I chose this title from among others because something perverse, charming, and strange seemed to be going on in these pleasant interludes with Tim Harrell, and I couldn’t figure out what that was, and so, I gave up and went with the vanilla option! ‘Tim the Voyeur’ was enticing, but slanderous. ‘Spying’ or ‘Surveilling with Tim’ was accurate, but over-dramatic. ‘Swamping with Tim’ sounded demeaning. After a while I realized the issue was mostly mine, not Tim’s, and that I should own it. I enjoy these videos of Tim’s more than I should. I’ve watched most of them many times, with a touch of enchantment, even spiritual transport. Take a look. See for yourself.
This is the basic deal. Tim Harrell has for several years been posting videos on his YouTube channel under the heading “Trail Camera Pickup.” What he does is head off deep into the wild, usually into a swamp in South Florida, set up cameras on trees, leave them there for weeks and months on end to record animal activity by movement activation, go retrieve them, and then show the results to viewers like me. He has more than 39,000 followers. In a typical session, we accompany Tim as he excitedly returns to retrieve a couple of cameras, chatting all the way. When he gets to a camera through GPS sighting, he fires up the camera’s LED, reads the number of videos recorded, sometimes in the hundreds, usually says something like “sweet,” takes the camera back to his computer, uploads the images, and shows the results to us. It’s always exciting. Get some popcorn and watch the show. He puts notes on the videos occasionally, such as “first fox,” “500 lb. bear,” and “keep moving fatty” when a bear tries to rip the camera from the tree. At the end, he thanks you for watching. Here’s a recent sample.
If you want to see the series, and Harrell’s other videos, open YouTube on your search engine and type “Trail Camera Pickup – Tim Harrell,” and you’ll be taken to his body of work. Be sure to watch his “Swamp Critters” videos too.
I haven’t met Jim Harrell, and know him only through his videos. He’s seems a humble man. He doesn’t draw attention to himself or offer much self-description. You see his picture occasionally, because his movements activate the camera upon exit and pickup. You hear his voice mostly. And yet, you’ll see, and this is part of the charm, Tim is the specimen of life that shows up in every video, and gives off a definite and favorable impression of himself. He’s a delightful companion, and a calming guide for interludes in swamps! You’ll soon know him well enough, as well, say, as you know Anderson Cooper!
When I ask myself what the Trial Camera Pickup experience means to me/us (what am I/we doing in watching the videos?), (what do we gain?), I am able to transport myself imaginatively so deep into the labyrinth of human reverberation as to get all the way to modernist classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust, who famously advised “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” In other words, it’s a mental trip just to explain what is perverse, charming, and strange in the “trial camera pickup” experience. Let me settle for a short explanation.
I watch the videos on an Apple iPad in bed near sleep time. That’s as close as I’ll get to a swamp or deep forest. I would never go to the places Tim routinely visits to place his cameras. If I were forced to make one of Tim’s trips, it would be pure terror. Yet, here I am with Tim sloshing through these waterways and he’s calm and at ease. He occasionally complains about a mosquito, a snake that won’t move from the path, or a bramble that pricks him. Water is no problem to him. He worries most that some jerk will steal his camera, as has happened once before. These walks are for Tim exciting and delightful; he’s at home in the garden of nature. I’m there, as silent companion, encouraging him from a safe distance.
And then, upon arrival, the payoff, the parade of animals, day and night: the beautiful deer, the owls, the languid bears, the coyotes, the possum, the squirrels, the bobcats, the large panthers, the turkeys, the skunks, the alligators. The waterholes are vibrant playgrounds. Yet, it’s quiet and peaceful, except for when cloddish humans rumble roughly through. Nature is mostly sanctuary. The animals rarely even chase each other. The solitary eye of the unmoving camera superintends a well-travelled crossroad. There is room for everyone. Except for birds and deer, it’s rarely feeding time; the feast is mostly vegan!
I find Tim’s excursions calming, and healing. There’s a religious quality in them. It’s akin, I imagine, to having been able to peer in on Thoreau as he constructed his cabin, managed his woodlot, and tended his garden at Walden Pond. It’s also a guilty pleasure that so much spiritual nurturance can be had so effortlessly on the cheap via the Internet. And, then, there is our President and the destructive interludes he imposes on our minds and souls daily. Condemned to emotional and moral upset, it’s a relief to escape to these countervailing interludes with Tim.
In reflecting upon the serenity of the vistas Tim and the animals transverse in these videos. I’m reminded of a story told of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, visiting journalists from France, in an excursion though America in 1831. It seems they were only allowed to take a trek into the deep forest, the real wilderness, near the end of their visit, after seeing what was going on in civilization. Once in the wilderness, they were blown away by its peace and calm and the sense of place and home that the Indians felt in the woods. In contrast, they recognized that the European immigrants were crazed in an illusive dream; these supposed “settlers” were engaged in carving out plots, cutting down woods, leaving stumps high above the ground, and immediately planting crops among the stumps. The visitors shuddered for the fate of the Indians and dreaded what the Europeans might do in their dream trance. We know something of the answer now. Some few lovers of nature like Tim return to the wilderness we’ve ravaged and passed by in pursuit of the dream, and people like me, like us, watch from a pacified distance through sophisticated technologies, the very same technologies that are making unsustainable demands on the earth. Meanwhile, resource degradation, species decimation, pollution, and climate change proceed apace, while loudly denied by circus performers in high places. I’m not proud of my participation in this scheme.
When I travel uncourageously with Tim, I wonder whether we’re returning to the past or gleaming the future. The stationary camera just sits there and watches. We are witnessing something, a monstrous specter, redemption, a grand recovery, a prospect revealed. While we wait, like characters in Waiting for Godot, let’s give a generous shout-out to our gracious host, Tim Harrell. Thank you so very much Tim.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 1, 2018
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good