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Pre-dawn fog, Mount Rainier National Park | by kern.justin
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Pre-dawn fog, Mount Rainier National Park


The dichotomy: comfort in a wild land.


Life is a destructive pursuit—our position comes at the expense of so much. Yet so little of what we destroy is by our own hand. Seldom do we find ourselves behind the wrecking ball. Nowhere is this more true than in America. Opportunity—the payoff of so much destruction—abounds, but not all are worth what they cost: much has been sacrificed in our race for a cheaper and more plentiful material world.


The barbarians of development and commercialization are forever beating upon the gates of our last wild refuges. Yet much untouched wildness remains worth protecting and it is the commercial potential of these places that is our most valuable weapon in their defense.


Much about my wild experiences illustrates this central dichotomy of American wilderness. We made Seattle from California’s central coast in less than two hours and descended in comfort through the tumult of a building storm. We rented a car and sipped African coffee as sun-bloodied clouds broke like waves upon the great volcano. We entered the pitchest shadow of both Earth and old-growth forest ascending the southern limb of Tacoma to find a warm bed nestled along the Nisqually.


In the morning I woke and climbed a rain-soaked ribbon of slate. Winding through dense fog, I drove with no destination in mind. Here and there the curtain of pine opened to reveal a white and murky world beyond. Before the road reached the yawning scar of spring melts, I turned off at Christine Falls. Alone and cold, I made a few images of the falls. At moments like this, my gaze is cast back toward the hectic pace of daily life, back across the scar my own existence is bound to cut across the Earth. I wonder what life is like for a Douglas fir in the katabatic wind of the great mountain—bound for centuries to a small patch of rock where “nature red in tooth and claw” surely compares favorably with the sting of an eight-month winter. Is it paradise? Is it interminable? Privilege and immense opportunity aside, the singularity of life leaves so many questions behind.


Perhaps some romanticize a retreat to an anachronistic idea of what life should be. Perhaps some would abandon from modernity—but not I. The box is open and evils loosed. The central question now is, how can we ensure the persistence of conservation? How can we use what opportunity is given to better ourselves and others?


The itch to return just under my skin.


This is the question that faces parks today and it is asked not just from within: this weekend this topic sprung up in conversation online with friends. Industrial tourism both threatens and sustains the parks. I am loathe to wholly condemn it simply because I know I could not visit the parks without roads and without lodging—my days of backpacking are both behind and far in front of me. My hope is that park visitation is a positive experience for others as it is for me; that visiting the National Parks continues to build faith in its mission.


Landscape photography may have started for me as an attempt to collect a portfolio of beautiful images but it quickly turned into a method to lose myself somewhere beautiful. Words often fail when I try to express what it means to me to make a few photographs in some place as sublime as Mount Rainier National Park. Could I bottle and share an approximation of the feeling we would have seen our last box store built. Instead I can share only photographs and a few sentences.


I’m not after post-card images. The past two years of living in California, of exploring the coasts and the mountains I am left of sound opinion that a photograph’s power is in its ability to share a genuine moment. My younger self may have been disappointed with the fog that obscured whatever early morning color might have come from sunrise, but I was giddy. Fog means terrific, soft light. Fog means drama and the chance to focus on the world within a radius of some 100 feet.


The falls sent out a tongue of cold mist whose path was notable even above the fog and chill of night not yet shook loose from the fragrant trees. The irony of Rainier is that it is a volcano that flows everywhere with ice and water. Standing before the falls amongst centuries-old firs, one must remind himself that man and pine alike are just visitors to a perilous land.


Years ago, I had the pleasure of waiting for sunrise along the rain-kissed roadside cliffs of Tahoe and Glacier National Park. The world of rock and trees and fog are everywhere similar and are nowhere the same. Minarets of stone wring the very water from the air and wear the spoils. Vast armies of evergreens pour over the foothills and march onward into the permafrost until they can climb no more, twisted and stunted in the frigid breath of the mountain. Wherever I go, I hold the scent of falling water and pine resin in my mind and the itch to return just under my skin.


In the past 200 years we’ve transformed nearly all the wild places of the Earth. I fetishize wildness, I’ll admit it. I doubt, however, that my love for it is any deeper than the apathy that exists elsewhere towards its destruction; and, so, if there is any role for one amateur photographer and nature lover in the support of parks—I am only too happy to play my part. In these experiences, I constantly reflect on whether my coming to these places or my consumption of photography has done anything to contribute to their preservation. I never have an answer.

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Taken on September 9, 2012