Thoughts on Yellowstone

[2 June 2009]

By Rob Horning

Here’s a few ideas I wrote down while I was at Yellowstone, the world’s first national park and an ostensible model for the concept of nature parks generally.

1. I was first struck by its resemblance to Disney World, in the way it seemed to function as an ad for the National Park Service, just as Disney’s parks promotes the company’s products. Only the “product” at Yellowstone was nature itself, alienated and made more consumable for us through signs and paved walkways and whatnot. Also the way Yellowstone was divided into thematic regions (Geyserland, Canyonland, Hot Springs Land, etc.) with tourist services carefully distributed within the park’s boundaries and the attractions carefully choreographed as one proceeded around the driving loops reminded me of being at an amusement park. Before we got into hiking mode, we would see a sign for a nicknamed natural wonder or whatever, pull off, look at few smoking holes in the ground, take some photos, pile back in the car and move on the the next one. If we saw a bison or an elk, we’d pull over with all the other stopped vehicles and take some more photos. I wondered whether Walt Disney had thought of Yellowstone explicitly as a model for his own theme parks. The Wikipedia entry claims that Griffith Park was the inspiration, and the Disney visited pleasure gardens around the world for inspiration. Maybe the similarities had to do with the way I’ve been socialized to take my entertainment. Though there weren’t park officials actually guiding us through the sites, I felt as though I knew how I was supposed to behave from previous visits to amusement parks—how to wait in line and then extract my thrills when it was my turn to be up close with nature.

What mainly associated Yellowstone with amusement parks in my mind was the way both seem to promise on-demand entertainment. Yellowstone’s main attraction, Old Faithful, is basically a monument to on-demand entertainment, to human appreciation for those aspects of the natural world that can amaze us on a schedule. As I was waiting for the geyser to go off, the impatience the gathered crowd felt was palpable. The longer I waited, the more I felt sure I would be disappointed by its eruption, and when it finally went off, it seemed rigged, like a fountain at the Bellagio. My thoughts as it spouted: “About time. I wonder if that is as high as they claim in the guidebooks. I hope I am seeing one of the higher plumes rather than one of the lesser ones, but how can I verify this?” I took obligatory photos of it erupting (below), but as you can see, these look all too familiar.

It would have made much more sense, in a way, to have someone photograph me in front of Old Faithful erupting. This makes me think that national parks are about humans reasserting their preeminence (their being the subject of history) in the face of the best nature can throw at us.

2.Considering how many photographs of nature I found myself taking, I started to think a lot about just what I thought I was accomplishing by this. At first it just seemed like what you were supposed to do—my motivation was purely ideological in the sense that I went along with what seemed to be the common-sense right thing to do without questioning it much. I thought at one point that I could show people what I saw on my trip, but looking at a series of photos of landscapes gets boring pretty quickly, and the images do little to convey the feeling of being there. Yet virtually every person we saw in the park was taking pictures. Many were videotaping landscapes. Often while driving we would happen upon a backup created by a backlog of cars trying to pull off or rubbernecking to see why other cars had stopped. We would see a bunch of people with their cameras and feel compelled to try and see what they were photographing—was it a grizzly?—and take our own images as well. We didn’t want to miss out.

It seems obvious that taking all these pictures is a way of asserting ownership over the natural sights and of the experience of being there. The photos serve as documentary proof too that one was actually there, obviously, but that seems subordinate to just wanting to have something to do while you are looking at nature. Ordinarily we take the environment we are in for granted while we are engaged in some other activity; but with nature tourism, simply being there in nature is the activity, but it is so peculiar and alienating, perhaps, tthat we become restless, want something to do to justify it as an activity. If you don’t take pictures, you are just standing there, looking, while everyone around you is busily composing shots. It can feel very passive and perplexing, since what you are watching doesn’t have an engaging story to it or anything. It just is, indifferent to us. Taking pictures is a way to interact with nature, claim a place within it, since the touristic set up of a nature park rules out peaceful coexistence. Taking a picture completes the exchange, finishes the experience initiated by traveling to the park and paying the entry fee and lugging yourself out of the car to the lookout point. It imbues an ambient, amorphous experience with an intention, with a climax, with an endpoint. Old Faithful has anb obvious ending—it goes off and you take off. But other natural wonders are not so cooperative. You wait around for them to amaze you, and unless you take the photo, you can’t be sure if it has actually happened.

3. Nature tourism presumes that ordinarily we should not be paying any attention to our surroundings. And then, when one does visit a park, the park serves as a celebration of that alienation from nature, the crystallization of it. As we hit parking lot after parking lot in Yellowstone, my respect for the Park Service’s efficiency continued to grow, and I began to feel a weird pride in how well they were able to domesticate the wilderness and make it easy for me to have photographable experiences within it. It was as though the park’s infrastructure turned the wilderness inside out for consumption and enjoyment. This, of course, had the effect of making me feel that if there wasn’t a sign delineating a particular view, or a lookout point crafted for it, or any other people already photographing it, then it really wasn’t worth seeing.

Much as I experienced when I went to Disney World, I found that I had to give myself over to the precise way the planners had anticipated the sights would please me (this is David Foster Wallace’s point in his great essay about taking a cruise). I had to enjoy them in the prescribed manner, through the mediation supplied by the park’s developers. This precluded the possibility of feeling at harmony with nature, of feeling as though I belong within it, as though I am part of an ecology. Instead it reinforces the peculiarly human notion that we transcend any given environment.

4. Perhaps because sight-seeing is such a passive and unengaging activity, it tends to become curiously competitive. Not only did I feel compelled to check off all the possible sights in Yellowstone, all the highlighted items in the guidebook, I felt like I had to keep photographing everything to keep up with the other photographers. The meaning of nature-tourism photography seems to rest in invidious comparison; I didn’t want the other photographers to get their piece of Yellowstone without my getting my piece as well. If I stood there without taking pictures, I would also begin to feel as though I didn’t belong, didn’t fit in, was missing out. The need to photograph seemed to be the binding social thread, the mode in which we all communicated with one another—when someone else snapped a photo, it seemed like a message to me that I needed to see something there, and vice versa. This sort of tacit communication was how we assimilated the landscape, ostensibly a natural wilderness, to social ends. To put it in the terms of 18th-century aesthetics: The continual picture-taking was how we came to terms with Yellowstone’s inhospitable sublimity and reduce it to a series of landscapes that were merely beautiful in a conventional way, tamed by our photography, by tourism. The travel industry, then, is set to eradicate the sublime.

5. At Yellowstone I was continually conscious of the unresolvable tension between two conflicting desires: wanting to see something unique and wanting to make sure I saw precisely what everyone else had seen. I thought maybe I could try to look at the popular sights (make sure I didn’t miss anything on the checklist, or get “beaten” by the competing tourists) in some particular way that was unique to my sensibility, but I had no way to confirm whether I ever accomplished that.

6. Can there be preservation without turning what is preserved into a spectacle? Is the fact that something has become a spectacle the only way to be sure that it has been preserved (e.g. the roadside plaques and historical markers)?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/thoughts-on-yellowstone/