From the Archives: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

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Most people are aware that Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, but fewer are aware of its other unique ecological distinctions: at over 19,000 feet high, it is the tallest freestanding volcanic mountain in the world, as well as a truly one-of-kind self-contained ecosystem that contains every known ecological zone on earth: arid plains, savannah, mountain rainforest and heath, alpine desert, and glacial snow and ice. This is evident in these truly fantastic photographs taken by Eliot Elisofon on his way up the mountain, taken in 1966, of his Tanzanian guides.

fffThese photos reveal just how diverse the ecosystem of Kilimanjaro really is. In one photo, the guides carry heavy packs through what appears to be a tropical forest, complete with palms and carpet of green. Then the group moves through what appears to be a moon-like desert landscape, bundled up as a cold fog moves in.  In another, a pair of guides sit smiling on a steep, rocky incline, again free of vegetation. In the background, a snow-covered summit can be spotted. The journey to the top of Kilimanjaro is not just one of skill and endurance.  It also illuminates earth’s extraordinary diversity, bounty, and delicate ecological balance.

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South African mixed-media artist Georgia Papageorge (b. 1941, South Africa) has found inspiration in this mountain, at the same time that she uses her work to draw attention to the forces that endanger it.  She sees in Kilimanjaro a reflection of one of today’s most pressing issues. Because of the distinct ecosystem of the mountain, it seemed to Papageorge a place from which to track and fully comprehend climate change. After first visiting in 1996, Papageorge has repeatedly returned to the mountain, and since 2005 it has been a focus of her artistic work and activism.

The product of Papageorge’s diligent and prodigious work and research on the mountain is seen in her work in Earth Matters, Kilimanjaro/Cold Fire (2010), a dual projection video that documents dramatically Kilimanjaro’s melting glacier and central Africa’s extensive charcoal trade that if continued in an unsustainable manner will lead to the deforestation of vast tracks of Africa’s landscape. Her work begs the question: how much longer will the ecosystems Elisofon documented remain? How soon before this awe-inspiring diversity of nature disappears? And what will we be left with when it is gone? Share your thoughts below.

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