“By emphasizing visitor convenience, expediency, and comfort, we have made the national park synonymous with the theme park. In the national park the theme is scenery, not experiencing the environment on its own terms. Park visitors consume scenery in our national parks as much as they consume the obviously synthetic scenery in a Disney World jungle. The experience is easy and painless, no matter the visitor’s age, physical condition, or mental preparation for his visit. Under such circumstances, park visitors are not meaningfully in the natural environment so much as watching the environment, as if it were on television instead of before their eyes.”
John Miller, Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997): 59.
Ken Burns calls the National Parks, “America’s best idea,” but it might be an idea that slipped our minds. Since the 1800s, the American system inspired countries all over the planet to create preserved spaces, sacred to the people and in protection of increasingly vulnerable wildlife. Lately, I devote my time to perusing blogs by people who spend their lives – either professionally or as amateurs – trekking through the wilderness. I am curious about how they use digital media to narrate their experiences and create a nature aesthetic on a “not-so-natural” platform: the Internet.
So, today in my reading I came across the above passage. The fact that it was written during the cynical nineties did not surprise me. In the twenty years since its publication, the proverbial and literal screen became all the more pervasive. Major parts of the Internet are used for discussions about the outdoors, as well as for the viewing of nature and the wilderness from the comfort of the one’s home. Take this in conjunction with the reality that the American National Parks are susceptible to the political whims of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans. These elected officials respond to a pervasive sentiment upheld by many conservatives: that the protection of natural spaces is not priority, and more critically, that climate change is not a serious problem. Yet, the popularity of Nature in the digital world, particularly in social media, seems at odds with the current political shift.
I am an Americanist. I seek to find consistencies, patterns, and cohesions in the broad culture of the United States. The problem with this is that the country is extremely diverse, and no matter how much some of its citizens insist that culture is singular (Christian, Caucasian-influenced, patriarchal, heterosexual), it is layered and complex. I acknowledge the difficulty in determining a straightforward answer to the previous question. How do we explain a simultaneous fascination with the outdoors, specifically the wilderness, on social media and a dangerous indifference to the health of the natural world? Yes, there is currently a strong political division, but Pew Research reported in 2016 that even those who consider themselves to be “particularly concerned” with the environment do very little in their every day lives to combat the effects of climate change. (Only 20% of adult respondents regularly make an effort to live in an environmentally friendly manner.) Yet, the BBC’s Planet Earth documentary series to the numerous nature flicks found on Netflix, the two hundred million (and counting) posts on Instagram with the hashtag #Nature, and the thousands of pages on Facebook dedicated to the subject all point to an interest in the outdoors. We find access to it through a screen.
Additionally, and importantly, the National Park Service had record attendance during its 100th anniversary, clocking in 330,971,689 visitors!
People are going to the parks. So why do voters and elected officials want to make them more vulnerable? I will leave the political answer for another day. The republicans in congress cannot hold all of the blame. It is not like they just woke up one day and decided that the NPS was a big money pit and they should make it easier to sell the lands. In fact, the slippery slope of devaluing the National Parks started long ago. I put the blame on the ever-present screen.
America is a visual culture. This may not seem that remarkable to the reader, for the obvious reason that she is reading this blog post through a digital device. Since the advent of television the screen has influenced popular culture. It is a window and a mirror. We try to look out beyond our four walls, but in a way it simply reflects back to us what we want to see: ourselves. Again, this is not a groundbreaking insight in 2017. What we think, though, is that while music, fashion, language, and everyday artifacts are probably influenced by what we see on the screen (smartphones, computers, television, and film), there is no way – no way – that our love for nature is affected!
Nature is our escape from all of that!!
Au contraire. As Miller writes, we use nature the only way we know how: as entertainment. How can our minds differentiate the act of looking at images on a screen from the act of looking at a vast landscape? For some, going into the “wilderness” (as if nature were a separate place away from our normal lives) requires that one takes a smartphone or GPS device: for safety. Today the popular hiking blog The Trek posted an article titled “The Top PCT Thru-Hikers You Should Be Following on Instagram.” Capturing one’s outdoor experiences has become an aesthetic in itself, our smartphones making epic photography accessible to anyone who choses to take the time. No longer relying on Ansel Adams, platforms like Instagram allow us to show our friends and followers where we are in space and time, and hopefully they will be envious of it. Incredible vistas and intimate vignettes, we capture nature and it is embedded with our philosophies about ourselves within the natural world.
These images seem to portray sensitive beings, mindful of a world that has value beyond everyday consumerism. You cannot buy a hike across the Appalachian Trail. You must do it. The journey requires blood, sweat, and tears. And this is probably why many chose to follow hikers through social media. The partition of the screen protects us. We reap the benefits without going through the struggle.
Is this why we treat nature like it is a disposable product, an entertainment that is only there to meet our needs on our demand? We cannot feel the heat, the cold, or smell the earthiness. We buy athleisure for Saturdays at the farmers’ market and wear tech gear meant for excursions in Patagonia during our commute to work.
There is a disconnection in 2017 between our ideals and our actions. Do smart devices create safety, connect us to each other, and draw us to natural spaces we would never otherwise encounter? Or does the screen create a comfortable barrier that allows us to tame and control the natural world? I argue for the latter. And as a result, we make serious political decisions that are colored by the comfort we feel in our own homes.
 See: Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
 A really wonderful argument for this can be found in David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer), 151-194.