At first, it was sort of amusing.
You'd be tromping around out on the fringes of nature, looking at a mountain, a sunset, a lake -- something spectacular. And you would look around and see some guy with a video camera.
A couple decades ago, that guy was easy to spot, video cameras being about as concealable as a wheelbarrow. And you always looked at him and wondered what he was thinking.
There he was, standing before something breathtakingly beautiful, lucky enough to see something most people never see, and that he might not see again. And he spends the entire time viewing it through a tiny, grainy viewfinder. Never mind that he's shooting video -- key component, motion -- of something that's stationary.
What, you couldn't help wonder, is this guy going to do with it when he gets home? Fast forward to the action moment when a fir needle dropped? But it was easy to laugh that guy off as a dork who just didn't get it.
Today, the video geek isn't the odd man out. He is us. We are him. And we're all a lot smaller -- about 2 by 3 inches, to be precise -- as a people because of it.
Did you see the inauguration coverage? Sadly, the thing that will stick with some of us about it was not the stirring words, the historical import, or the celebration of democracy. It was the virtual seas of people standing, witnessing history, and viewing the entire unfathomably huge event through a video screen the size of an open pack of matches.
Got a light? All the world did in D.C. President Obama put his hand on the Bible, and hundreds of thousands of Americans put one hand, camera or cellphone clutched therein, in the sky. Later, when the Obamas appeared at inaugural balls, same response, even more noticeable: The sea of tiny LCD screens held aloft was so broad that it created its own creepy, blue backlight cast back on the crowd.
Sadly, you see the same behavior these days in the natural world. Sit back and watch next time you're in a national park: Minivans pull up to a roadside attraction. People burst forth. Cellphones, cameras, digi-recorders and other devices are brandished in mid-stride. Click. Whir. Whiz. Beep. Got it! And they're outta there.
Some of the super-techie ones, of course, will multitask, issuing Twitter tweets with their own profound interpretations for their digitized friends to view back home: "Watching Geyser. Wet. Hot. Way cool!"
Thanks for that, Thoreau.
As a lifelong fan of those profound outdoor moments, it makes me cringe. But I'm also a realist who realizes that the world is not likely to agree to a unilateral digital disarming.
So I propose a compromise.
The next time you're standing beside a stream in the Rockies, one of those where the water thunders through a narrow granite chute so forcefully that you can feel the friction through the soles of your feet, and where the water exiting the downstream end bursts to life in an effervescent shower of bubbles that send chills up your spine, go ahead and whip out your device of choice and record the moment. Quickly. Simply. Get it over with.
And then try something radical. Just stand there. Feel the spray settling on your face. Look around you and watch how the sun lights it up in a rainbow arch. Take in a few deep lungsful of that sweet, alpine air. Taste it. Feel it. Close your eyes and let your ears record the river's thunderous retort to the constraints of gravity.
Hold still for a moment and, when you're ready, tell yourself quietly: Remember this. Never forget. Brand this moment on my soul.