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  • August 28, 2014

Musings: Jason Larkin’s Mysterious Ascension Island

When I first saw Jason Larkin’s project, A Useless Island, I was immediately intrigued, even though I had never heard of Ascension Island or its history. Larkin’s images filled me with a sense of wonder and mystery. With a name like Ascension and an inlet named Comfortless Cove, it’s not unfair to say the island seems nearly fictional. In 2011, while researching an assignment on nearby St. Helena Island, Larkin stumbled across Ascension and quickly became fascinated with the island and its storied history.

Picture of the volcanic green mountain
Looking south from Green Mountain across extinct volcanos. The vegetation has been growing only for the last decade.

Ascension is located nearly in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean. It was passed over by Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle because he believed it was too volcanic for plant life to grow. Seven years later, in 1843, the botanist James Hooker was invited by the British Admiralty to spruce up the island. For the next few years, plant shipments designated by Hooker were sent to the island and thus began a new ecosystem on a once nearly bare volcanic landscape. It became known as Green Mountain.

Picture of flowering plant
Vegetation on Green Mountain.

Today, the island is still controlled by the British military and has a small population made up of mostly U.S. and U.K. military, and Green Mountain has been designated as a park, left to grow untamed.

After embarking on a five day boat trip to St. Helena and another three days to Ascension, Larkin finally arrived on the island. When he explored Green Mountain, the vegetation was thick from heavy rains, the first in 20 years, according to Larkin.

Picture of concrete areas on side of a mountain
An area of Green Mountain has been covered in concrete by the British Marines to help collect as much sparse rainfall as possible.

“I wasn’t entirely sure what I would find. From what I read about the Marines’ relationship to the Green Mountain, there are a few reasons for why they created it. The primary reason was to increase the island’s rainfall and subsequently grow their own food. I also imagine it gave them something to do. Life was very slow for them. They watched turtles, spent a lot of time finding water, waiting for ships to come through, watching the Spanish navy and slavers. They were used to being isolated and they wanted a project, because otherwise they were reliant on the outside world. It was a hugely ambitious project. They made roads, created water pipes and farms. They brought organization to the island.”

Picture of overgrowth on work shed
Giant Alocasia grows in between some of the original work sheds built by the British Marines near the top of the Green Mountain.

The ecological significance of Green Mountain is what intrigued Larkin the most. According to ecologists, “Green Mountain shows that it is possible, in some cases, to turn largely barren areas into tropical forest in around 100 years, not thousands of years.” The rapid growth has disproved Darwin’s assessment that the island was useless.

Picture of plant sprouting from volcanic soil
A lone plant grows far from Green Mountain, where vegetation imported to the island was originally planted.

“Most large ecosystems like forests take thousands of years to develop and become sustainable. I wanted to know what that feels like to go into a natural space that has been created in a fraction of that time. I wanted to capture the feeling and mood of the place, the tension between the artificial and natural.”

Satellite dishes form part of the European Space Agency program based on Ascension. Due to so few people living on the island and it being so far away from urban centers, Ascension is used by many telecommunications and research centers.
Satellite dishes that form part of the European Space Agency program based on Ascension. Due to so few people living on the island and it being so far away from urban centers, Ascension is used by a lot of telecommunications and research centers.

Larkin says the project was a departure from his typical photo stories, which are often complex social documentary projects, such as his project Tales from the City of Gold, which documents mining in Johannesburg, South Africa. Larkin says that he “wanted to give [viewers] a breather, let them be surrounded by vegetation and consumed by a sense of space. It’s a tiny remote island in one of our biggest oceans.”

Tracks are still present across Green Mountain which are regularly used by the feral farm animals that were let free when the farm was abandoned.
Tracks are still present across Green Mountain which are regularly used by the feral farm animals that were let free when the farm was abandoned.

Overall, it ended up being a refreshing creative outlet for Larkin. “Ascension allowed me to fully remove myself from the process of creating a story for a magazine. It reminds me of when I first picked up a camera.”

Picture of roots reaching across rock
Roots grow across a wall of volcanic rock.

For Larkin, the stories of Ascension and Green Mountain speak to wider human truths.

“There’s a deep inherent desire to just survive with whatever means possible. It’s a part of who we are as a human race. It’s incredible to see the lengths they went to to survive.”

Jason Larkin is represented by INSTITUTE.  View more of his work on their website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. RANDI CHAHIDI
    September 17, 2014

    Hauntingly beautiful photo’s. I keep going back to these.

  2. Aaran McKinnon
    September 15, 2014

    Begs the question: is the earth really as old as most seem to think? Or much, much younger?

  3. Larry Bolling
    September 9, 2014

    During the 70′s flew to Ascension often during my USAF career. It was an amazing place to visit and explore. Your article and photographs are superb.

  4. Hashmat Ara Begum
    September 5, 2014

    I am fascinated with geography but never heard or read about this enchanting island. I am thankful to the researchers and also to the photographers for making me enthralled by their incomparable works.

  5. Lisette
    September 5, 2014

    Fascinating story and beautiful pix! It’s fortunate for us that not everyone believed Darwin was an absolute authority re: whether or not something could grow out of an apparently barren environment. Hooray for the botanist (Hooker) who proved that life can flourish anywhere, given a little encouragement– and fertile soil!

  6. Leroy Odhiambo
    September 4, 2014

    Truly amazing i once dream’t of discovering my own island away from civilisation, just leaving naturally.

  7. Satya Sundar Ghosh
    September 1, 2014

    Quite an exhaustive research….

  8. Kyoyoung Lee
    August 31, 2014

    Amazing

  9. micharl
    August 30, 2014

    Life will find a way.

  10. Anthony Gomes
    August 30, 2014

    Life is so precious, once received, no one wants to give it up be what the conditions maybe. One of the property of life.

  11. Molly Higham
    August 30, 2014

    Looks wonderful,a truly remote place

  12. Christopher Lewis
    August 29, 2014

    Your photographs and story of Ascension Island are truly fascinating and evidence that man can in fact put back into the ecosystem what he has removed so complacently. I would like to learn more of any like projects which involve the repopulation and revegetation of lands void of such beauty. We can only hope that it is not too late to help nature along in manners that will hopefully benefit mankind in the future. Thank you for enlightening your readers on such a project.

  13. erbPIX™
    August 29, 2014

    It is heartening to learn about places like this, surviving and thriving off the beaten path.

  14. Bonni Boran
    August 29, 2014

    Thank you. What a beautiful thing to share. It is really quite remarkable.

  15. justin sayin
    August 29, 2014

    This piques my curiosity. Feral farm animals left to roam after being abandoned. What species? How have they fared? Are they the only animals on the island? Are they breeding? Will they take over the island till they have to be destroyed? We need follow-up info..

  16. Paul
    August 29, 2014

    Did you use a pola filter with flash as a fill in?? If not, try it. (1/125 at f 8.0 is perfect ) Pola cut out water bead reflections, and your color are greatly increased, now you now see the subject in it s NATURIAL ORDER . Use the flash as your sun. Shoot flash to either side, and use 18% grey card (white side) as a fill in on other side, or allium foal crumbled up, to give a naturel look. Throw away the U.V. filter, as is it break s down contrast , being that it is NOT OPTICALLY MATCH TO MASTER LENS, and because it is FLAT ( not convexed nor concave), it will create FLARE. The u.v. is not required as you are not using b/w film, made in the 50s, which did not have an anti flare reflection back coating. Don t use the u.v. to protect you lens in case you drop it…as the glass go s INSIDE….. scratching the front element. If you want the MEANY OTHER REASONS as to not using a u.v. filter….. E me. P.S. I have been selling film and digital cameras for over 40 yrs…they are just a money maker for stores.

  17. Diane Roudabush
    August 29, 2014

    Beautiful pictures and interesting history.

  18. Magdala
    August 29, 2014

    Who named it Ascension Island and when?

  19. Arthur Erasmus
    August 29, 2014

    If there’s Vegetation, then you could have birds, insects, and rodents there.

  20. Brenda White
    August 29, 2014

    A nice story. Just to take a break and explore an area that is not in the media all of the time. The beauty and wonder of the past, present, future. Refreshing.

  21. herbert
    August 29, 2014

    nice article w/ refreshing stills. maybe Mr Darwin forgot how nutrient-rich volcanic soil can be, thus his pronouncement.

  22. Julie Fergusson
    August 29, 2014

    Fascinating I so enjoyed reading and pictures.

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