See more Abstracted Earth images on my Instagram feed: @rigel.stuhmiller

Abstracted Earth is my ongoing photo project to capture the beauty and logic of large, landscape-shaping geologic processes, as well as the marks we can (and can't) make within Earth's patterns. The project is humbling and awe-inspiring and makes me feel both proud and tiny to be human. The perspective also has helped me understand larger issues in my own life.

Taken during a series of cross-country plane trips, the photos show in one glance the full geographic ramifications of a river system, a glacier, or a mountain range. Realizing that vast interconnected patterns cover every part of the surface give me an added appreciation and awe of Earth's incredible beauty, complexity, and order.

The photos also show that even though we can impose some level of order on our landscape, the earth's underlying geography and hydrology are clearly the dominant forces. From the tiny road straining to twist up the side of a steep mountain to the horizon-spanning Midwestern corn and soy rectangles which must make way for stream channels and lake shores, the photos show that it's the earth's patterns, not ours, which are ultimately the more powerful.

One of my favorite photos is below and shows a highway scratched absolutely straight across the vast sweep of a desert wash. From our standpoint on the ground, two points connected by a straight line is most logical, especially in a landscape which seems more or less geographically featureless. The highway is large and stable and allows us to travel quickly and comfortably through, and build communities in, a landscape that we would otherwise be almost uninhabitable. But, from a wider perspective, the highway is just a tiny scrape which cuts arbitrarily across a wash that flows off the length of the nearby mountain range-- the road being almost diametrically opposed to the earth's logic. Based on the tracks of sediment visible from above, if we were to stop constantly maintaining the road it would quickly be resorbed into the larger pattern of runoff. The road is both absolutely essential (to the people who live at either ends of it right now) and is a triumph of engineering. At the same time the road is absolutely fleeting and is merely a local scratch across a much wider pattern.

I can't help drawing bigger conclusions from these pictures. When living day to day, it's hard to come to any satisfying decisions about the ultimate purpose of my life. I get the sense from many sources that the goal of life is lasting fame and world-changing achievement, which can lead to some big disappointment and strange and unhappy life choices. But these photos make me feel my life is more like the desert road: we are put here arbitrarily, and no matter how many lanes we build, in the grand scheme of things each of us is of of local interest only. No matter how long people maintain my memory, whether ten years or a thousand years, it will invariably be resorbed into the larger pattern and be forgotten, not even a blip in history. So trying to live a life whose goal is lasting memory ultimately a fruitless waste of the short time I have.

I now think that my life's goal should simply be to be a good road: to work to improve the lives of the people I connect and to do the best and make the most positive changes with the time and abilities given to me. It's actually quite a liberating conclusion-- it makes me feel content to put all my effort into things that matter now to the people I care about.