“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” In the Lord of the Rings movies, this was Gandalf’s advice to Frodo about protecting an evil magic ring that turned out to be the most powerful and dangerous threat of the age.
On a recent day, I found myself at a local park thinking about that advice. Years of beaver activity had turned what was originally a meadow into a marsh. The few people around me seemed awestruck by the silence. The only disruption was the ruckus caused by a murder of crows. In fact, it was the first time I have ever been to that location for more than an hour without somebody asking about my camera. That was nice.
I have not named the place. That’s on purpose. Like I said, “keep it secret. Keep it safe.” This advice cannot only keep dangerous magical artifacts in fantasy movies from finding their way into the wrong hands, but it can also protect the places that we, as nature photographers, spend much of our time.
Over the years, more and more places have become overcrowded by human beings. Once a place becomes overcrowded, damage invariably results. Eventually, land managers are forced to make changes in these no-longer-secret places when they are no longer safe for humans and their natural inhabitants.
The Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, having become famous as a photography destination, is an example of how being not-so-secret can make a place not-so-safe. With visitors now numbering in the millions, the National Park Service has had to install formal viewing areas and limit parking to manage the crowds and keep everyone safe. The unvarnished, primitive, natural experience of visiting that location has ended because of the crowding. And, earlier this year, a tourist fell to his death while admiring the view.
Likewise, limitations on access are another result when a not-so-secret place becomes not-so-safe. Old Rag, one of the most popular hiking destinations in Shenandoah National Park, is an example. This year, to deal with overcrowded parking and excessive trail wear, and the resulting disruption to natural resources, the National Park Service launched a permitting system to limit crowding.
What about my meadow-turned-marsh? I’ve seen it so crowded with photographers that the raised boardwalk through the marshy areas actually creaks under their weight and seems in danger of collapsing. Naturally, the wildlife in the area found itself disturbed by the noisy intrusions of large Homo sapiens. In fact, I have watched animals in that location flee from photographers while they shouted at me about how they could not understand why they had difficulty getting wildlife photos. I hope the reader can understand why I am reluctant to invite more crowds by naming the specific location in a public posting.
As nature photographers, we can play a greater role in the fate of these places, either for good or for ill, than most people. Our awe-inspiring images make ordinary people want to see the same spots that we see for themselves. They then seek out the location where a particularly moving photograph was taken. Over time, as a location becomes more popular and is shared more and more, the crowding builds. Even those of us without great followings on social media and little fame have the power to add to the problem or choose not to. All of us, by keeping exact locations secret, can also keep them safe.
This does not mean we should never share a location with anyone. Like any secret, it can be shared with discretion. For example, I usually handle the issue by being vague in public. For example, I will tell you now that the meadow-turned-marsh I keep returning to in this article is found in Fairfax County, Virginia. But there are many wonderful places in Fairfax County, Virginia. By being vague, I avoid drawing people’s attention to this single spot. At the same time, I invite them to discover all the many wonderful scenes and sites in the area. As a result, the crowding is spread over a wider area and the damage sustained to that one special place is limited.
If you want to know the exact location, I may tell you. But I will only do it in private and only after thinking through the ramifications, including the additional crowds that you may draw because I told you.
I believe we live in a world full of wonder. I do not believe that being reluctant to share locations prevents people from experiencing the wonderful world we live in. But keeping locations secret can keep them safe while still encouraging people to sample the wide variety of marvelous places that our planet has to offer. When it comes to exact natural locations, if you keep it secret, you can help to keep it safe.
Angela Maloney is based in the Washington, D.C. area. She creates wildlife, landscape, street, macro, and art images. But she likes to say that her true specialty is sense of wonder. Sense of wonder, plus a few experience seeing favorite natural spaces fade away, have led her to dedicate much of her work to preserving those awe inspiring places. She currently serves as the North America ambassador coordinator for Nature First (www.naturefirst.org) and can be found online at www.theplacechangesme.com or on Instagram at @theplacechangesme.
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