Landscape photographer, book designer and part-time Cal Poly and Cuesta College fine art instructor Patty Arnold has found new respect for the little grain that feeds the world.
Integrating a mixture of agricultural, recreational, environmental, political and historical research, her “Season of Rice” documentary photo exhibit of eastern and western rice farming is on display at the San Luis Obispo Art Center.
The photography documents Arnold’s experience in California and Bali rice paddies.
Arnold said “Season of Rice” was part of a deep desire she has to study the effects of human intervention in various landscapes, which can be either constructive or destructive.
In 2005, Arnold photographed a 190-day cycle of rice and the harvest season during September and October at a rice paddy field in Marysville, Calif. The motivation behind her research was to find out what happens when wetlands become housing developments, how wildlife responds to climactic changes that are introduced to the land and if these alterations can operate in balance with the environment.
Being able to study a specific place over an extended period of time allowed her to record the changes that occurred with her camera, documenting issues involving land and water use and the general habitat. The wildlife Arnold observed included nesting swallows, beaver, shorebirds, insects, crawfish, egrets and herons.
It was while visiting the rice paddy that Arnold realized just how significant environmental change is. She noticed that farmers at the paddy were attracting and supporting 11,000 migratory birds, some of which are endangered species, during the process of farming rice.
“I discovered in Marysville that it wasn’t just farmland affected, it was habitat, and I didn’t expect that. Part of my education became to tell the story so that people will be aware that there is more going on than just farming. There’s a bigger story than just the food,” she said.
The “Season of Rice” project expanded globally in 2007 when she photographed a rice paddy field in Bali, Indonesia. The Eastern methods of terrace farming were very different from Western methods of contour farming. Westerners view times as linear, so everything had a beginning, middle and end, without the luxury of multiple harvests she said. Bali, on the other hand, is unique in producing three harvests a year while a fourth is rotated in with something to replenish the soil, such as beans or flowers.
Because of the unique growing pattern, Arnold was able to observe an entire planting and harvesting in two weeks while she was in Bali. Arnold said that Bali is the most spiritual country she has ever been to. “They acknowledge the importance of rice; it is considered a life-sustaining food and it is in every part of their culture. They wear rice on their heads and throats to enter a temple. I have come to respect the grain which feeds half the world,” she said.
Arnold believes that similarities between cultures rest in the knowledge of how important water use is in farming rice. Irrigation systems in both styles make use of simple constructions and devices to control water.
“Farmers might actually be the best chance we have in preserving the habitats. We have to stop seeing them as an enemy and allow them to become more educated and aware of their husbandry position and responsibility of the land, hopefully to make good decisions based on biological understanding,” she said.
The “Season of Rice” exhibit is displayed simultaneously with the “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” photo-narrative exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Art Center, which will remain on display through the end of February.