Humans are interesting animals. Yes, we are animals. We like to think we are advanced. Really we have really just done what every other animal has done throughout the existence. We’ve adapted to survive. Our methods however seem in stark contrast with the normal evolution of life.
With great amounts of energy and persistence, we have built massive monuments to our existence. Complex systems to link it all together with arbitrary tools for exchanging and trading the inventions and spaces we create.
The odd twist is this inescapable need to extricate ourselves from the establishments we’ve worked so hard to create. We pine for nature, even making a point of building it into our cities. We make elaborate plans and schedules with no other motive than to “get away from it all.” Returning to our roots in nature is key.
Yet even when we get back to the nature that we’ve worked so hard to shield ourselves from, the evidence of our existence, and the subsequent changing of the landscape are undeniable.
This little psychological journey into human behavior started as a road trip Big Bear. Being a California transplant who was raised in snow, I didn’t exactly cry when we discovered that one needs tire chains for the car in order to get to Big Bear between November and April.
So Joshua Tree it was. In general I find the desert peaceful. Plus, like much of my adopted home state, the unusual trees and the rock formations are one of the many spots in California that are like no place on earth.
I admit, I’m a bonafide city guy. I absolutely enjoy being submerged in the snaking freeways, constant motion and culture-in-a-blender that is Southern California. The noise and action are unmistakably home. Like so many others though, I find that some peace and clean air occasionally wind up on my mental prescription pad.
Out here, we are in mother nature’s house, and we play by her rules.
Sufficiently caffeinated with my trusty Nikon in tow, we took off for the desert. Each time I take a trip to leave the city, it seems like the melting away of urban development takes a little longer with each drive. Each time there are more houses, more strip malls and more cars. The freeway headed toward Palm Springs is undergoing the addition of at least four new lanes, which can only indicate the presence or anticipation of more housing developments and more places to procure Prada and Restoration Hardware. Normally all of those things are a welcome site to me, yet as time goes on they become harder to escape.
Leave the city behind. Somewhat.
When it finally dwindled away, we found ourselves in the open space we’d driven nearly three hours to achieve. The air had a slight chill, with clear blue skies, near-perfect visibility and just enough cloud cover to give me some decent photos. The lack of pollution, or at least perceived lack, actually hurt my nose at first. Apparently I’m allergic to fresh air.
Taking my first few warm up shots, I looked through my finder making adjustments to both my lens and my feet trying to get the shot I wanted. A few snaps in, the adjustments came to an abrupt stop when I felt a stab in my leg.
My small-town relatives in the Midwest always warn me about the dangers of being in the city, and some of their concerns are probably pretty spot on. Yet here I was “back to nature,” looking down to find one of the spikes of a low brush sticking out of my flesh through my jeans. I of course disrupted the peace and quiet with a loud “ouch” as I realize a tree had bitten me! I pulled the spike out of my skin and, after checking for blood, continued to walk on being ever more mindful of where I placed my feet. It was a benign, but significant reminder that out here, we are in mother nature’s house, and we play by her rules.
Even when the city isn’t there, the extent of its existence is still visible. Even when you’re
not in Los Angeles, you’re still in Los Angeles.
Continuing deeper into grooved trails met by hikers in Lulu Lemon and Nike, it became clear that we can only disconnect so much. One can’t help but notice that in the relative quiet there is still the slight moan of tires on pavement as car after car rolls by.
Finding my groove with the camera I walked on, snapping photo after photo, getting every angle of each subject, adjusting exposure and submerging myself into what I love to do. As I zoomed, leaned and crouched to get those perfect and sometimes imperfect angles (all the while watching for more man-eating trees, of course) a theme entered entered the frames of my photos.
Many of them were lined with contrails from jets as they flew in and out of the many major airports that serve the greater Los Angeles area. I was reminded that even in the sky, getting back to nature is always accented with reminders that we cannot be escaped. I was reminded of a writer’s observation of Nan Goldin’s photographs, commenting that how even when her more daring and provocative images weren’t shown in a collection, their presence was still felt. The long lines overhead were a reminder as clear as the blue sky that even when the city isn’t there, the extent of its existence is still visible. Even when you’re not in Los Angeles, you’re still in Los Angeles.
As we continued on our journey into the wild, which has been carefully fenced off for safety, the evidence of the human conflict to get back to basics without leaving it behind became even more evident. Nestled into the rocks towering over the flat landscape were scores of fifth-wheels, RVs and truck beds tricked out like small apartments. People grilled food while talking on smartphones. The scene was naturally beautiful, yet oh-so-human all at the same time, and that got me thinking.
While other animals adapt to their surroundings, we are the ones who adapt our surroundings to us. We are clearly not designed to live in the desert, yet here we are by the millions. We’ve built and changed everything around us, bending this hostile environment to accommodate the narrow range of conditions that suit human life. Yet through it all there is a symbiosis. For all of our efforts to make the world conform to our needs, we all seem to pine for a planet without the pavement, steel and structures that make our life here possible. Something in our core, where we are still as much wildlife as the Joshua trees themselves, needs an untouched version of the world.
The day was both peaceful and insightful. Satisfied with our trip, we graduated back to the megalopolis as the sun was setting behind the rugged mountains that line the distance. The beautiful setting was decorated with a large grid of power lines feeding the millions of people that have chosen to call this unique landscape home.
No matter how hard we try to get back to what makes us wild, the evidence that we are human never quite disappears. ❖
One feature of the trip was the presence of people scaling the massive rock formations. There is very little on this planet that hasn’t been traversed, explored, scaled or surmounted, yet we still drag the chains and hooks out to the middle of nowhere in order to nourish the explorer spirit that is in all of us.
Many of the rock climbers, get a good sense of why we built air conditioned buildings and Starbucks in the first place…only after they are well off the ground and fully committed. Separated the surface and (God forbid) social media, seeing these people hanging precariously from rocks was yet another reminder of our need to seek, which it seems is the ultimate human trait.
The other human trait of ours also became evident, as these weekend explorers drilled into these rocks in order to scale them. Nearly tied with our need to explore, is the evidence that we cannot go anywhere without leaving some mark. The holes in the rocks, and the paths in the landscape might as well read “we were here.”
The spirit of adventure is alive in all of us still. The difference these days is the adventures themselves are optional. We are the first humans in history who explore, not because we need to find food, acquire land, or escape danger, but simply because we want to. ❖