March 10, 2005

Darth Norton


Did you ever see one of those old Coors Beer “Tap the Rockies” commercials?  Do you remember how that “20-something” guy — straddling a mountain range — would suddenly thrust the beer spigot deep into the side of a snowy peak?  That is the image that comes to mind when I think about more extreme pro-development, pro-emission, pro-fossil or pro-outdoor recreation interests. 

That was also my image of Interior Secretary Gale Norton — before I saw this.

Having had this pic in my pocket for a few weeks, I thought I’d better write it up before Spring arrived.  It accompanied an article in the NYT in mid-February (A 3-Day Yellowstone Tour In Support of Snowmobiles – link) chronicling a 150 mile snowmobile junket Ms. Norton staged through Yellowstone Park.

Apparently, Norton felt the need to conduct a full three day photo op touting the use of snowmobiles after the Bush administration overturned a decision by the Clinton administration to phase out their use in the park.  According to the article, a fixed number of the machines are allowed in Yellowstone for touring.  These tours, which compete with traditional bus service, are required to be led by guides in small groups.  Norton was in the park to advocate for what she strategically described as “self-guided tours” — in other words, free and unrestricted snowmobile access. 

Maybe it’s just the passivity of today’s press, but why did reporters slavishly follow this stunt for days on end?  And, if they had that much face time with the Secretary, why did they award her with such an obviously promotional and imposing photo? 

We all know this could have been a picture where the machine wasn’t so dominating or so unchallenged by the surroundings.  Instead, we get an image where the virile machine grabs the foreground, claiming a scale disproportionate to nature while casting a shadow more formidable than the shadowless dormant trees.  We also know the press could have insisted on a more accessible portrait.  They could have had Ms. Norton jump up on that machine without the helmet, or at least pose with the face shield up.  (I’m sure that’s what a good Democrat would do.)

However, just like the way Wyoming native Dick Cheney stealthily and diabolically assembled his so-called energy task force, Norton signals that the Administration is not interested in contact with “outsiders” on this issue.  By this point in Bush’s tenure, the dynamic couldn’t be more clear.  You set your course, you roll out the campaign, you generate a lot of noise, you tamp down your earplugs and you keep your helmet on tight. Like the image, the method is as cold as it is black-and-white.  At all costs, you insulate. 

Beyond the insularity though, the image also evokes the Administration’s stubborn single-mindedness.  Besides the steady course down the slick road, I think the quality also shows up in the machine.  Although the molding on the hood suggests a face, just above it — like a cyclops — is that one fixed eye.  Although Norton is the real outsider with the radical position (which the article only briefly mentions is being challenged in court), she is relentless in driving home the notion that these vehicles belong in the park.

Having touched on the scale and some qualities of the machine, however, I haven’t mentioned it’s positioning. 

There’s a school of thought among theoretical folks that photos (like written language) are read from left to right.  Following that thinking, there’s also the idea that any movement across the space generates with it a chronology.  If you buy this, what do you make of the machine speeding toward lower left? 

I’m afraid my association is a little pessimistic.  What I see is an administration that has been so effective in turning around environmental gains, they’ve nearly driven the movement into starting over. 

But, did you also notice how close the top left blade of the machine comes to touching the edge of the frame?  Maybe it suggests that the anti-environmental forces are on the verge of some breakthroughs, whether that involved finally puncturing through the tundra (Senate Gearing Up for Fight Over Oil Drilling in Alaska – link), or just freeing these one-eyed monsters to chase the bison through the trees.

(image: Laura Rauch/Associated Press)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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