December 16, 2012


THE TALE-TELLING DAYS ARE OVER : Whatever happened to an outdoorsman's sacred right to exaggerate? In the age of digitized adventure, the fish that got away is gone forever. (IAN FRAZIER, November 2012, Outside)

[A]s a grown-up supposedly immune to phantasms, I learned from Russians when I was traveling in Siberia that somewhere in its remotest parts is Coca-Cola City (Gorod Koka-Kola), which was built during the Cold War as a reproduction of an American city. The residents of Coca-Cola City speak perfect English and use American products and behave like Americans, providing a realistic setting in which the Russian spymasters can train special operatives who will be sent to the U.S. Coca-Cola City is alleged to be the topmost of top-secret sites, and it is closed, of course, to all visitors. I'm not sure if that's why I never could pin it down on the map. I suspect that it does not exist and never did--but who can say? The rumor of it made Siberia more Siberian for me.

YOU MIGHT NOT THINK that any human creation as hardy as lies could be in danger of dying out, but I'm afraid that, at least outdoors, they are. Nowadays, a good outdoor what-if story has a much smaller chance for survival. Some years ago, you may remember, observers in the deep woods of eastern Arkansas said they had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker, the wonderful and near mythic bird that black people called Lord God Bird because of its soul-shivering appearance. There had been no confirmed sightings of the ivory-bill in decades, and its possible extinction was and is bad news. The observers who said they had seen it weren't trying to deceive, just being wishful, and because they recorded it with a video camera their wishfulness was eventually dashed--close analysis of the video revealed that the bird was not an ivory-bill.

It would have been nice to think that the bird still survived someplace far away in the forest. But truth is always better than error, I suppose. Consider the recent case of the giant wild hog Hogzilla. A Georgia man said he had shot it while it was running around someplace in the woods, and he posted pictures of it online. This eight-foot-long, 800-pound animal was as monstrous a creature as the Georgia swamps had ever seen. The man added that he had buried the hog in a grave marked with a cross (though feral, it had been a Christian hog, apparently), and because of the excitement stirred up on the Internet the man eventually had to submit the corpse for examination. Through DNA testing, experts determined that it was a mix of wild hog and domestic pig. Its size suggested it had eaten a lot of hog feed. Such a disappointment--Hogzilla, a pen-raised fake. How much more stimulating to believe that there are 800-pound wild hogs infesting the swamps of Georgia. One hates to think what a radio collar and a wildlife-management team would have done to William Faulkner's bear.

The Hogzilla debunking was another example of the pesky trend toward factuality currently sweeping the out-of-doors. Technology, of course, is at the root of it. The global landscape used to be a theater of various shadings--sunlit fields and canyons of dark obscurity, trackless jungles, and misty Shangri-las. Now the whole world is like a cineplex when the lights have come on. Almost no place on the surface of the planet is really obscure anymore. Satellites watch it all and can let you know to the millimeter how far continental drift moved your swimming beach last year. What's up along the banks of the great, gray-green Limpopo? How's traffic on the road to Mandalay? What's the snowpack like across the wide Missouri? The Internet or Google Earth will tell you.

Traveling in Siberia a decade ago, I thought I was pretty much beyond the reach of checkability; in fact-checker shorthand, anything I wrote would be "O.A.," which stands for "on author," meaning "unverifiable by anything other than the author's say-so." I did not need to worry that any checker would visit where I had been, nor was it likely that an irate reader would write in claiming I had got something wrong about the tundra zone of the Chukchi Peninsula, given the difficulty of getting there and the absence of any reason to go. But then time and advancing technology proved me wrong. During the many years my Siberian research took, satellite imagery of the earth's surface became available online, and my claims about the lay of the land in Siberia proved to be checkable after all. Even in far-flung places, descriptions could be verified. If I said there was no bridge over a remote Far Eastern river that I had crossed by ferry, the checker could look on Google Earth and see that, in fact, no bridge showed up in the satellite photo, and a small boat much like a ferry could be seen crossing there.

Today the adventurer's tale-telling days are over and his crooked ways have been made straight, and every untruth can be revealed. No point in lying: we've got it all on tape, as the TV detectives say. If you claim you drove to Nunavut and we think maybe you didn't, we'll just look at the E-ZPass records for the toll roads along the way. And if they don't tell us, the cell-phone towers will. Formerly, a cell-phone tower could follow a phone only when the phone was on, and smart criminals knew to turn it off before committing crimes. Now phones ping the towers and the towers record the presence of the cell phones in the vicinity, often whether they are on or not, and to escape the network's observation you must remove the battery entirely. Almost everywhere, some degree of electronic connection can be assumed.

...who sweat they've seen catamounts within the past month.  I ain't buyin'....yet....
Posted by at December 16, 2012 7:49 AM

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