California’s Wildflowers Are Blooming, Will Influencers Resist the Urge for a Selfie?
The blooms in California’s poppy and wildflower fields have started, making some nervous that even a fraction of last year’s crowds could be a major problem.
As if the managers of local, state and national parks didn’t have enough to worry about, in the time of COVID-19 and of urging people to stay the hell away from each other, now comes spring—and with it California wildflowers and Instagram influencers, all of them angling for the best possible angle.
There’s a post for 6,414 followers from March 31, a woman’s arms flung into the air above her bare midriff and high-waisted jeans, trampling a few mandarin orange-colored poppies with her white would-be influencer sneakers at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. “You’re not supposed to step on them,” a commenter chided. “Ik I tried my best to tiptoe around them,” the poster replied. “But this pic is worth it,” the commenter wrote back, followed by a trio of heart-eyed happy face emojis. Another post on Wednesday describes “feeling like dorothy in a field full of poppies,” to a more modest 1,689 followers.
One Instagrammer garnered 510 likes for a March 22 post of her and her boyfriend, their faces mashed together as they lay on the ground, on top of the Antelope poppies. There’s @brookestellar, same place, in a March 23 post to 10,400 followers that was likely taken last year, given the snarky caption: “Remember when we were allowed outside and everyone flocked to the poppy fields and got really pissy at each other for making contact with flowers? Jimmy was standing on the sidewalk, a foot away from the poppies, but I suppose it looked otherwise to the 15 year old girl who screamed ‘Are you serious asshole?! That’s not FUCKING COOL MAN’ … anyways, it’s poppy season again. Too bad we’re all gonna miss a chance to get mad at each other in nature.”
Anyway, it’s poppy season again. And while there wasn’t nearly enough rainfall in January or February to produce the infamous “super blooms” that overwhelmed California parks and cities blessed with a wildflower bonanza in 2019 and 2017, a certain convergence of factors has officials nervous about another problematic year. Those include: COVID-19, cooping millions of people up in their homes for the foreseeable future; spring and its bounty, luring those same millions to the outdoors, where it might feel like an entirely safe place to practice social distancing until there are a thousand people jammed onto the same singletrack trail; government officials woefully ill-equipped to manage the mobs.
“We’re anticipating losing 50 percent of our staff when the virus hits its peak in mid-April,” Erin Gettis, assistant director of the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District in Jurupa Valley, California, told The Daily Beast. “The amount of time we put into the super bloom last year was pretty significant. These are not resources we have to give right now.”
Last year’s super bloom was nuts, from flora to fawners. An El Nino winter saturated soils rife with dormant wildflower seeds, which burst into life in March, by the millions. The influencers arrived en masse, and their followers followed. From the Anza-Borrego desert to Walker Canyon, near Lake Elsinore, to the Antelope Valley, parks and their closest cities were swarmed with Leica locusts. Traffic jams stretched 20 miles long in places. Some 250,000 to 500,000 people bombarded the 3,500-population town of Borrego Springs. More than 100,000 people hit Lake Elsinore over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. After a police officer was hit and killed by a car and a visitor was bitten by a rattlesnake, officials shut down access to Walker Canyon. The hashtag #superbloom has 206,000 associated posts. Locals called it “Flowergeddon.”
There’s no indication—yet—that Insta-influenced flower children have any intention of overwhelming parks this year, despite the hundreds of posts already from poppy meccas like Antelope Valley. Many are heeding doctors’ and elected officials’ warnings and stay-at-home orders across the country. But people are certainly still traveling to these places, and government workers are still doing their best to stop them. California State Parks has closed most of its facilities and is begging pent-up residents to walk, run, hike and bike in their local neighborhoods and walk to parks, but “not to congregate in the outdoors,” according to a statement the agency sent the Daily Beast. “If visitors cannot maintain social distancing, they need to leave the park.” The state even launched a “catchy” social media campaign: “Flatten the COVID-19 Curve at Parks.”
“It’s hard to call it a ‘problem,’ because gosh we always want to encourage people to get outside and recreate,” Mark Mendelsohn, a biologist with the National Parks Service who covers Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, told The Daily Beast. “But the weekend before last, our parking lots were just jam-packed and that was unsafe, because of physical distancing requirements. Now LA County and Ventura County, state parks, local parks agencies, everyone’s on board. The trails are all closed, the parking lots are closed, the beaches are closed.”
Heather Robinson, a volunteer naturalist from Newbury Park, California, headed to Antelope Valley last week for some fresh air and photography. The lot was closed, so she parked on the roadside, along with about 20 other cars, a fraction of the hundreds of vehicles that jammed the lots during last year’s super bloom. “It was actually pretty nice,” Robinson said. “There were very few people on the trails, and the ones that are there are very respectful of distancing.” Her Thursday post is far back from the poppies, and her caption reminds her 152 followers that the road is closed (‘but you can walk in.”) “Maybe I shouldn’t have tagged (the reserve) in my post,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think I would go nuts if I couldn’t go outside.”
Robinson’s ulterior motive for heading to Antelope Valley was to play fashion photographer to her influencer daughter, Paige Lorentzen, a 25-year-old model with nearly 75,000 followers. Lorentzen couldn’t find a photographer willing to shoot her this week, so she asked mom to help out. Lorentzen was careful about the post: no geotag, kneeling on a blanket back away from the poppies. She knows better.
“Especially in the influencer community and modeling world, a lot of people get backlash for mistreating the environment, stepping on poppies, laying on them for photos. Locations on Instagram can become a hot spot, so I don’t share all my secrets publicly,” Lorentzen told the Daily Beast. “When you have a following, you have a responsibility.”
Brooke Burgstahler (the aforementioned @brookstellar) told the Daily Beast via email that her super bloom post was from 2019. At the time, thanks to a torrent of shaming, “I decided not to post any photos and just say out of the conversation,” she wrote. “Perhaps that is the point of nature. To visit her, and appreciate her, and not need a photoshoot with her?”
That said, Burgstahler doesn’t worry about sharing imagery of a beautiful place, especially when it’s “a sweet hole-in-the-wall restaurant and one of my friends and followers then wants to go — that feels like a win!” Or if a post from a trail inspires a follower “off their butt to explore for themselves, I think that’s a great side effect of social media.” Had she a million followers and geo-tagged a hidden gem in Hawaii, flooding it with people?
“Well then, I would be an oversharing idiot.”