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The World’s Most Viewed Landscape, A Decade Later

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Left: "Bliss", by Charles O'Rear (1996). Right: photo by Simon Goldin (2006), CC-By-SA-2.5. Click to enlarge.

Anyone who booted up a Windows computer in the early 2000′s is likely familiar with the grassy hillsides and brilliant sky of “Bliss”, a 1996 photograph by California wine country photographer Charles O’Rear. The image is precisely what a basic background should be: clean, bright, airy, inviting. Fittingly, “Bliss” lacks an immediate point of interest, so it fades into the back without distracting from the various files that inevitably accumulate on the desktop.

I lived in northern California at the time Windows XP was released, and the location obviously seemed from somewhere in the region. But I never knew exactly where it was, and I’ve occasionally wondered about the fate of that iconic landscape. By chance, while googling about this afternoon, I encountered a second photographer, Simon Goldin, who in 2006 re-visited the spot [location] and generously released the result under a Creative Commons license.

As we can see, the relaxing pastoral grasslands have been converted to grape production and the clean horizon is now broken by a stand of introduced Eucalyptus. Given California’s intense development and agriculture pressures, this environmental degradation isn’t surprising.

The image sparked inevitable chat room debates over whether Microsoft had photoshopped or computer generated a fantasy landscape, but in some respects that’s now a moot point. While the most famous computer wallpaper of all time may once have depicted a real place, the rolling green hills now exist only as a memory.

(via Napa Valley Register)

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. DaveBug 12:49 am 04/8/2014

    Well, I suppose it is more Sonoma than Napa, but I imagine the tax rates had something to do with having to switch from grain production to wine. Still, come back in the spring when the leaves are out and the sky is blue – would it really be so terribly different? I think there is a bit of a golden age fallacy the ‘environmental degradation’ claim. Given the increased structural diversity of the vineyard over the grain field and their perennial vs annual cropping, I would predict that the new land usage actually supports a higher biological diversity than the old ‘Bliss’. Besides, if I had to choose between wine and bread, well, it would be no choice.

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  2. 2. scepticalofsciam 12:09 am 04/9/2014

    Vineyards look more natural than a plowed hillside to me. Obviously different California seasons.

    Link to this
  3. 3. b sci 4:36 pm 04/11/2014

    When I open this post I thought I’d see a link to: http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/04/11/charles_o_rear_is_the_photographer_who_took_the_windows_xp_wallpaper_photo.html
    There’s an interview there with O’Rear and his statement that it was taken on film with no Photoshopping.

    Link to this
  4. 4. tuned 11:50 am 04/12/2014

    The green hillside is FAR more beautiful.
    It holds the soil also, vineyards do not.
    The nutrition and CO2 absorption of the ‘green’ is also far more valuable to humanity.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Wayne Williamson 7:05 pm 04/15/2014

    So many things wrong with this comparison photo. No time of year, nothing to show why the differences are there.

    Link to this

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