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Heritage Exposed: Nudity at Historical Sites

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poso a poco).

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poco a poco).

In February American tourists Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were among the crowds at Cambodia’s Angkor, the 9th-15th century Khmer city and temple complex that UNESCO hails as the most famous archaeological site in southeast Asia.  The World Heritage Site sprawls over about 400 square kilometers, making it among the world’s largest archaeological sites and one of the most visited historical sites in the world.  The Adams sisters were among the thousands of visitors trooping through Angkor in February, with scores of them providing pictures of their journey and the astounding complex.  When the Arizona sisters reached the Preah Khan temple, they likewise documented their visit, yet like a modest but growing wave of contemporary tourists they departed from the conventional monument pose:  the women dropped their pants for a shot of their butts in the ancient temple, only to be nabbed by the authorities.  These increasingly common nude or partially disrobed pictures at historic sites tell us something about the aesthetic power of heritage even as they reveal its irrelevance to many of the Western tourists who are actually visiting historic places.

The Arizona travelers are not alone in their ambition to commemorate their historic site tourism with nude pictures.  In January three French tourists were deported after being caught in Angkor’s Banteay Kdei temple stripping for pictures of their Cambodian trek.  Five days before pictures appeared on Facebook depicting topless women at Angkor as well as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace.  In May a group of ten tourists posed naked in Malaysia on Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage site distinguished by its botanical diversity (5000-6000 plant species can be found on the mountain).  Israeli traveler Amichay Rab’s My Naked Trip blog documents his tour of South America, where he stripped at a series of sites including Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Monte Verde.  The facebook page and blog Naked at Monuments document sun-starved butts at sites including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Athens.

At the south peak of Mount Kinabalu (image from Gossipguy).

At the south peak of Mount Kinabalu (image from Gossipguy).

Many of these photographers imagine their experience and images as irreverent or spontaneous humor.  Paul Marshall’s Naked at Monuments, for instance, suggests that “First and foremost, it’s about having a laugh.  For some reason people find the naked body funny.  We’re more than happy to watch people slit each others throats and blow each others heads off in movies, but as soon as we see a naked body we either laugh or tense up. We want to break down some of these barriers and let the world know its okay to get naked.”

The unexpected nudity at historical sites is perhaps calculated to make us laugh at the audacity required to streak at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that ignores how and why historicity is invoked in these images.  These naked images secure some of their power by violating the sanctity of historical sites.  In some cases like Angkor a place’s solemnity is rooted in a conventionally defined sacred heritage, but in many of these places their status as historical sites simply assumes respect and decorum from visitors.  The host of pale rumps on Naked at Monuments may cynically question such historical sanctity, but fundamentally the site questions the ethics of tourism itself and does not see such photographic experiences as contemptuous or disrespectful.  When the site came under attack in June, Paul Marshall argued that nudity is an inconsequential violation of tourist etiquette: “A lot of people have been pretty vocal about how it is offensive and disrespectful. I don’t think disrespect is ever the intent (one could argue it is actually a sign of respect) but I think if people are finding the naked body offensive enough to be vocal about it then we really need to change our social lens. People barely bat an eye at violence or human rights abuses but if you get naked everybody loses their shit.”  Marshall somewhat clumsily dissected how nudity functions in these pictures—while he defended the significance of these places—when he argued that “our page is about what’s around the buttocks, not the buttocks itself. All the pictures are posted in good humor. There is nothing gratuitous or sexual about them. It is just a couple of naked dudes running around amazing places.”

A 1911 poster advertising the "ruins of Angkor."

A 1911 poster advertising the “ruins of Angkor.”

The criticism of the conventional tourist experience itself (if not heritage in general) seems to be perhaps the central target of these photographers.  Our enormously well-documented lives routinely chronicle nearly every possible experience from fabulous meals to trips overseas, and countless Instagram and Facebook pages document us dutifully standing before yet another heritage backdrop.  Such pictures may be less about documenting tourism experiences than they are about how we imagine such pictures make us seem worldly, intelligent, or curious.  For some travelers, though, the countless online images of such sites have perhaps produced a deep-seated anxiety that we are interchangeable tourists having the same experience and taking the same pictures.  In an ocean of prosaic tourist images and conventional experiences, some travelers likely flash a vertical smile at a World Heritage site to escape the seemingly meaningless if not inauthentic tourist experience.

Monks at Preah Khan in the Angkor complex of temples (image (Markalexander100).

Monks at Preah Khan in the Angkor complex of temples (image (Markalexander100).

These travelers are not necessarily disregarding the consequence of heritage venues as much as they are reducing them simply to aesthetically rich places.  When Naked at Monuments inventoried the “top seven historic monuments to get naked at,” their analysis devoted little attention to especially reflective history.  The analysis of Stonehenge, for instance, observed that “They’re not exactly sure what Stonehenge is.”  It appears that in the experience of these (and possibly many more) tourists the historicity of these places seems largely disinteresting or at least secondary to their importance as aesthetic stages for a meaningful tourist experience.  The images of travelers’ backsides reflect how some people aspire to escape the conventional tourist experience; they are not about the ways a physical visit to Machu Picchu may provide a deeper understanding of Incan heritage than an authoritative web page, lavishly produced cable documentary, or scholarly paper.

Many of these photographers appear to have avoided a challenging experience; that is, the sites remain exoticized because many of these places are rooted in antiquity, located in distant reaches of the world, and are well outside the experience of Western tourists.  For many tourists, these sites are interchangeable spaces: they loom as aesthetically and materially impressive experiences, but they reveal little substantive insight into local culture or heritage and remain exoticized.

Disrobing on Mount Kinabalu.

Disrobing on Mount Kinabalu.

Not surprisingly, most of these pages have very few examples of naked pictures taken at Western historic sites.  The Western photographers facing international indignation and justice seem charitably naïve, apparently surprised that nudity does not have universally humorous implications or that Angkor or the Great Wall differ from any other place on their Facebook page.  An English woman in the group that stripped on Mount Kinabalu said “she was very sorry for the offence caused” and released a statement that “my behaviour was foolish and I know how much offence we all caused to the local people of Sabah.  For that, I am truly sorry.”  The Adams’ brother said after their arrest at Angkor that “’They didn’t mean any harm, they didn’t mean to disrespect any one.’” After their February arrest taking nude pictures at Angkor, the Phnom Pehn Post reported that three French tourists “posted a video online apologising, saying they did not understand the gravity of the cultural faux pas.”

However, not every offender has been apologetic.  Amichay Rab defended his naked images at Machu Picchu, arguing that “I did it when I was with nobody and with the clarity that is a sacred place for Peruvians, above all, with much respect.”  A member of the Kinabalu group, Emil Kaminski, released a video ridiculing Malaysians who criticized the groups’ nudity on the mountain.  The Malaysian Deputy Chief Minister called the episode “uncivilised” and linked the photo session to a subsequent earthquake: “Whether other people believe this or not, it’s what we Sabahans believe.  When the earthquake happened, it’s like a confirmation of our beliefs.  It is a sacred mountain and you cannot take it lightly.”  Kaminski dismissed the notion of sacred space because “it is just a fucking mountain.”  Kaminski was contemptuous of Malaysian efforts to prosecute the photo session as a breach of local customs, indicating on Facebook that “If local religion prohibits certain actions, then local believers of that religion should not engage in it, but they cannot expect everyone to obey their archaic and idiotic rules.”

In a moment when tourism’s aesthetics may seem increasingly interchangeable, it is not surprising that some travelers seek an image that departs from traditional tourist photography.  Tourists routinely grumble about the number of people at places like Angkor (where about 800,000 people visit each year), and they daydream about an “off-the-beaten-path” traveling experience.  In a post on this subject entitled “Respect my Shitty Culture,” Emil Kaminski adopted the role of privileged traveler and ranted that for most tourists “travel is all about showing up, doing the Lonely Planet circuit, going to a souvenir store, buying some stupid shit you don’t need, and, foremost, keeping your mouth shut. `You cannot criticize things in another country’, `You must have respect for other people’s culture’, and `You must respect other people’s religion’ have become a dysfunctional set of mantras for giddy backpackers who get their passports, buy some tickets, fly to far-flung places, and then proceed to learn nothing, often aided with copious amounts of alcohol and random mind-debilitating drugs.”

The summit of Machy Picchu (image Cargado por Flamurai).

The summit of Machu Picchu (image Cargado por Flamurai).

Some travelers yearn for the “authentic” travel experience, hoping to escape canned tours and orchestrated historical sites in favor of something that is “genuine” and true to their own imagined self.  In that sense there may actually be an interesting insight to take from nude images taken at historic sites, which may illuminate an especially common pattern among Western tourists eager to seek out cultural and historical “authenticity.”  For many tourists heritage spaces probably are seen as interchangeable stages for their digital images and orchestrated memories.  The status of such places as historic sites is consequential and gives the images meaning, but that meaning may simply be derived from their invocation of general historicity and cultural exoticism; that is, images taken at many of these sites may not be meaningful for their specific materialization of a Khmer culture, Incan heritage, or some other concrete place-based history, they may simply matter because they invoke pastness and the exotic as a backdrop to the tourist experience.  Few tourists are ever likely to secure a meaningful trip by flashing a vertical smile across their Facebook pages, but those images may reflect a widespread Western travelers’ disaffection with contemporary tourist experience and historical sites as we continually seek out the “authentic” experience.

 

References

Georgios Alexopoulos

2013  Management of Living Religious Heritage: Who Sets the Agenda?  The Case of the Monastic Community of Mount Athos. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 15(1):59-75. (subscription access)

 

Josephine Gillespie

2009 Protecting World Heritage: Regulating Ownership and Land Use at Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia.  International Journal of Heritage Studies 15(4):338-354.  (subscription access)

2013 World Heritage management: boundary-making at Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia.  Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 56(2):286–304.  (subscription access)

 

Keiko Miura

2005 Conservation of a “living heritage site” A contradiction in terms? A case study of Angkor World Heritage SiteConservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 7(1):3-18.  (subscription access)

 

Noel B. Salazar

2010 Envisioning Eden: Mobilizing Imaginaries in Tourism and Beyond.  Berghan Books, New York.

 

Noel B. Salazar and Nelson H. H. Graburn (editors)

2014 Tourism Imaginaries: Anthropological Approaches.  Berghan Books, New York.

 

Tim Winter

2007 From a Time of Conflict to Conflicting Times.  In Post-Conflict Heritage, Post Colonial Tourism: Culture, Politics and Development at Angkor, by Tim White, pp. 1-24.  Routledge, New York.

 

Images

1911 Travel Poster for Angkor Wat from Wikipedia

Kaminski Facebook image from says.com

Monks at Preah Khan image from Markalexander100

South peak Kinabalu image from Wikipedia user Gossipguy

Tourists at Angkor image from Wikipedia user Poco a poca

Imagining the Racist Landscape

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

Boone Hall Plantation bills itself as “America’s most photographed plantation,” and the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina plantation’s moss-draped oak approach and grounds are indeed magnificent.  The most dramatic aesthetic feature of the plantation may be the nearly mile-long “Avenue of Oaks” approach, which is draped in southern oaks planted in 1743.  Photographed by a legion of tourists whose images crowd the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Trip Advisor, the space has also appeared in films including North and South and The Notebook.

Captives quareters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

Captives quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

In April the visitors photographing the Boone Hall landscape included Dylann Roof, who later murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th.  In March and April Roof visited a series of South Carolina historic sites such as Boone Hall and included the images on a website accompanying a racist manifesto.  We may find it impossible to fathom the mind of a racist killer and determine how he went from the mimicry of xenophobic talking points to mass murder, but his historic site visits illuminate the somewhat “placeless” historic landscape of the racist imagination.  Dylann Roof’s imagination of these historic spaces is impossible to conclusively interpret, and his online manifesto and pictures did not deny the historical narratives of African-American heritage sites as much as he simply evaded them.  It appears that Roof ignored the complex heritage of all these places even as he felt strangely compelled to visit them. Read the rest of this entry

The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop.  The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva BraunThe provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil.  The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.

Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world.  Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral.  Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people.  It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.”  Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good.  Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Fans: Material Culture and Ritual at Fandom Funerals

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon's funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon’s funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions.  The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys.  Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual.  For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand).  When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back.  Yes, I shall come back.  Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’” Read the rest of this entry

Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events.  For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces.  In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race.  It is a folk festival, a happening.  Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”

The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS).  Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.  So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?”  Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.”  Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself. Read the rest of this entry

Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry

Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry

Littering Everest: Nature, Toilets, and Waste on Mt. Everest

One of the most recent volleys in a long-running moral critique of consumption, pollution, and imperialism comes from Mt. Everest, where uneasy scholars and activists have long decried the detritus left on the world’s tallest peak.  In 1963 National Geographic photographer Barry Bishop was part of the first American team to scale Everest, and he described the mountain as “the world’s highest junk yard.”  Indeed, climbers ascending the mountain have discarded oxygen tanks, tattered tents, food containers, and a helicopter, and dead climbers have been left on the peak since George Mallory and Andrew Irvine died in an ascent attempt in 1924Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled the mountain for the first time in 1953, and Hillary later said “I must admit, when we went to Everest in 1953, we heaved our rubbish around with the best of them. That was nearly forty years ago and in those days hardly anyone had even heard of conservation.”  When the New York Times examined the massive growth of tourism to Nepal in 1978, Hillary lamented that the Everest region “is now an ecological slum.  Tins and trash clutter up the paths and campsites. … The traditional culture is being crushed by the insidious economic machine.”

Last week the head of Nepal’s mountaineering association spearheaded the charge to address the most repulsive of this trash when he took aim on “large amounts of feces and urine” left on the world’s tallest mountain.   The Washington Post amplified the rhetoric over human waste on the peak when it repeated Grayson Schaffer’s 2013 description of Everest as a “fecal time bomb,” quite possibly the most colorful description ever provided for a potential ecological disaster.  By various counts, over 5000 climbers have relieved themselves on Everest and left “pyramids of human excrement.”  In 2012 a Washington Post column by Schaffer had sounded the same jarring image of the Everest base camp outhouses “continuously overflowing with waste.”  Last year Outside’s Lauren Steele reported on climbers’ longstanding practice of defecating into glacier crevasses, and with mountain warming “the glacier—and the waste entombed within it—is slowly making its way back toward Base Camp,” where climbers drink the melt water. Read the rest of this entry

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