Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Instagram-Worthy Nature of Nature

            Two days ago I went for a walk in my favorite park. I did this for a couple of reasons. I desperately needed some “green therapy” as I call it, despite the 20-some degree temperatures. I needed to reach out to nature and feel its magic around me. Also, quite honestly, I knew that a walk in the woods would provide some beautiful photos for my Instagram account.     
            Ah Instagram, the double-edged sword. I am quite fond of, and active on, this social media site because my desire to constantly update it helps me to keep an eye open in my daily life for little things that are beautiful and enchanted. Instagram is a catalyst to get me moving, get me creating, get me out into nature. But a lot of people talk about the other edge of the sword of Instagram: how it can pull you into an obsessive self-doubt, comparing yourself to more popular Instagram personalities who constantly post stunning images and garner thousands of likes on their images. How it can make you doubt your life, worry that your experiences aren’t “special” enough, your face isn’t pretty enough to gain more followers.
            However, that’s not the particular second-edge of the sword that I’ve been pondering lately. I’ve been thinking instead about what it’s like to have an experience in nature and also try to document it for social media.

            The sorts of profiles I love on Instagram show a beautiful combination of lush and unique nature and architecture, but also include photos of the individual, usually a woman, interacting with what she experiences. Shots of a redhead in a beautiful medieval gown or a charmingly whimsical Mori girl ensemble walking along the path ahead of the camera, trees arching overhead to either direction; a graceful hand reaching out to grasp the knob of a heavy wood door with iron hinges, the start of a story. A woman’s face, pressed against the moss of a forest floor, inviting us to imagine the green softness under our own cheek. Instagram photos are most successful to me when they combine magical locations and items with the feeling of being there, of imagining ourselves, for a moment, in this amazing life they’ve shared. The more sensory the image the better.
            But at what cost?

            Let me give you an example. The park I went to two days ago for my wanderings is my favorite. It’s located about ten minutes from my house, down a winding and hilly rural road. There’s just one small tiny sign along the road that declares “park entrance,” and a metal gate that’s locked after dark. I’ve spoken to people who live on this very road and have no idea the park is even there. Wander down a meadow pathway, and you come to a forest with a path that veers in two directions. You can choose to walk the circular forest path deosil (clockwise) and take the left path, or wander it widdershins (counterclockwise) and take the right path. I always, every single time, go widdershins. But this time I felt like trying something new, so I walked deosil down the left path.
Familiar landmarks were at once unfamiliar, coming at them from a different direction. I walked through the part of the trail that feels the most sacred to me, an area where I always feel something (faeries, I suspect) watching me as I walk by, where old and twisted hawthorn trees with no leaves stand guard in a circle around the pathway. But on this day, I decided to rest my phone with its tripod in one of the twisted and beautiful hawthorns and take a short video for Instagram of me wandering the woods off the path. As I started the video, I heard many crows calling a warning loudly nearby, and I definitely sensed a presence quietly observing my actions. The tripod was sturdy, but it tipped over as I tried to take a video twice. The third time I was successful, but I felt there was a lack of respect or awe about what I had done. It didn’t feel right.

One of the Hawthorn trees in my park. Note the dusting of snow and quiet skies.
I took my phone out of the tree, and returned to the path to head back to my car. As soon as I walked out of the circle of hawthorn trees, the snow started falling thick around me. By the time I had walked to the part of the path with taller thinner trees, it was coming down in a squall of giant white flakes, and the entire world around me was white. I got the message. I deleted the video. I apologized. And I received a reminder that magic is real, and can conjure up a sudden snow storm when disrespected. 

A few moments later.
A nervous smile for the camera as the snow fell

           This experience was humbling, and it also got me thinking about how sometimes the process of trying to get that perfect shot of yourself interacting with nature can cause you to actually disrespect nature. Of course there are extreme examples of this, like people acting irreverent or damaging sacred sites. But I also am thinking of smaller moments and experiences. For instance, one of my favorite subjects in Instagram photos: a lovely female hand suspended above a bed of moss or the forest floor, holding a plucked mushroom cradled in her palm. I love mushrooms and their iconography in whimsy and fairy lore. I love the presence of a human in my photos. These photos have always delighted me when they come across my feed. But it wasn’t until I tried to recreate this photo with a gorgeous specimen in my back yard that I realized…you have to pull the mushroom from the ground to take this photo. And then what? If you aren’t actually familiar with mycology and picking the mushrooms to eat or use, you just cut off its life cycle for the purpose of that perfect Instagram photo. I felt terrible. I tried to tuck it back in the ground, but of course it shriveled up the next morning. 

            I thought about that mushroom photo as I walked around another forest yesterday. I had brought one of my favorite pieces of labradorite to Blackhand Gorge, a beautiful nature preserve near my house, as an apology for my behavior the previous day. I left the stone tucked behind a bed of moss near a fallen tree, and as an extra apology, sang an old nature ballad into a hole in the ground near the edge of a cliff. I took a few photos, and a video, but I spent most of my time on the trail that day with my phone tucked deeply into a pocket, just watching, observing. Two deer darted away from my quiet steps, their white tails bobbing back and forth through the latticework of trees. The crows called out overhead. And I was fully present. Because what good is a record of your life, on Instagram or elsewhere, if you only live it to document it? Even though there’s nothing wrong with taking out your phone to capture magical beauty in nature, it’s also ok sometimes to just sit with it, feel it, and experience it. A balance is necessary. Otherwise all you’re left with is a curated feed simulating reality, instead of an actual life. And eventually, magic will simply pass you by. 

A moss being I encountered on my second day of walking the woods


  1. Just the other day I wished you would blog again...maybe you could share your favorite instagrams here and write about what draws you to it?

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I’ve been thinking about returning to blogging here occasionally!

  2. It's so tricky. Social media is so great for connecting, and we love that sense of connection and sharing in magic, but yes, when it interferes with the magic of reverence and honoring nature, may we all recognize it as you did. Thanks for this inspiration!

  3. Hi Grace are you still using this site? I remember first reading your blog many years ago and enjoyed it :) Hope you are well.

    1. Hi Bri! I am no longer blogging here, BUT I am still blogging! Check out my personal website <3

  4. This is so beautifully written. I can relate to your experience, I am on a similar page, when it comes to respecting and communing with nature, while balancing it with instagram content I love capturing. I love how you said: “you pull the mushroom off the the ground. And then what?”

    I make land art, and every now and then will feel the push to make it look more “insta-worthy.” Never feels good to act on that raw urge and remove a stick or a stone against the forest’s will to use in the art piece. Defeats the whole purpose of why I do land art. Or any kind of art for that matter.

    It is so nice to hear from someone who knows what it is like and values true relationship with nature above all else. I love how beautifully your words depict your experience, more magical than seeing it all through your camera lens:)

    1. Apologies for not responding sooner. I blog on my personal site now, :) Thank you so much for your encouraging words!