If you stretch it, there’s a wildlife tie-in with just about every human contrivance. But in this case, I was actually avoiding wildlife connections — taking a break from the stress of nestlings, fledglings, entanglements and predation.
My goal was moonrise over the Space Needle … a moonrise scheduled for 11pm. As luck would have it, the promontory I chose was also the destination of the Quirky Hat Photography Club. I counted one Panama hat, one pork pie, one beret and at least two fedoras. Being the only female — a hat-less female, no less — I was but a fly on the wall. I did, however, learn a few things about the 16-35mm (f2.8) that I’d rather not repeat in mixed company.
In the midst of lens fever, a young couple arrived at the park bench and promptly unwrapped pallets of cellophane. They had four packages of Chinese lanterns, or sky lanterns as they’re commonly called (see pic of major lantern release). That means I had four chances to get exposure right on a flying lantern — or they had four chances of setting the whole place aflame (depending on how you look at it). By the fourth lantern, I stopped thinking about exposure and had Seattle Fire on the quick dial.
That’s a slight exaggeration. But they were struggling with the mechanics of the lanterns, and I’m pretty sure there were some scalded fingers in iced vodka later that night.
It’s a sight to watch a sky lantern take flight, propelled by the might of just one match. I can’t deny the serenity of that moment, which was obviously sentimental for this young couple. A few other people raced over and serenaded the release, a capella, as the lanterns rose on warm currents. Marked with black Sharpie wishes, the orange tops drifted off over Elliott Bay then disappeared above the bluffs of West Seattle before losing their flame … granting the hopes and dreams scribbled on rice paper just minutes before.
Wouldn’t you know it, this is where my brief vacation from wildlife thoughts ended. Remember the Mac Davis song, “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way?” I paraphrase that to say, “It’s hard to be happy when you can’t get your friggin’ mind off of outcomes.” Coming from fire country, California, I couldn’t help but consider where this flying incendiary device would end up. We lived in the evacuation zone of the Oakland fire, and know we few humans or nonhumans who haven’t been touched by wildfires on some level. Fire lanterns are becoming more popular in the States for wedding releases and special events, so I think the ramifications are important.
When I looked it up at home, just a cursory search, there didn’t appear to be any forest fires started by sky lanterns in the States (yet, as far as I could find). But they have, indeed, started fires, in homes and fields. They’ve been blamed for forest fires and power station blackouts in Vietnam. Cautions abound for the potential fire hazards in the U.S. And there is also concern about a component I hadn’t noticed until I looked at my photos again: the wire frame holding the lantern’s shape. You can buy bamboo frames which will eventually disintegrate, but a lot of cheaper lanterns are built with metal wires. Persistence of these metal shards combined with the fire dangers compelled one BBC photographer to call for a ban in the UK citing danger to both wild and farm animals. There was one reported case of a Barn Owl dying because of a lantern. The Marine Conservation Society includes sky lanterns in their warnings about wildlife balloon hazards. Germany, Spain and some other countries have banned or restricted the use of lanterns for those various reasons. And this product safety bulletin from Australia describes the 2011 permanent ban on fire lanterns there. The lanterns are generating enough discussion that specific legislation will undoubtedly grow as their use increases.
That’s all I’m going to say about sky lanterns and biodegradability and happiness. Pretty as they are, I personally won’t be setting any loose. Other lantern flyers, in the best of all worlds, consider the above aspects before setting loose a fire lantern … check local with local fire regulators for sure … and if okay, at least buy the biodegradable lanterns.
Lastly, for anyone younger than me who’s totally lost on the above Mac Davis reference …
Edited to add: I posted this photo on Flickr, as well, and one person wrote the following comment: “We saw some land last Fourth of July. One landed in a tree and another on a shake roof and both were still hot. Coming from a family with three firefighters they were not very popular. Very pretty, but I agree they should be outlawed since incendiary trash concerns trump pretty every time.”