Icons of Nature

I took another vacation through the National Parks. Arches was not intended to be on the itinerary, but I got to Utah early and fit it in. I was there in the late afternoon and decided to go all the way to Delicate Arch instead of using the distant viewpoint.

When I reached it I found the photographers already starting to gather. Apparently, if you call yourself a photographer there are now some scenes that are mandatory, one of which is a sunset photograph of Delicate Arch. As soon as some motorcycle clowns got out of the way, I took some pictures and cleared out, but on my way back down I got to observe something more interesting. A steady succession of people was coming up the steep path, speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish, various Slavic languages, Japanese and Chinese. They were all on their way to experience Delicate Arch at sunset. Many were hauling photographic equipment such as tripods. The Japanese instead of tripods had big telephoto lenses. Not they it would do them any good. On the typical digital camera 50mm is about the limit of what you want on a lens. If you go much beyond that you can’t get the whole arch in the frame.

But besides the photographers there were many others on what appeared to be a nature pilgrimage. Old people were heaving they way up the slick rock with their canes, giving each other boosts. They were determined not to miss this experience.

So evidently there are now internationally recognized nature icons that people will cross the world to experience. In spite of the masses of Germans at the Grand Canyon, you don’t get the same sense there, as the Canyon is so big, and people can experience it from many locations.

Delicate Arch, on the other hand, is a very locally restricted experience. First one must go up the steep trail, then on a narrow ledge around a rock formation that blocks the view of the arch from below. Then there is a small area from which to view the Arch, and where everyone was trying to stake out a position for the sunset experience.

The existence of global nature icons presupposes a global cultural media that publicizes and canonizes, as it were, these locations. This suggests that an interesting project would be to catalogue these locations and come up with the criteria that account for their selection. These then are a category in a larger group of objects: painting that the whole world recognizes, movie scenes that everyone has seen at least stills of, and so on. Notice that we don’t list novels everyone has read. This is not just because many people don’t read much, but because the novel is extended in time as the Grand Canyon is extended in space and does not reduce to a single scene or image. The closest we get is poetry where a single line or couplet can contain a concentrated impact or can stand for the whole poem.

But notice the cinema is different. It is extended in time like a novel, but still what everyone recognizes are certain specific shots. In this way we see that movies consist of moments in a way that verbal narrative does not.


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