In mid-October, I hit the road for Santa Fe, where I attended the Women Writing the West conference. After a socializing, talking shop, and attending sessions on craft and the business of writing with colleagues for a few days, my husband arrived and we spent an evening on the town before heading out on a week-long road trip.
We hiked at The Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument just south of Santa Fe, then looped west and north. We spent the next day and a half at Canyon de Chelly, a place I’ve long wanted to visit. The extended guided tour and sunrise hike to White House ruin exceeded all possible expectations.
Next, we spent a night overlooking Monument Valley, hiking around the West Mitten in the morning before heading north again, to our base for the next few days in Bluff, Utah. From there, we explored the Cedar Mesa area, both in the car and on foot.
As is my habit, I carried the camera and did my best to capture the essence of a place there or a telling detail here. On a trip to the desert Southwest, geography inevitably dominates. Scenery was the rule of our days. With the notable exceptions of rock art and the ruined buildings left by the Ancient Puebloans, the photos I took almost universally managed to avoid capturing signs of the human presence.
I don’t mean to disparage you, my fellow human beings, with this propensity to avoid including people in pictures. I do the same thing with myself, after all: I go to great lengths to avoid having my picture taken by other people, and I find the concept of the selfie ghastly. It’s not that I hate cameras; I just prefer to be the one behind the viewfinder.
The tendency to frame pictures to eliminate people and crowds could be construed as anti-social, but I prefer to think of it as a matter of framing. I’m taken with the idea that my role as an observer is to point out and call attention to what captivates me, whether it’s in a picture or in an essay. My preferred topics have to do with what’s external (and thereby potentially common) to all of us: aspects of our collective ecosystem.
It’s worth noting, though, that I’m not entirely comfortable with the implications of my own preference. Whether it’s a matter of writing about the corner of the world I’m in at any given time or one of taking a picture of a sunrise, an animal, or a landscape—all the subjects we categorize as “nature”—cropping people out creates a distortion. The strategy unintentionally promotes the foolish notion that the human domain can be separated from the matrix of the world.
I’m better at dodging this trap when it comes to writing. The essence of this blog or most of the essays I undertake is exploring the give and take between an individual and a larger system, whether that system is biological or physical or cultural. I’m drawn to topics like gardening or our domesticated horses or my conflicted responses to weather and wildlife because of what I learn as I wander back and forth across presumed boundaries. That the encounters are often confounding and sometimes conflicted is part of what makes it all, to me, interesting. The fact that I’m not entirely comfortable with the human-dominated ecosystems of cities and crowds and technology is one of the stories there for me to tell.
And that may be part of what I found so compelling about taking pictures of the ruins on our recent road trip. Although there aren’t people in them, the photos are about people—the things we build, how we relate to an environment, our transience.
The potential misdirection is that the ruins might imply that what’s enduring about human beings has to do with our stuff, which I don’t think is the case. Maybe I’m preoccupied with finding something—anything—positive to hang onto as the tides of negativity and spite continue to wash over me in this foul-weather election cycle, but I’d like to think those walls and chiseled stones convey the human capacity for vision, including the ability to see ourselves at home, even when the environment is harsh.