June 17, 2010
Northern Hawk Owl female mantling nest cavity with young
Northern Hawk Owl female mantling nest cavity with young
Any birders out there see the new Miley Cyrus video, Can’t Be Tamed, yet?  Okay, Miley passed from Hannah Montana, sweet and sexless tweener, to a suggestive adult seductress right before our eyes.  This ain’t your father’s video, you may not want your sons to see it, and most environmentalists will drink the kool aid and lament the advent of a time when all we have left of wild things is not the wild things themselves but caricatures of them presented to us courtesy of pop culture.

I get all that.  However, although it goes against the grain of my cup-half-empty personality, well known to my closest friends, my takeaway from Can’t Be Tamed is something quite different.  I find the concept of the video, a rare and wild creature breaking free of its cage, compelling, the brief bird imagery visually stunning, and the play on words for the creature’s “scientific” name, Avis cyrus, clever.  And those who filter through the rapid fire graphic changes and actually listen to the lyrics will be struck by the fact that the artist alludes to her wildness emanating straight from her DNA--something she can’t escape, can’t change, doesn’t care to have changed.

Make no mistake, Miley Cyrus is an artist, and an accomplished one.  She has a trained voice and is an experienced actress.  You may not like her art or its message, and I’m guessing she hasn’t sat beneath a falcon aerie or perhaps even been to a zoo lately, but she conveys the “wild” thing in our human DNA spot on.  She had me at the initial wingspread as I realized the conceit of her costume and, although I don’t consider her a particularly good looking woman and probably wouldn’t recognize her in jeans and a T-shirt if I passed her in the Biltmore Plaza, I couldn’t take my eyes off her in the video long enough to even look at the other dancers.  Her performance conjures, in pop culture version to be sure, the visceral feelings I get when geese honk across a sunrise, condors sweep over the Canyon, buteos scream above open prairie.

I find it fascinating, and hope inducing, that the natural world, its rapidly shrinking wilderness, and the values we hold from that world are being kept alive, if not well, not only by environmental organizations like Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, but by artists solidly entrenched in our pop culture.  I take solace that someone in that world thinks of imagery from nature as a marketing tool that will resonate with a wide audience of mostly young adults.  Education and awareness come in many forms and flavors, and today’s “pop” culture is tomorrow’s mainstream sensibility.

Last month I spent a week photographing in the boglands of northern Minnesota.  One day I stumbled by chance upon a Northern Hawk Owl nest.  I observed hunting, prey exchanges, and feeding of young.  Twice a day a freight train rumbling down out of the Iron Range hissed and clattered nearby.  In one I counted 161 ore cars.  The owls were oblivious to it all.  Wilderness is part of their DNA.  They can’t be tamed.  Neither can we.  I wish Cyrus had been there to feel that wilderness essence and how important that essence is for our own species’ survival.  Wilderness is part of our DNA also.