Virgin Falls Pocket WIlderness

Three Days Wired In The Woods
By Mark Carroll

I strive to simplify my life, but my efforts always fail where photography is concerned. Frustrated by this paradox, inspired by the cosmos one starry night, I formulated a theory, if for no other reason than to pacify my minimalist mind.

Essentially, photography has not simplified with time. Technological advances in equipment, at first, appear to facilitate the process. However, there is a finite amount of photographic intricacy. It cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred, regardless of any advances—thus, my Theory of Conservation of Photographic Complexity, a universal constant.

The digital camera is a prime example. Here is a device with the potential to drastically simplify photography. Compose. Shoot. Confirm. Delete. Repeat if necessary. Sounds about as difficult as using shampoo. Wilderness photography conforms to different rules, though. With its requirement for self-sufficiency, there is often as much art in orchestrating the equipment, as in the image itself.

To test my theory, I planned to upload daily dispatches to my web site from Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness, located in the hills of east Tennessee (after all, an image destined for the web remains unfinished until it resides on a server). So, I headed out equipped with nothing more than I needed for some hi-tech, backcountry photography—a laptop, digital camera, cell phone and, of course, enough power and cables to wire the woods.

It is not a far cry from what was undertaken by wilderness photographers of the late 1800s like William Henry Jackson, who explored the American West with glass plates and monstrous cameras strapped to the sides of mules. I read once that he melted snow to process his work out in the field. The melted snow of yesterday is the rationed power of today. The fragile glass plates are the laptop. Technology replaces the mule—still full of power, but stubborn and unreliable. And the camera is, well, still the camera.

Although Tennessee recognizes Virgin Falls Pocket Wilderness as a state natural area, a local paper company, Bowater, actually owns the area. They generously allow public access to their extraordinary land. Nestled in the heart of Tennessee's highland rim, only 100 miles east of Nashville, the lush canopy of Virgin Falls echoes with the wild sounds. Below, the earth conceals the mysteries of numerous sunless caves. Streams lined with neon green ferns whisper through the flat lands, then roar as they flow downhill.

Some disappear underground while others join the Caney Fork River as it pushes through the region. Especially during wet weather, some of these streams can be dangerous to cross.

Virgin Falls itself is an awesome 110-foot falls. Above, swift moving water emerges from a cave, thunders over the falls, then disappears again at its base—truly one of Tennessee's natural wonders.

This same beauty that had inspired me to photograph quickly turned against me upon my arrival. On my first day the sky opened with a vengeance, creating some some interesting mud formations on my gear and necessitating the safe storage of a lot of electronics, which were triple-sealed in plastic bags.

Day two started off humid and gradually progressed to unbearable. The supersaturated air condensed on the outside of the camera whenever I shot. In my mind, I could see the circuitry inside beaded with moisture. I photographed near one of the falls just for the cool mist, but that did not ease my mind anymore than the humid forest. But I was here on a mission, regardless of uncooperative elements. Unfortunately, the problems didn't end with the weather.

During my trip preparation, I checked the web for a cellular coverage map of Tennessee. As luck would have it, Virgin Falls sat poised on the edge of a signal sphere and a zero-coverage black hole. Since cellular is a line-of-sight signal, I knew the hills in the area were either going to save me, or bury the whole project before it started. The first and second day it buried me and my spirits in the mud without a signal. Nevertheless, I went through the motions of plugging my images into the hypertext skeleton I had prepared (all documents on the web are coded using Hypertext Mark-up Language—or HTML. It is the language of the web). At the end of the second night, already as many days behind schedule, there was my journal, all marked-up and nowhere to upload.

Not until the third day did I finally find a cellular signal on an exposed ridge. By that time, the constant searching had taxed the phone's power supply. It flashed a low battery warning, beeped its last beep, then died. Necessity is not so much the mother of invention as is desperation. I had no intention of reducing my well-planned, hi-tech excursion to a leaded-backpack of dead batteries and useless electronics.

Inspiration struck over a freeze-dried lunch. My Hi-8 video camera uses 12 volt batteries, just like the cell phone. With no other options, I had nothing to lose. Breaking my Swiss Army knife tweezers into two strips of metal, I ran a connection from the battery contacts to the back of the phone —positive to positive, negative to negative, the whole mess duct-taped securely into place. When I hit the power, the display lit up and welcomed me with a signal indicator.

Before my luck ran out, I connected to the Net at a meager 4800bps, and started the long upload. Although slow and painful, it was better than nothing, and actually not a bad speed for a cellular connection.

I sat for a moment a watched the upload progress bar. A beam of light cut through the forest, and distracted my attention long enough for my thoughts to wander. The Theory of Photographic Complexity was now a law, tested and proven. But, I no longer resented it as I had in the past. I embraced it and all that it represented—that photography is no longer what it was, yet is fundamentally the same. It is pixels, computers, and digital cameras, PhotoCDs and Photoshop. It is an amorphous blob with no hope for simplicity, only possibility.

For the first time in a long time, I felt nothing else could go wrong. I walked off to photograph, leaving the laptop on its rock to churn out a binary stream into the ether.

Mark Carroll is a marine biologist and photojournalist. His work has appeared in conjunction with the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Wildlife Film Festival.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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