Our brain is very good at pattern recognition, most likely an evolutionary advantage we’ve improved over the millennia. Wander around the woods long enough and something “unnatural” will catch your eye, a pattern that just doesn’t fit the surroundings. Straight lines, perfect curves, sudden color changes – these are elements that stand out. Usually they are the result of man’s incursion into the natural world, bringing an almost inorganic insistence on order and efficiency.
Even when the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line the resulting pattern jumps out from the surrounding area, revealing repetitive acts of movement.
Lest we conclude that only man leaves an imprint where ever his influence is found, look closely at the natural world and you’ll discover there are other creatures who leave their mark.
One admonition you see given people entering the wild world is to take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints. The assumption is passing through the wild in this way will result in such a minimal impact that the natural world will remain essentially unchanged. Yet this world is always undergoing change. A wilderness area off-limits to any human will be different this year than last. Animals are habitual creatures as well, and follow the same lines of movement through the forest and prairie. All life generates paths, moving from where they are to where they want to be. The challenge is to do so in such a way that followers will find the adventure and novel experiences that led us down our paths.
The trend I see in outdoor photography these days is seeking the spot no one has visited, or photographing the scene no one has seen. I look at some of these images and wonder what effort must have gone into that person reaching that location. And should they be there in the first place if it resulted in damaging an ecology that hasn’t been touched by man. Our species is exploratory, as evidenced by our residence in every ecology on the planet. Exploration is good for the soul – seeing what’s around the next curve or over the distant hill – and images from “out there” help people respect the diversity of the world. Still, one person leads to another, which in this day leads to hundreds and thousands. Our desire to “see” suddenly ends up destroying that which we want to see.
Would I leave places unreachable? Possibly, although with enough money and ambition we know anyone can reach anywhere. Regulate access more stringently? Again, this opens up the opportunity for elitism, where only those with connections get to enter. The system in many national parks seems to work, although there are continued complaints about loving them to death.
I don’t know – it’s a hard question even for an outdoor photographer. With high resolution satellites, and now drones, there’s almost no reason for anyone to go anywhere in order to photograph a location. Yet what would a photograph be without the person behind the camera? That someone stood there, saw the scene, composed the image and pushed the shutter release must add to the sense of the photograph in some way, differentiating it from just another aerial shot. Yet to achieve that you need boots on the ground and a path to reach the scene.