Originally published Jan. 22, 2009
By Ron Judd, Pacific NW magazine writer
AT FIRST, IT was sort of amusing.
You’d be tromping around out on the fringes of nature, looking at a mountain, a sunset, a lake — something spectacular. And you would look around and see some guy with a video camera.
A couple of decades ago, that guy was easy to spot, video cameras being about as concealable as a wheelbarrow. And you always looked at him and wondered what he was thinking.
There he was, standing before something breathtakingly beautiful, lucky enough to see something most people never see, and that he might not see again. And he spends the entire time viewing it through a tiny, grainy viewfinder. Never mind that he’s shooting video — key component, motion — of something that’s stationary.
What, you couldn’t help wonder, is this guy going to do with it when he gets home? Fast-forward to the action moment when a fir needle dropped? But it was easy to laugh that guy off as a dork who just didn’t get it.
Today, the video geek isn’t the odd man out. He is us. We are him. And we’re all a lot smaller — about 2-by-3 inches, to be precise — as a people because of it.
Did you see the coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration? Sadly, the thing that will stick with some of us about it was not the stirring words, the historical import or the celebration of democracy. It was the virtual seas of people standing, witnessing history, and viewing the entire unfathomably huge event through a video screen the size of an open pack of matches.
Got a light? All the world did in D.C. Obama put his hand on the Bible, and hundreds of thousands of Americans put one hand, camera or cellphone clutched therein, in the sky. Later, when the Obamas appeared at inaugural balls, same response, even more noticeable: The sea of tiny LCD screens held aloft was so broad that it created its own creepy, blue backlight cast back on the crowd.
Get used to it. For any event deemed even marginally significant, it has become a Pavlovian response. Raise your right hand, and repeat after me: Must record the moment.
For … what, exactly? Is there some functional use of a grainy, nondescript photo of ant-sized bodies on a stage that outweighs the experience of just standing there and letting the emotions, sights, sounds and smells of the moment burn their way into your brain?
Sure, the last cellphone I bought came with a camera, and yeah, occasionally I’ll whip it out to make a snapshot to send to friends. I get the allure. But I try not to get the disease.
You’re watching history being made, but viewing it all through a keyhole — and voluntarily putting the rest of your senses in “sleep” mode in the process. A great memory is not only the sight and sound of a moment. It is the emotion those things evoke.
Sadly, you see the same behavior these days in the natural world. Sit back and watch next time you’re in a national park: Minivans pull up to a roadside attraction. People burst forth. Cellphones, cameras, digi-recorders and other devices are brandished in midstride. Click. Whir. Whiz. Beep. Got it! And they’re outta there.
Some of the super-techie ones, of course, will multitask, issuing Twitter tweets with their own profound interpretations for their digitized friends to view back home: “Watching Geyser. Wet. Hot. Way cool!”
Thanks for that, Thoreau.
As a lifelong fan of those profound outdoor moments, it makes me cringe. But I’m also a realist who realizes that the world is not likely to agree to a unilateral digital disarming.
So I propose a compromise.
The next time you’re standing beside a stream in the Rockies, one of those where the water thunders through a narrow granite chute so forcefully that you can feel the friction through the soles of your feet, and where the water exiting the downstream end bursts to life in an effervescent shower of bubbles that send chills up your spine, go ahead and whip out your device of choice and record the moment. Quickly. Simply. Get it over with.
And then try something radical. Just stand there. Feel the spray settling on your face. Look around you, and watch how the sun lights it up in a rainbow arch. Take in a few deep lungs-full of that sweet, alpine air. Taste it. Feel it. Close your eyes, and let your ears record the river’s thunderous retort to the constraints of gravity.
Hold still for a moment and, when you’re ready, tell yourself quietly: Remember this. Never forget. Brand this moment on my soul.
You might be surprised how long the image lasts. And how easy it is to find, later, in a pinch. No batteries required.