Gallery of Alberta and in the pages of National Geographic, the New Yorker, and Canada’s general interest magazine, The Walrus.
Though the awards and publications are a nice flourish, Mac Mahon hopes his 5-year project helps to pull back the curtain on one of the places he called home during his early years, and one of the greatest natural mysteries in North America.
“I love spending time [in the Boreal] and still have a deep feeling of wonder for the place,” says Mac Mahon. “It’s somewhat inaccessible and hidden. Revealing things and giving them a place in human consciousness is one of photography’s most valuable attributes, I think.”
Mac Mahon has navigated hundreds of miles of Boreal trails throughout his lifetime, but a good deal of his photography is taken from the bow of a boat or leaning out of a bush plane. From this eagle eye vantage, patterns more akin to brushstrokes than shutter clicks emerge from the landscape. A shot entitled, “Road More Traveled,” features caribou tracks trickling away from a river, forming a series of dark intersecting migrations that appear like tributaries entering an ocean. In “Elemental Truth Number One,” a teardrop-shaped lake stands as an island in a sea of green timber.
But this zoomed-out perspective also gives scale to the region’s growing concerns over deforestation, oil drilling, and forest fires. Despite forest comprising more than half of Canada’s total land area, only 8.5 percent of the country’s land is under permanent protection, meaning that much of this woodland could be subject to future development.
Much like its Southern Hemisphere namesake, Boreal’s Amazon of the North, is one of the most at risk regions in the country. According to the Walrus, in New Brunswick more than 80 percent of forest has been accessed by industry, and with nearly 500,000 square kilometers of valuable mineral deposits underneath their feet, parts of Manitoba and Ontario could become a series of massive pit mines.
Mac Mahon has experienced the human influence on the Boreal firsthand, even getting arrested while tagging along with an environmental group that broke into and occupied an open pit mine in the Alberta oil sands.
He says photography helps, “take inventory” on the area, establishing where development has occurred, what impacts industry has had on the wilderness, and what future threats loom. His images–of roads slicing through thick wilderness, of forests uprooted in favor of mines, of timber trucks–hit home even for those removed by thousands of miles.
“I’d like to move people in Canada to work together and find ways of allowing the Boreal to heal and flourish, because we all depend on it,” says Mac Mahon.
His work coincides with an unprecedented alliance between environmental groups, first nations, industry, and government as they battle to keep Canada’s largest national treasure alive.
In the meantime, Mac Mahon is doing his part by organizing “Amazon of the North” into a book. The finished piece will feature his photos, alongside personal memories and musings about the mighty forests of The Great White North.
“It was, and still is, enough to know that such a large wild expanse exists, and that billions of birds will breed there again this spring,” Mac Mahon wrote in The Walrus. “The Boreal forest will take care of itself–if we allow it enough room to breathe.”
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