Judgment and its Consequences
Those of us interested in photographing the beauty of nature have a responsibility to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. Getting good photographs is important. But having something good to photograph is even more important.
This past June, a man slipped and fell into fell into a hot spring pool in Yellowstone National Park's Norris Geyser Basin. Reports suggest that 23-year old Colin Scott and his sister Sable had left the boardwalk in search of a place to go for a swim and take a soak in the mineral rich water. Known as "hot-potting," the practice is clearly illegal. It is also quite dangerous. The water is extremely acidic and hot enough to cook a holiday turkey. Bending down to test the temperature of the water, he apparently lost his footing and fell in. He died quickly. His sister helplessly filmed the whole thing with her phone. Disappearing beneath the surface, about the only thing left of Colin was the pair of flip-flop sandals he had been wearing. Alerted to the situation, park rangers located the body, but were prevented from retrieving it owing to an incoming storm and the fragility of the terrain. Later efforts concluded that the body had dissolved, leaving no remains. News of Scott's death was just made public this week because of a Freedom of Information Act request by Billings, Montana NBC station KULR.
People sometimes do the darndest things. At least twenty-two people have lost their lives in the geysers and thermal pools of Yellowstone over the history of the park despite warnings. In May, four guys from a Canadian clothing company called "High on Life" astounded the other tourists one day by wandering off the boardwalk around Grand Prismatic Spring. Apparently, they fancied themselves as daredevils and sold their own line of videos documenting their exploits under the name "Dumbass." They apparently have nearly a million followers on Instagram. Other people there that day shouted at them to get back on the boardwalk, but were ignored. The gonzo film makers were clearly intent on their hijinks. Luckily, none of them fell into the hot spring, but they did do significant damage to the fragile terrain despite posted warnings and the pleas from onlookers.
It doesn't require geothermal pools for people to exhibit questionable judgment either. In the same week that the High On Life crew pulled this stunt, a couple of tourists noticed a bison calf by itself and thought that it looked cold and helpless. In a misguided attempt to help it, they wrangled the newborn bison into the back of their SUV, believing that they were rescuing it. In all likelihood, the adult bison were indeed nearby, and full grown bison can be quite protective of their young. The tourists escaped injury, but the calf had to be euthanized. Park rangers tried several times to reunite the calf with the rest of the herd, but their efforts were rebuffed.
Yellowstone is a popular destination, but poor judgment knows no boundaries. Duckbill Rock at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast is a popular tourist destination. The formation was formed by waves washing away the sandstone beneath a large rock, eventually resulting in a seven-foot tall pedestal with what became Duckbill atop it. In September, beachgoers witnessed three people walk up to the rock and exert sufficient force to topple it while a fourth member of their party sitting nearby, watching. Another viral video resulted. Their motivations are beside the point, and their judgment was certainly questionable. State Police are considering charges.
Dating from around this same time, another tourist with little consideration or common sense defaced the famous playa in Death Valley National Park by driving over it with their SUV. The area is noted for the "racetrack" marks left by high winds blowing large sheets of ice, forcing rocks to slide over the dry lakebed surface. But now those natural tracks have been joined by over ten miles of tire tracks by joyriders. Due to extremely low annual rainfall, the damage will probably be there for years to come.
None of these things had to happen. None of them should have. Each had severe consequences, ranging from damage to scenic attractions and fragile ecosystems to loss of life. The people involved in each clearly assumed that what they were doing was the right thing to do or at least among the acceptable options for what to do. It's easy to write these sorts of incidents off as having been caused by stupidity, that normal people wouldn't do such things. Yet the people involved surely didn't consider themselves as stupid.
Each of us lives by the rules of what we have learned so far. And today, there is no lack of choices for people of like mind to congregate online and reinforce what they have learned. If you don't like what is being discussed on one website forum or blog, you can simply start reading a different one. Most any belief someone has is likely shared by at least a few other people somewhere else. In time, a quick online search or by a slower process of experimentation and referral will lead these people to find each other. Anyone who wants to believe that leaving their mark on a scenic treasure will make them famous can find others who will congratulate them on their bravery and creative genius. These people often aren't at all stupid, but they are all quite misguided.
People who develop questionable judgment in this way are said to live in a bubble. But the truth is that we all live in the bubble of our own perceptions and judgments. You may agree with people around you or you may not, but such is always your choice and your responsibility. No one can give you their judgments unless you let them. Those judgments then guide you in your daily life. Whether it be at the ballot box casting a vote or on a vacation trip to have some fun, we act based on how we view the world and because of the choices we make.
We live in an incredible world. We share it with equally incredible people, even if they do sometimes make questionable choices. And choices don't always have the consequences we expect they will. I think people are sometimes too easily swayed by others, accepting what a trusted source tells them without question. They let others decide for them and then have to live with the consequences.
Now, surely none of us would ever fall into this sort of trap. No one reading here would ever do anything like this. But where do you draw the line? Sometimes all it takes to venture too close to the edge is a camera. When you're out taking photos, what would you do for an image?
It's important we treat the world around us with respect. We are but visitors here, simply lucky enough to sometimes behold incredible beauty. Others, too, deserve their chance. I often find myself in some beautiful location with no one else around. They either haven't woken up yet, have already left for dinner, or simply don't know about that location. My general guideline is to employ what I term "reversible exploration" when venturing out into the wild on the quest for the ultimate image. If I'm certain that I can "undo" my next step, I'm willing to take it. But if I'm unsure, I will think twice to avoid risking damage, either to my surroundings or to myself.
There's a framework for outdoor ethics generally phrased as "leaving no trace" that became popular beginning in the 1970's. Many people today weren't even born then and sadly may not be familiar with the philosophy. Each of us can only do our small part, but we need to make a new generation aware that their actions do have consequences and that we share this planet. It is what we make of it.