The Futurist Naturalist is largely dedicated to my nature photography. I’m a writer, too, but I only started writing posts like Birds of Baltimore and A Good Point Reyes as a way to give the photos some context and make them more than a flat gallery, which I knew no one would give a crap about after the third or fourth duck pic.
But how did I get started in nature photography? I could tell a story in which I was born into it, heir of my father‘s legacy, raised in the redwoods, taught that we are all connected by the earth religions my parents found in the 70s. Truly, all those things primed me for it.
But the disappointing reality is a clear chain of events starting in 2011 with my pre-order of Skyrim. Yes, the video game. With dragons in it. Fus Ro Dah.
I stepped out of the first dungeon and into a world so beautiful and spectacular that I forgot the main quest line entirely and ran off chasing butterflies along the banks of a river that I was certain would freeze my own toes if my level three Nord stepped into it.
It wasn’t the first time a game’s environment sucked me in – longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls franchise will remember Morrowind’s windswept plains and enormous siltstriders, lonely shores and villages of towering mushrooms. That was the first game of its kind that I actually had a receipt for, and it was the reason I couldn’t wait for the newest installment, Skyrim, to come out. I had to preorder. And Skyrim became the first place I regularly brought my camera (read: iPhone 4) in search of animals and landscapes.
Hipstamatic Skyrim was a fun poke at whatever was happening in digital culture back in 2011, for sure, but it was also a serious tribute to a world I was in love with. I maxed out my sneak skill, not to pick-pocket villagers or assassinate criminal masterminds, but to get close enough to napping bears and grazing elk to have them to fill the frame. By the end of 2012, there were vastly more photos in my laptop of the fictional, pixelated landscapes of Skyrim than of any real place I’d vacationed in the past three years.
But between my day job at an ad agency and my new hobby, I was getting weird leg cramps and having panic attacks that were at least partly related to a massive vitamin D deficiency. I needed to rethink my lifestyle. I needed to move around and be outdoors. Maybe it was time for real nature.
I didn’t know how to find it without a car. Living in downtown San Francisco is a lot like being trapped on a glass-and-concrete island with no parking spaces. Luckily ZipCar had just been invented, so I signed up and registered for a geology class in the south bay. I was ready to get very serious about nature. Then, before the semester even started, I moved to Baltimore.
It was, interestingly, for a job offer my husband received at the game company that was building The Elder Scrolls Online – a massively multiplayer prequel to Skyrim and Morrowind. I was giddy with fangirl excitement about getting to closer to the franchise, and more than ready to escape San Francisco.
It was while living in Baltimore that I finally took a deep dive into the natural world. I studied ecology, biology, geology and paleontology, dug up fossils and volunteered in a lab filled with dinosaur bones. I bought real hiking boots and gained an appreciation for cargo pockets. I presented at science conferences and wrote about the effects of drought on California’s trees. I devoted an entire summer to the National Park Service. I started learning the scientific names of every animal I came across.
I’m a little bit ashamed to admit that I’ve been adventuring without it. You see, Fallout 4 came out and…
The post-apocalyptic wasteland of the wildly popular RPG (role-playing game) isn’t all that photogenic. In fact it reminds me of Baltimore in the winter. (It’s actually Boston in nuclear winter.) Plus, the whole photos-of-video-games thing was pretty played about as soon as Kotaku published an article on my Skyrim exploits. I’m enjoying Fallout nonetheless, and the reasons are not necessarily the reasons you would expect someone to enjoy a game that consists largely of blowing up supermutants with mini-nukes.
Ok ok, the nuking supermutants part is a total blast actually. (Blast, get it?) There’s a city-block-sized mushroom cloud, the controller vibrates, bloody limbs go flying everywhere – it’s awesome. But what’s also awesome is getting to build communities and watch the wasteland start to become a nice place to live again.
There are about thirty areas in the game where you can build shelters, plant crops, get generators running and attract settlers to a nice new life of slightly less constant fear, filth and misery. These settlements give you almost complete creative control, approaching the customization levels of The Sims with freedom to build towers of insane heights and rooms filled with a hundred radios tuned to different stations, if you so desired. Creativity is limited only by resources – find an old desk fan in a dilapidated office building, combine it with fibers from now-useless “pre-war money”, and you have yourself a loveseat.
It’s incredibly creative. Where Skyrim was about stunning vistas and beautifully animated reptiles, Fallout 4, for me, is about seeing how many chill rooftop decks I can fill with glowing light bulbs in a world that’s almost forgotten what electricity is.
Some would say I’m playing these games wrong. I should be building only weaponized fortresses for slaughter purposes, or exploring only to seek awesome new weapons for more slaughter purposes. (Although I’m not having much trouble slaughtering anyone at level 62 – wait – 63.)
You know I like the slaughter. But honestly I would play these games even if I could wander through their landscapes building things and stalking wildlife without being ambushed by a single zombie. I would be all over those games. A lot of people would. Enough to make them commercially viable? You would think not, with the current marketing landscape for the medium, which is still hung up on 18-30 year old males who marketing people (like me in my day job) believe will only pay for something if it lets them murder. But maybe someday. There is The Sims, after all.
Maybe in that future, more will follow my path, finding that what they love about the world behind the screen also exists outside, filled with things to discover and create – and that the two worlds aren’t in conflict, because there will always be rainy days, and there will always be four-month stretches of drudgery and 5pm dusk where you don’t have time to take your Olympus to a park.
Sorry, little camera. We’ll get out there soon.
All the photos in this post were made in 2011 and 2012 using the Hipstamatic app for iPhone. They originally appeared in the tumblr Hipstamatic Skyrim. The subject matter is all the same: the monitor screen that I had my Xbox 360 hooked up to while I played Skyrim. No real animals were harmed, but a shit ton of electric dragons met a tragic end at the killy end of my pixel arrows.