I met Larry at a tracking workshop last month and instantly adopted him as my mentor: his knowledge, enthusiasm, and curiosity about the natural world was at a level that I could only hope to attain. He, on the other hand, seemed impressed by my catalog of experiences, although compared to his, most of my sighting seemed to owe more to luck than diligence. Indeed, when I affixed myself like glue to Larry during the workshop, I felt like a hopeless dilettante beside Larry's analytic professionalism.
So I was very excited when Larry proposed that we get together this weekend. New to this ecosystem, I have literally hundreds of questions about the rhythms and relationships of those that live here. Every day, every observation seems to lead to more questions than it answers. Christmas Day: a half inch of snow powdered the frozen river, providing a perfect substrate to record animal tracks. I noted the paw prints of mink, coyote, deer. But most amazing: a pair of bobcats that had strolled a mile along the ice, heading toward the lake. The cats were obviously together: the tracks braided at times as one followed the other. In other places the two animals walked shoulder to shoulder, or one would veer off to explore the opposite bank before returning to its partner. I have never seen two bobcats together: I always considered them to be completely solitary creatures. I checked out the literature: a breeding pair of bobcats have sometimes been seen together, but males outweigh females by almost one-third, and the two sets of tracks that I noted were nearly identical in size. I was eager to discuss my sighting with someone familiar with this area, to see if Larry could offer any explanation for paired wildcats.
Larry, however, had his own Christmas sightings to relate: he'd received a trail cam for Christmas and, like a kid with a new toy, he couldn't contain his excitement about the new set of eyes he now focused on the natural world. In case you are not familiar with this device, a trail cam is a stationary, motion-activated video camera that uses natural and artificial light to film the activity -- both by day and night -- around a specific site. In the week since he'd received his camera, Larry had observed more animals that he'd seen all last winter: coyote, weasel, bobcat, fox, mink. "It's amazing!" he gushed. "Like seeing a nature documentary in your own back yard! I can't believe all the stuff I'm finding out!"
I nodded, and smiled, and bit my tongue. I've purposefully resisted the technology of trail cams for the same reason that I place animals from national parks in a different category than "real" wild animals: they’re too easy.
After my lunch with Larry, I went home and took the dogs for a long walk through the floodplain, and while we walked I tried to clarify my position on trail cams. What exactly is wrong with using a camera to enhance one's appreciation and knowledge of the natural world? The images they produce are often haunting, sights not imagined in the light of day: animals -- often the most shy and nocturnal species -- completely unaware that they are being observed. Before he'd obtained his trail cam, Larry had only seen a bobcat once. Now he watches one every night.
My thoughts kept straying to Francis Ford Coppola's classic movie "The Conversation," where Gene Hackman plays a surveillance specialist who spies on, among others, Cindy Williams (of "Laverne and Shirley" fame). Hackman's character is pretty much socially retarded: a loner with limited interpersonal skills, he's an early version of a computer geek. He develops a kind of protective crush on the Cindy Williams character based on his surveillance -- by watching and listening to her conversations he believes that he "knows" her. As the movie progresses, however, he discovers that his interpretation, his read on the entire situation, was completely erroneous. Even with the most advanced surveillance techniques, he didn't understand the relationships and motivations of the people that he was observing.
"The Conversation" was made in the 70s, and as such is a product of its time. Back then, people were more sensitive to violations of personal privacy. But even when viewed today, there's a generally creepy quality to what Hackman's character does. It seems dishonest, slimy, like the 1940s gumshoe who takes photos of wayward spouses through keyholes. Maybe I'm too sensitive to the privacy rights of others -- even animals -- but the idea of using a hidden camera to record images of unsuspecting others just seems wrong. I want to be able to learn about animals through my own personal skill, not with the aid of an electronic device. It's a hair-split difference, I admit, but important in my mind. My personal morality will not allow me to violate the privacy of others, even if those others aren't even human.
My second reason for shunning trail cams is also embedded in the plot of Coppola's film. Ultimately, surveillance depersonalizes and objectifies. Hackman's character repeatedly asserts that he is merely doing a job, that transcribing the intimate conversations of others is no different than inventoring articles in a grocery store. He consistently tries to divorce himself from the motivations and conclusions that surround his occupation. During surveillance, the subjects -- whether human or animal -- are reduced from living, breathing, reacting individuals to images on a screen or sounds on a tape. They are no longer alive: in the eye of the camera they become objects captured in time. Robbed of all but their two dimensional image, the images are cartoons of themselves. And, as Gene Hackman discovered as "The Conversation" careened toward its conclusion, reality is much more complex -- and difficult to interpret -- than anything we see in a picture. Often an incomplete interpretation can actually impede our understanding of reality.
I still admire Larry for his knowledge and will seek him out when I have questions, but I think I'll take his answers now with a grain of salt: what one sees through a camera's lens isn't always what is its truth.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources