Like most Americans, I had trouble sleeping the night after the World Trade Towers came down. Well before dawn, I set off into the wilderness by headlamp without my camera. I don’t know why I left it behind. It just felt like the right thing to do.
The root of all human suffering, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is our misperception that objects of our attachment are enduring entities. Whether the death of a parent or the loss of perceived value in a stock market crash, they view the root cause of suffering as the same. Thus the havoc wreaked September 11 affected not only families that suffered direct casualties, but everyone else who suffered a perceived loss of trust, freedom and security. Many things that Americans took to be enduring entities suddenly vanished.
How ironic that the national suffering would have been greatly diminished had the events been caused by earthquake, flood, or fire, which insurance companies term an “Act of God.” After such events, wilderness becomes even wilder and continues to fit the legal definition of Congress as a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” Purposeful destruction of enduring cultural entities by a perceived “Act of God” is an entirely different thing, whether it be the toppling of the world’s largest twin towers or of the world’s largest Buddha figure (done earlier by the Taliban with plenty of forewarning and no intervention).
These thoughts did not cross my mind as I ventured into the John Muir Wilderness on that Tuesday morning. The intellectualizing would come later. In the here and now, I was unconsciously forcing myself to move fast enough over the trailless heights of the Palisade Range to stop my mind from wandering into contemplation of dreadful events still unfolding far away from the natural paradise before my eyes. For the moment, my world was enduring granite, falling water, and timberline pines standing tall, centuries after death.
Moving quickly without the burden of even a light camera held me in a state of flow where I was one with the enduring landscape. When dawn blushed my granite world pink against an oceanic blue sky, I took in the beauty with no sense of loss of a missed photo op, as I might have on a another day.
Do I dare admit that my memories of September 12 are more vivid than those of September 11? My strongest memory of the eleventh is asking a crying woman in a parking lot what was wrong. The rest of that day when passenger planes were transformed into missiles, over and over again on television, is something of a blur. Associative memories coded around traumatic events often become so powerful that they overwhelm the biological coding of more normal memories, before and after. It’s only total amnesia that’s rare.
All memories are associative, The more powerful the memory, the more powerful the other sensory associations. Those of us who are old enough to remember when President Kennedy was shot tend to remember exactly where we were when we first heard the news. If we were eating, we recall the taste and smell. Nearly forty years later, the same food may bring back a spontaneous vision of the scene where we first learned of that tragedy. I remember right where I was when I heard about Kennedy, but nothing else about that day or the days that immediately followed.
Had I stayed home on September 12, watching more television, suffering would have been constantly in my face, a continuation of endless replays. The spiritual healing I experienced by way of the wilderness would not have happened. My vivid memories of September 12 are not of unusual light and form that I would have sought out to photograph on a different day, but of more common features that I had seen repeatedly in the High Sierra.
I remember how the bark of a lodgepole pine mimicked the wind-riffed surface of the glacial lake beside it. I especially recall the rough-hewn texture of the dark granite near the summit of the peak that I climbed, as well as the gleaming slabs just above that highest lake, looking as if the glacier that had scoured them left just yesterday. I have no memory of seeing any footprints, trail, or other sign of human passage on the firm ground above timberline, where only a few well-adapted species survive.
These thoughts got me wondering to what degree nature photographs create the same effect. Can they sooth the soul in much the same way as my direct experience did? Is that what leads people to buy nature photography to display in their homes and offices?
It’s one thing to turn a page in a magazine or a book, and quite another to have that scene as an enduring entity on your wall–printed in high enough quality so that the medium becomes an open window for the mind to focus on the image within. While most everyone enjoys looking at images of wild landscapes and creatures, it’s not so obvious to what degree they serve as direct substitutes for being there. They represent the positive side of those attachments of the mind recognized by Buddhists.
A positive experience of joy and spiritual satisfaction can arise from viewing visual symbols on paper that come together in our minds into images of the wild natural habitat of our species. This has the same source as a negative attachment to visual symbols known to invoke such a powerful experience of suffering that certain individuals have been known to jump out of windows after simply viewing declining numbers printed on the financial page of the New York Times.
When I returned from the Palisades on the afternoon of September 12 and stepped into our photo gallery in the valley below, I found it filled with people who had just come to look. We sold no prints that day, but received lots of comments about how good it felt to step into the soothing world of nature imagery during such troubled times. Their motives were the same as mine, just hours before, when I had wondrously fingered the granite of a Sierra summit and coded its texture into my memory.
Among those in the gallery were four men with cameras draped around their necks, asking enthusiastic questions in heavily-accented English. From a prosperous country in western Europe, they expressed surprise that a private photo gallery could survive in a small town. When I asked why, one man answered, “In Europe, we don’t buy other people’s photographs of nature to put on our walls. It’s something…” He paused, trying to think of just the right words, “so American.”
Our national appreciation of wilderness photography as art is considered very recent, traced by many critics to the renown of Ansel Adams. But its roots are far older. Great American landscape artists of the nineteenth century, such as Bierstadt, Church and Moran, depicted pure wilderness far more often than the pastoral scenes characteristic of their European counterparts. It’s the difference between the Matterhorn seen over a Swiss farm and the Palisades rising out of the John Muir Wilderness.
Roderick Nash’s classic 1967 work, Wilderness and the American Mind, describes the transition as beginning when the pioneer landscape photographer, William Henry Jackson, traveled through the West with the famous painter, Thomas Moran. Both artists produced works that influenced Congress to set aside Yellowstone as our first national park, but the stark reality of Jackson’s landscape photographs “soon became a potent force in directing American attention to wilderness as a source of nationalism.”