The Geography of Hope: The Incompatible Ideals of Wilderness and Industrialized Tourism

This essay is about wilderness character, geotagging/location sharing; and overcrowding/vandalizing of public lands. Many articles have been published denouncing location-sharing due to their overcrowding and vandalizing. This essay is a rebuttal to those opinion pieces which advise readers to “keep on geotagging” while suggesting that those who enjoy wilderness character are elitist. I welcome your comments and feedback.

Ivanpah-Panorama
It’s late May on the Mojave Desert. The air temperatures and weather this spring have been remarkably unseasonable. Palm Springs, California is normally sizzling this month but in a few days it will record its coolest May on record. It’s been an extraordinary spring: the wildflower explosions; the millions of butterflies and bees (oh, the Painted Ladies!); and the gazillion pounds of biota respond in kind to a bountiful winter. Strangely, there is no longer a drought. This place is alive. I’m alive – a very happy and content desert explorer.

I arrived at the foot of the range mid-afternoon to long shadows. This place has a National in its designation, but being far from services, gasoline, lodging, and notable icons in the world of social media, the cooing Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebes, and Phainopeplas and I have it all to ourselves. I plan to climb up high on the craggy ridge and traverse its length, returning to my truck from the opposite side of the ridge. I’m not sure what I’ll find along the way but I expect magic; it’s always there. The 360-degree views from the top are stunning; I can see an uncountable number of mountain ranges and into three different United states from my high vantage (there are five mountain ranges visible in the above image; the site for this journal). It’s breathtaking; I could cry. I should cry. The cackling White-throated Swifts and desert wind are the only people I see and sounds I hear (birds are my people). Except for my own, no human or vehicle is within miles of me. This is exactly why I am here. This might be terrifying for many, but this is my sanity and world peace. This urge is merely evolutionary and biological; I never suppressed it. I feel whole and alive.

A remarkable thing happened to the United States in late 1964. The passage of The Wilderness Act sought to assure that an “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition”. The Act further defined “wilderness” as “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean….retaining its primeval character and influence, without….human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions….. [and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.

In summary, the 1964 Wilderness Act set aside protected lands to retain their primeval character and natural conditions (a rather abstract and lofty concept for a nation hellbent on “progress” and sacking money). Secondly, it recognized the need for human-untrammeled lands and solitude (for the mutual benefits of both wildlife and humans). Sadly, The Wilderness Act arrived too late for the central and eastern United States but it allowed for the protection of much of western U.S. wildlands (U.S. Wilderness MAP) which draws millions of visitors from around the world (unfortunately, not all with the best of intentions).

In 1960, the great novelist Wallace Stegner wrote the now-famous “Wilderness Letter” to urge for the passage of the forthcoming Wilderness Act. Stegner deemed wilderness “an intangible and spiritual resource” which can offer “spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe”. It’s impossible to define what these are and how they feel unless you’ve allowed yourself to have this experience. Stegner continued to assert that wilderness is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.

Readers are surely aware of the recent spate of nuisance and destructive human behavior on public lands. It’s not just here in the Unites States – it’s happening everywhere (public lands and private). Everything from graffiti/tagging to illegal fires to rock stacking/cairn building to toppling prominent rock formations to trashing fields of wildflowers to outright habitat destruction. We don’t yet have any conclusive studies but many of us attribute it to the explosion of social media, geotagging, location sharing, and a very particular photo sharing platform for which people have proved willing to risk and take their lives for self-portraits (“selfies” in their vernacular). Many of us have repeatedly argued against sharing locations to help protect them from the destructive ways of humans; the F.O.M.O. Generation rails back with “elitist” and “racist”.

Let’s set the record straight: wilderness character is impossible to preserve if everyone is present. It’s not about keeping away any particular age, gender, or color –  I want to preserve that intangible and spiritual resource. It’s long gone when one is surrounded by crowds, antics, and chatter. If you enjoy crowds and socializing, great! Please go where those qualities exist (recommendations provided upon request) but please don’t be upset with those who wish to retain the natural character of wild places.

It’s true: we cannot save these places from industrial destruction if no one knows them or loves them. But we also can’t save them from industrialized recreation if they’re equally shared by all 330 million Americans and a few million tourists from abroad. This isn’t elitism or racism – it’s reality. I welcome you to find and share my sacred spaces with me but please don’t be upset because I don’t provide a name, waypoints, or an e-guide. Gumption, legs, and burning desire will get you high on this desert ridge; geotags are for the elite.

“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.” Wallace Stegner

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Desert Candles (Caulanthus inflatus)

Of all the arts, I believe that photography – specifically nature photography – is the one that encourages the highest levels of observation, awareness, sensitivity, and curiosity. Non-photographic artists can invent their subject matter and works. Photographers need to find theirs. We have to be intimately attuned with our surroundings and subjects and aware of the many photographic possibilities in order to make great images come to life. Such photographs never happen by accident or luck (although the latter remains a constant point of derision for our medium). Combine the love of photography with a love and awe for desert, botany, light, and life, and you’ll find someone who is willing to wait for hours to spend an entire afternoon photographing an odd patch of desert plants.

The funky-cool and not-so-common Desert Candles (Caulanthus inflatus) flickered for my attention one recent afternoon on the Mojave Desert. This California endemic – found only here – arises only after a good rainy season. And man, did we have one. In the Brassicaceae family, they may look like asparagus but are related to cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. I arrived at this incredibly unique garden under the hot light of midday but these flaming candles told me to stay until the light ran out.

There were no tulips here but still I tip-toed through the Candles and Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia tessellate). One can easily make such photographs without injuring, killing, or ripping wildflowers from their beds to impress a social media audience. It’s not really hard to do and requires no special skills or talents. You just need to care and recognize that your wants should never outweigh the needs of other living things. I treat my own garden no differently. What sort of person would destroy a wild one?

Wildflowers matter. Perhaps not to you, but they matter to every bee, moth, and butterfly that pollinates and depends upon them for their existence. Wildflowers are living things that bring life and joy to all who utilize and love them. Crushed wildflowers cannot go to seed. Less seed means a smaller seed bank. A smaller seed bank means less potential for future “super blooms”.

Should you visit any wildflower fields this spring, please be a good steward for the flowers and for our shared planet by carefully tip-toeing through them. Leave no trace. Leave it better than you found it. Give a damn. Thank you!

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

The Ten Commandments (for Outdoor Photographers)

I am part of two communities who exhibit behaviors on public lands that I am often angered by and find myself at odds with: climbers and outdoor photographers. I suspect that many have never experienced trailhead or public lands closures caused by improper/unethical/illegal use – I have.

Many climbers trample vegetation at the base of crags and boulders; they leave athletic tape, food wrappers, and the tape from rope ends wherever they fall. The rock and the climb take first priority; concern for vegetation, trampling, wildlife (including ants and all sorts of small vertebrates and invertebrates that we can’t even see), and wildlife habitat is secondary (or doesn’t matter). Sadly, this sort of behavior has now become commonplace in the outdoor photography community. In this Instagram-era, a staggering number of landscapes have now been subject to the onslaught of careless humans and an uncountable number of popular photography locations have been drastically altered by the photographers that use them. It’s wrong, disappointing, and has to end before photographers find themselves locked out of locations that they’ve commonly been able to enjoy. If you think this can’t happen, just have a chat with a member of the MTB (mountain biking) or OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) communities for their angle.

A little more than a week ago I guided my sister, nephew, and brother-in-law through an Eastern Sierra camping/roadtrip. One of our first stops/camps was Alabama Hills below Mt. Whitney and the High Sierra crest. You Western film buffs and photographers know this place well. What you probably don’t know is that the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group has vastly improved the condition and quality of experience for visitors and photographers over the last dozen years by removing graffiti and rubbish; breaking down numerous fire rings; obliterating excess and illegal roads; and planting native vegetation to rehabilitate the abused. I’ve watched the Hills become cleaner and even more beautiful over the last twelve years. During this period digital photography has exploded – especially night sky and astrophotography – and ironically, I’ve watched its photographic ‘hot spots’ deteriorate at the very same time.

AHI took my sister and family to a lesser known arch in the Hills (but still popular with night photographers) and was dismayed by what we walked into: it looked obliterated by grazing cattle (there are no grazing cattle here). Although from different angles, perspectives, and focal lengths, a comparison of the two images will reveal missing, damaged, or dead plants. And I am dumbfounded by this. The other side of this arch does not look like this; it’s not the preferred angle for photographers. This is not from drought, fire, or cattle, and this is not a dense landscape – the shrubs could have been very easily avoided or worked around. Instead, the land before this arch has now become a micro-wasteland.

My sub-teenage nephew learned a few of the following commandments while we were in the field and I’m urging every photographer and non-photographer who uses public lands to please adopt and share these with other photographers, climbers, fishermen/fisherladies, etc. Humans are trashing virtually everything; lest we lose our access, please be the high-road user group that sets the examples others will desire to follow.

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs don’t really matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Published: *Shots* Issue No. 140

SHOTSGravitational Waves” opens SHOTS Issue No. 140 (“Forces of Nature”) with a beautiful double-page spread. Thank you, SHOTS magazine! Hang a print on your wall, own it and 15 other great images in this book, or enjoy it on your smart phone or tablet via digital download. Thank you for your purchase.

Photographers and those who enjoy philosophical meanders, please read on….

I’ve long been looking for an opportunity to discuss the language and semantics photographers use in the pursuit of their art and craft. It’s not my magazine and I have no stake in it, but I’m not fond of the name SHOTS. Since it’s inception, photography has struggled as an art form (yes, art form) and has always played second fiddle to painting; a poor man’s (or presumably less creative man’s) means of pursuing art (if you allow me to call it this). The belief being that as a mechanical object with a button to push – like using a smart phone – there could surely be no art or craft involved: it’s just a snapshot of whatever fell before the camera. But creative photographers and those who appreciate creative photographic art know a far different reality. So let’s take every opportunity to use good and proper language to educate our viewers that what we do is serious art.

* My creative pursuit involves a communion with my subject(s); there is no conquest and I “take” nothing.
* The photographs I make require contemplation, thoughtfulness, and good composition. The very same is true of painters and painting.
* Painters don’t throw or blast paint at their canvases, I don’t click or snap shots.

* I make photographs *

The words we use most definitely matter.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

The Greatest Dog There Ever Was

Mojave2On January 23, 2018, we so sadly said goodbye to our sweet girl, Mojave, as she took her last breath in my arms. We have been devastated by her passing. The days have been long and the nights short ever since. If you knew her, you loved her – she left you with no other option. I was forever changed by her more than thirteen years ago when I found her wandering in the Mojave Desert, another canine victim of a lousy human. Another man’s trash was this man’s treasure.

For more than thirteen years my girl was at my side. It didn’t matter where or what we were doing, she was happiest just being with mom and dad. We called ourselves The Unit – Shauna, me, and Mojave. She made our lives happy and complete. And we find ourselves struggling to move forward without her.

People like us are not easy to console. To be sure, there are millions of dogs who need adoption and homes. And we provide the best home and life imaginable for our animals. But there was only one Mojave. She cannot be replaced. Her spirit will never die and there will not be a single day ahead where I don’t shed tears longing to hold her tight and kiss her again.

I love you forever, my sweet girl. I’ll see you again on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

The Greatest Gift

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In this sunlit desolation of rock and thorn, where the sun beats down through an unending march of days and the desert silence which broods among the boulders and Ocotillos is broken only by the harpings of the wind, we can spread freely the net of our minds to gather those priceless, fundamental stirrings of the infinite which are most easily come by when one is close to nature. Marshal South

I recently celebrated my birthday in Death Valley National Park. Reasoning that all my clients are wonderful people and a joy to be around (this is no lie) – especially considered in the context of photography and Death Valley –  I chose to schedule photo tour clients on my birthday. While some opt for more civilized days or nights on the town with a fine dinner, friends, and a show, my time spent quietly in nature amidst the sun-burnished desert holly, half-billion year old canyons, and ancient night sky are among the simplest of joys – they make me happy. I don’t need any wrapped presents or candles or cake – these are the gifts I want and love.

I’m always a little hesitant to share my “methods” with my clients. I meet most of them at their lodging, where they’ve often spent a comfortable night under a roof with the possibility of evening television entertainment. They are often surprised when they learn that I forgo lodging and sleep under the stars. Not camped in a tent – literally, on the ground and under the stars (never in “developed” campgrounds). It is not a budgetary constraint – it is a choice. Sometimes the kit foxes visit me at night (sometimes walking around on and smelling my sleeping bag – “lie down, kit!”). Often I hear my coyote friends nearby reveling in their hunt. I have no fears about sleeping beautifully this way – much worse (and louder) things can happen in any city on any given night. There is no quiet like the quiet of my preferred Death Valley sleeping sites.

My “method” ceased being a choice long ago – after a great many years of doing it this way, sleeping under a tent canopy or roof feels wrong when there are planets, meteors, and a raging night sky to lull me to sleep. Rest assured, I’ve had plenty of middle-of-the-night rain drills which send my scurrying like a wood rat. My ancestors slept like this; it feels right to follow in their steps and try to understand a little of their existence and their communion with nature. It cannot be so terribly different from my own experiences.

One of Lynda’s goals was to experience and photograph the Milky Way. Any day or month of the year, I get to experience this brilliant flaming Galaxy over the Death Valley night sky. And while I don’t care so much about making photographs of  it – I observe it nightly in real-time H.D. with my own eyes – I don’t take it for granted. Never for a second.

In a world which often seems to be speeding (and spiraling) out of control, I feel eternally thankful and blessed for these gifts. The gift of sight lets me see nightly that infinite galaxy overhead. The gift of sound allows me to hear gentle desert winds rake across the hairs of my outer ear. And the gift of simply being allows me to take pleasure in the simplest joys which were enjoyed by my ancestors (and which are frequently lost on modern man).

Thank you for a most wonderful birthday in Death Valley, Lynda and Jim!

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For information and photographs, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook.

High Peaks and Low Valleys

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Moss and flowering plants adorn the 19th century steps of the Old Royal High School, also known as the New Parliament House. Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before I began typing this entry, I counted the meager number of blog posts that I made in 2015. It’s staggeringly pathetic considering that the year is now three-quarters finished. While some consider blogs dead (in lieu of Facebook and other similar social media), I still consider it my main means of communicating more detailed thoughts (despite not having done so in recent months). On one hand, my photography, business, and adventures have experienced a remarkable 2015 – it’s been exciting. On the other hand, I’ve experienced one of the most difficult years of my adult life. My nine-year-old lumbar spine problems and chronic pain reared its horrid ugliness again, and my father passed away on July 28 after several difficult months of illness and hospitalization. It’s hard to celebrate the highs with such low lows.

I was very close to my father. I took him to most of his medical appointments, oversaw his care, and was with him in his final days and with him when he took his very last breath. I lost my mother 16 years ago and forgot what it really felt like to lose a parent. I had no idea that I would be hit again as hard as I have been.

In late September 2015 we took home some of dad’s ashes to his birthplace of Edinburgh, Scotland (an incredibly beautiful and charming UNESCO World Heritage site – this from a guy who dislikes cities). The journey was beautiful and emotional. Regardless of any trip’s purpose, I always carry a camera and tripod (shouldn’t an artist always have their tools?). Although the purpose of the trip was to celebrate dad’s life and be with family, I was still able to spend many hours alone wandering through Edinburgh making photographs of its narrow closes and wynds and dimly lit corridors. Many of my favorites are dark, mysterious, brooding – perhaps the mood of Edinburgh or perhaps more reflective of the state of mind of the maker.

The Green Steps is one of my favorites (see it LARGER). It’s dark and perhaps a bit brooding. But I prefer “light at the end of the tunnel” or perhaps the route of ascendance that my father took (or hovered above) as he made his way to a more verdant, happier, and brighter place.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on Facebook and Google+.