Friday, February 5, 2010

Watching for Bears

Early photographers could make the entire population of a city disappear.  They would set up their tripods in Times Square at high noon, point the lens at the milling throngs and trip the shutter.  Hours later they would pull the finished image out of its various chemical baths and there, free of the hurly-burly mobs, would stand the lonely buildings in eerie isolation. No people, no carriages, not even a stray dog or fluttering pigeon. 

No, it wasn’t some sci-fi representation of the rapture.  It was an artifact of the technology of the times.  To capture any image you had to leave the shutter of the camera open for upwards of a minute.  Hence only things that remained stationary for that length of time showed up in the image – everything else just disappeared!

I thought of that when I passed two signs on the highway today.  One said “Red Wolf Crossing,” the other “Watch for Bears: Next 9 Miles.” Meandering wildlife, disappearing people – makes you wonder about varying perspectives.  The common conceit is to think of cities as places of hustle and bustle while the wilderness reeks of peaceful tranquility.  It could be that that perception is as illusory as the photographer emptying Times Square.

Try this: Go sit in an empty building.  It may take a little effort to find an entire empty building.  A part of one will do – an empty classroom, a waiting room, close your office door if you have one, perhaps go rest in your car on the top of a parking garage, stand in an empty stairwell, sit in a handball court.  Turn off the radio, shut down the computer.  Set your cell phone to dead.  Now watch what happens around you.  Nothing.  Total sterility.  Nothing can still happen in much of what humanity has constructed.  24/7 isn’t really.  There is still a lot of “down time” in human existence. Isolation remains an option in the constructions of man.  It dwindles with satellites and security cameras and the like – but it is still possible.

Then walk out into the natural world – park, forest, field, beach or backyard - it doesn’t really matter.  Observe what happens in this environment; and, yes, there is always something happening.  Birds flutter and chirp, bugs creep and scurry, clouds drift by, trees sway in the breeze, squirrels holler at you.  Red wolves may cross; bears may watch you back.  You are never alone.  You may not understand the languages echoing around you, but echo they will.

What occurs to me is that even the ballyhooed complexity of 21st century contemporary digital society is, most likely, a pale imitation of the ceaseless activity of the natural world.  Chances are, there is a time when there is nobody looking your Facebook page, you can often find areas where your cell phone doesn’t work.  You can still, actually, momentarily, isolate yourself in the confines of human society.  That remains impossible in the natural world. 

So, if you seek isolation, get thee to the city; for society, venture into the wild.


  1. I am going to the mountains of Highlands for the weekend of Valentines Day and we are staying in a treehouse. Not a hotel room. Not a lodge. Not even a cabin. We are staying in a treehouse. We're reverting back to our youth and connecting with nature all in one swift swoop. I will let you know how noisey the birds are that high up.

  2. I occasionally enjoy the isolation that a quiet room offers, free from the buzz of a cell phone or hum of my laptop. It helps me relax and reflect. While I can also find this by taking a walk around Lake Johnson, I definitely agree with you that it does not provide the same still environment. It is wonderful to know that the world is alive around you, but nothing beats the solitude of silent confines.

  3. Strikes me that there is actually a place for both - the wilderness is so "alive" that it is often hard to "hear yourself think" which makes the silence of the man-made environment a good thing occasionally. Then there are place like the high desert of New Mexico that allow you to think in ways that are very different from "city thought."

  4. It's funny, I never considered that the outdoors provides different types of isolated settings.The wilderness- whether it be the middle of a forest or a barren desert maybe both allow us to escape "city thought" but they help us find different kinds of solitude.