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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cosmophobia...Really?


Media-driven, irrational fear is keeping too many of us from enjoying nature


On May 5, 2012, the moon was almost as close to Earth as it ever gets. Nikon D800E, AF-S VR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED at 112mm, ISO 100; exposure for the moon was 1⁄30 sec. at ƒ/4.

I recently had the pleasure of giving the keynote presentation at the Moab Photography Symposium, which happened to coincide with the "supermoon," a term that refers to an unusually large full moon that travels almost as close as it can to Earth. The supermoon of May 5, 2012, rose just after sunset, so the photographic opportunities were fabulous. The day of this supermoon there was the usual news coverage of the event. One news outlet discussed the trend toward an increase in people being afraid of astronomical events such as supermoons, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. A NASA scientist has even given this fear a name, "cosmophobia," which is defined as a fear of the cosmos, particularly the terror that the world will end by means of some astronomical occurrence.

One of the points I raised in my keynote is that much of our media today is filled with stories that are intended to induce fear, and that we as nature photographers have an opportunity to contribute positive imagery to the world in the midst of our negatively biased mass media. Well, here was the perfect example of the issue. A magnificent natural phenomenon was being cast as something potentially to fear! While the news story may have been somewhat tongue in cheek, it's symptomatic of a larger issue that I think is becoming more prevalent: People are becoming more fearful of the natural world as they become more removed from it.

As photographers, we have the perfect avocation to help us reconnect with the natural world as participants and not just as spectators. Our pursuit of magical places in magical light will lead us to witness nature's beauty as few others can. It will push us to experience things that the average person will likely never make the effort to see—sunrise on a meadow of wildflowers high in the Sierra, a supermoon rising among sandstone formations in the desert and other sublime spectacles that we can witness and share. In my presentation, I explained how the pursuit of landscape photography has helped me become a more positive and courageous person. My desire to get a good picture now outweighs the fear of hiking alone through the dark to get it.

I think it's particularly important for women to learn how to be comfortable spending time alone in the outdoors. A common question I get during my workshops and presentations is "Aren't you afraid of being outdoors by yourself?" I've spent many sunrises and sunsets alone hiking out to my locations by headlamp. I find that there's really nothing to be fearful of; the chance of being attacked by an animal or another human is almost 0%. The people you encounter in these places are enjoying the outdoors as you are and aren't up to malice. It's statistically more dangerous to drive your car at anytime than to walk alone in most national parks and wilderness areas. You're much more likely to encounter violence on city streets than in the great outdoors. When tragic attacks do happen, they're disproportionately covered by the media, but aren't very common. I'm not suggesting that we be naïve as women when travelling alone, but I am suggesting that we be smart and rational about it and not let unfounded fear stop us from photographing amazing places in amazing light, particularly if we're not travelling with a companion.

I have a vivid memory of taking the bus out to Wonder Lake in Denali. All the hikers and backpackers got on and off the bus at their designated hiking quadrants. About 40 miles out on the road, a young woman got on the bus; she had been hiking alone in the Denali wilderness for a week. I asked her about her experience, and she shared how wonderful it had been for her. I remember admiring her courage, and it encouraged me to do a day hike alone in Denali. Being in a wilderness area alone can be a very profound experience and will always refresh your perspective.

The best cure for this type of fear is to develop the skills and fitness to get outside and enjoy the natural world as often as possible. Start with smaller hikes and then progress to longer ones. Watch your own train of thoughts when you're alone in the outdoors to determine if your fears of the situation are rational or irrational. Of course, not everyone faces these issues; there are many people who don't give fear of being in the outdoors alone a second thought. I've encountered enough people who face this both in daily life and in photography workshops, that I wanted to share my perspective on the issue.

When I photographed the supermoon at Arches National Park, a group of workshop participants and other photographers had gathered on the rocks with a fabulous view of Balanced Rock and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. When the huge moon peeked over the mountains, I didn't hear shrieks of cosmophobia-induced terror, but gasps of awe and amazement. Actually witnessing nature's grandeur has a way of making us forget about fear.

See more of Elizabeth Carmel's photography at elizabethcarmel.com and thecarmelgallery.com. Workshop information is available at elizabethcarmel.com.

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