Monday, July 23, 2018

Unintended Selfie

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Montana on training for work - it was an ecosystem restoration class, where we learn the mechanisms and some of the science behind trying to build healthy ecosystem where human impacts have occurred. It was a great class, and showed a lot about how resilient systems can be when you give them a little help.  We saw areas that had been poisoned by mines, and areas that had been trapped by dams, where some effort from our projects had re-built a lovely place where dynamic natural processes had been restored.

It was also Montana.  And so, I stayed an extra day so that I could do some sightseeing.  Not really understanding the scope of what it would entail, I put Glacier on my to-do list.

From Missoula, it was a 3+ hour drive to Glacier National Park.  I started out early. and no sooner had I paid my entrance fee and started to drive through the park, than a startled elk ran in front of my car, turned around, and then ran off the way it had come.  My phone, of course, was sitting in the passenger seat, and there is no proof.  Y'all will just have to take my word for it.

For the next few hours, I drove through some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, overlooking snow-capped peaks under enormous skies (Big Sky is a real thing - I don't understand it, but it is HUGE.)  There were bears, and deer, and spectacular waterfalls and terrifying drops adjacent to the road and snow packs and stramatolites and glacial moraines, and.... it was hard to focus on anything for trying to see it all.

Every flower needed to have a picture taken.  Every vista needed to be recorded, and the accompanying selfie taken.  I have never been much of a selfie person, but the giddiness of seeing such beauty really came through in the pics I took.  I stopped at every turn-off and parking spot along the road.  It took hours to get through the park, and every picture was more beautiful than the one before.

At the end of the drive, I decided to follow the advice of Chuck Willis, a friend of mine that I met in Peru on the breathless hike to Macchu Picchu.  (Yes, the scenery was spectacular, but that is not what I mean by breathless.)

He said to me: "Hike out to Iceberg Lake. Was my favorite hike there."

Now you have to understand this: Chuck is a beast.  He destroyed his ankle just a couple of weeks before we went to MP, and toughed it out by running until he had gotten back to an 8-minute mile.  I took his advice with trepidation, because the last hike I had gone on with him had nearly killed me.

The guidebook said this:



Aw, what the heck.  I'll give it a try.

The hike was a ten-mile round trip.  The hike itself was not terribly difficult.  I had a couple of moments where I was a little short of breath (OK, truth be told, for about three hours I was keeping time with my heartbeat using Clemson's cheer at full 170bpm - 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-C-L-E-M-S-O-N....), but it was completely doable.  What was not doable was the phone.

You have 18% of your power remaining.

But I couldn't help myself.  I took pictures of flowers, of scenery, of waterfalls, viewsheds, and snow-pack.  And so, instead of having a phone with 18% power remaining, I joyfully continued to deplete it.  Pictures of rocks, pictures of animals, pictures of every flower that I came across.  Always on the lookout for bears (I had gotten a good pic of a bear earlier in the day, and part of the trail was closed because of bear activity in the area), and for any other large mammals that might show up to have their portrait made.  It was glorious beyond words.

With each stop, I would decide to pass on this picture, not taking a shot of that vista, of letting those flowers remain unphotographed.

And then out would come the phone, once again.  Irresistible forces at work.
I know, I know.  But the scenery is just so breathtaking.  How can I avoid taking pictures?  So I'll just take this one more, and then I'll turn off the phone and put it in my pocket.

You have 15% of your power remaining.

Oooh.  That is a pretty picture, too.  I'll take it.

Oh, man, I need that picture.


Over and over again, I took pictures with a phone that had a rapidly depleting battery.  Beautiful pictures that almost captured the grandeur and the majesty of the place.

You have 10% of your power remaining.

As I was getting closer and closer to my goal, the images I took changed, as both the scenery and the flora did.  Things got a little rockier, the snowpack got more common, and the flowers got a little.... well, hardier.  But the breathtaking views, wow.  And still, every flower needed to be captured.  And since I was not able to tell if the picture was in focus, I just pointed it and mashed the button.  Then turned to the landscape and mashed the button.  Grab a selfie, mash the button.

So it was with a certain amount of pure self-deprecating laughter that I realized that I was not sure whether the most recent picture - of a lovely flower of a dazzling cornflower blue  - had been pointed at the flower.... or at me.  And what was worse, the low light setting meant I could not even review it until I had returned and plugged the phone in.

Such a lovely blue flower
Here is the kicker.  Of course, the phone's battery died before I got there.  Of course, I did not get my own pictures of Iceberg Lake (which was stunning).  And of course, I asked a stranger there to take my picture and send me the shots when she got back to a place with wifi. (She agreed, and then of course, it got hung up in her outbox for three weeks).

But then, what I did for the remainder of the trip was.... that I enjoyed the scenery for me.  I was not pulling out my phone for every few steps to record a vid to send back to my wife when I got back, nor a photo of a marmot, or to take a picture of anything to record it in perpetuity. I was making my memories.  For me.  

It also occurred to me at that point that the picture taking with the darkened screen is very much like what we are doing with the work I was there to study.  Ecosystem restoration is a tough business.  We are never certain what the outcome is going to be.  The stories from the teachers all week were loaded with tales of well-meant projects that did not fit with natural processes, and failed to do what they were supposed to do, or worse, made things worse for the residents.  Every success story was coupled with a cautionary tale.  

What we do is to take a picture without being able to see or focus.  We take our best shot, given the knowledge we possess, and we mash the button.  The result is sometimes a pretty picture, and other times we get a distorted picture of ourselves.  

It doesn't mean that we don't take the picture.  And like an old-fashioned film camera, sometimes we wait a long time to see the results of our work. Instead of having that immediate gratification of the selfie on site, we wait to see what develops.  Sometimes, it is beautiful and worth the wait.  Other times, we have to see if we can do it again, or make changes to the negative.

But what we can't do is not try.  Because this isn't just making memories for me.  It is making sure that the beauty I get to see is saved in perpetuity.  For all to see.
Thank you, Kristin Rode, for the pic of me at Iceberg Lake


NOJuju said...

So profound, Mr Laptop. And those photos are making my wanderlust ache like the dickens. I'm so happy that you got to explore some of my dreamscape environment. I hope that I will do the same before too many years go by.

Unknown said...

You are quite welcome for the picture. I’m just sorry it took so long to make it to your inbox. I enjoyed reading your blog. I also couldn’t agree more about the Park System rating the hike to Iceberg Lake as “strenuous” but enjoyed every moment of it!