I have stood in front of some of the most awe-inspiring, spirit-elevating views in the world, in Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Alaska, Patagonia, the Grand Canyon, the Tetons, New Zealand, and more, and as I’ve stood there I’ve willed myself to take in that view with everything that I have, with every cell and nerve ending and neural connection, as if through intent I could make that place a part of me. Don’t ever forget this, I tell myself. Take a good long look. Bring it home.
A few months later, back home, I remember almost nothing about it. There is knowledge – that was amazing – but not ownership.
And yet, I still remember specific turns that I made 20 years ago. I still remember skiing alone at Breckenridge in 1989 in a massive storm and shouting into the wind with joy. I still remember consistency of snow on on the Glory booter on my last day in Jackson in 2006. But I don’t remember, exactly, what I saw as I stood looking at the Torres del Paine massif.
The reason is a simple one, I think – action lays down stronger impressions in our memory that passivity. Watching isn’t as powerful as doing. Viewing, no matter how much you will yourself, isn’t an act. It’s just being.
Maybe this isn’t important. One of the biggest reasons we take photographs is memory insurance, after all. But I want my memories engaged with the world. I don’t want to wait until my life flashes before my eyes to revisit all these trips of a lifetime. So, now I’m doing something different when I’m out there. Instead of trying to force myself to absorb a scene, I become an actor in it – I take in the view as I’m skinning to it, I lift my eyes from the snow to take in the sea of clouds as I’m dropping in, I break bread with a friend while sitting on a rock taking it all in.
It seems to be working. But just in case, I take a picture, too.
Photo of Denali, Alaska, by Adam Clark