Wilderness of the Mind
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
When my grandfather was 92 years old he met me in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and shouldered his aluminum-frame backpack into the woods. In and around Haypress meadows, he marveled at the wild flowers, naming them, identifying them, remembering them, and saying goodbye. We slept next to a fire and he warmed water from an old teakettle over the open flames and made us oatmeal for breakfast. He had on his old leather corks and blue jeans with suspenders and a rundown full-brim hat. I was almost embarrassed by my “fancy” gear. His knees wouldn’t allow him to hike the ridgelines up into the high lakes. He wanted to go see Big Elk Lake; it is where he wants his ashes spread one day. Unfortunately, he will probably never see it again while alive, and he seemed to graciously accept that as he urged me to go on into the wilderness without him…and I did.
The Wilderness Act turned 50 a few days ago and I have been thinking about wilderness all summer as I travelled to a few of them, escaped to their half-frozen lakes, and crossed scree fields and snow banks. When I had my 4x4 van a few years ago I was travelling to national parks and wilderness areas and I actually contacted a few publishers trying to write about all the wildernesses in America in celebration of the 50th anniversary, but I never did. The historic September 3rd day passed without much notice by most people. I love the history of wilderness in America. Arthur Carhart, as a landscape architect and city planner recommending Trapper Lake in the White River National Forest to be preserved for its “scenic value.” Bob Marshall, who died at my age, was one of the founding members, along with Leopold, of the Wilderness Society. Aldo Leopold’s wolf’s green-fire eyes dying and his consciousness rising, a land ethic developing to “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Sigurd Olson, Olaus Murie, and Zahniser; Howard Zahniser who authored the Wilderness Act in 1956, struggling in Washington, toiling for 8 years to pass legislation only to die months before Johnson signs the bill. But here it is, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
I do go and hike for almost two weeks by myself. I ramble my way up and down paths and follow maps to different lakes: Monument, Meteor, Onemile, Cuddihy, Ukonom, Spirit, Rainy, and eventually, Big Elk Lake. I photograph each flower I find to take back to my grandfather and share with him. I stand atop Marble Mountain, remove my clothes and immerse myself in the depth of nature. I eventually hike down back to Big Elk only to find a large group of horse packers. I shamefully hope they weren’t watching me stand naked on the mountain. Maybe, we are never alone.
Wilderness is a social construction. So much of modern human thought separates us from nature, creates false boundaries and I am beginning to grow weary of them. I have learned to think about our wilderness areas differently. They are no more untrammeled by humans than any other fence or park boundary. We have them because early European settlers were very efficient at killing the people who once lived and managed this land.
It has been a long summer and school is back in full swing again. Fall is in the nights, but not the days yet, and Chico and I hike up along the cliffs of the park to capture time lapses and write, to get away from the hustle of college students. The haze and smoke of the valley feels claustrophobic. We hike out to the edge of the cliffs, the sun still oppressive, but it keeps others away and we find solitude here. Rich greens and blues emerge from the miasma in the valley, the last fires of summer, lightening relaxing. The sun plunges behind dark clouds, and half the valley is in shadows, the other half pressed by heat, but as the sun slips down beneath the smoke, the orange glow creeps back across neighborhoods and fields approaching the cliffs again. I watch the basking basalt for more light, watch the tones brighten. Just as the sun ignites back onto the cliff side, I hear the whine of a drone flying above me.
It frightens Chico and he circles against me and looks up to make sure I am aware of the presence. It flies directly over us, and across the canyon, turns up the north rim, and heads north. What a beautiful piece of technology so often terribly used.
I used to worship wilderness. When most young boys dreamed of parties and drinking, and football games, I longed for a river. When I moved to Alaska, I would spend hours watching eagles dalliance in the thermals from the changing tides in the Karluk lagoon. In Utah, things changed; I read deeper. I met professors who studied these concepts in Africa, where the idea of National Parks and wilderness areas were exported at great costs to the people living in these areas. I read Cronon’s essay, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting back to the Wrong Nature where he challenged the long held idea by Thoreau that in “wildness is the preservation of the world.” And me too. I had carried a rock to Thoreau’s small cabin. Slid on frozen Walden Pond on my belly. I even argued with an old boss who tried to show me it wasn’t the wilderness per se. I used to worship the old mountain men, wrote songs about Kit Carson, but I knew there was a problem. Carson was amazing to me. Here was a true mountain man; he could speak two-dozen native dialects, spent more time trapping and living off the western lands than any European of the time. And yet, I once landed a canoe on Bloody Island on the Sacramento River too. I read about how Carson called it a beautiful massacre. It is disputed a bit, but it is true that he poisoned wells and killed livestock in order to force Navajo people into reservations. He wasn’t a nice person. All that time in the mountains, along streams, and living off the land didn’t make him peaceful. The wilderness was harsh; death was imminent. Most mountain men were never seen again.
When I used to lead trips into Utah, I fell in love with “Abbey” country. I thought, as Abbey proclaimed, you had to crawl on your bloodied knees to see the wilderness. You had to sacrifice something to be worthy of such profound beauty. But then I read more, listened deeper than the red rocks, about how the cliff dwellings were created during a time of warfare and scarcity of resources. People fought and killed over dwindling water and food as the south became more arid. As Roderick Nash once explained, “wilderness” was not the garden, but the savage and deserted. Wilderness was Kurtz’ domain. And our view of wilderness has changed. Wilderness is a cultural construct. As Cronon explained, culture shaped these perceptions of wilderness from Wordsworth, Thoreau, to Muir’s Yosemite cathedrals. I have come to a place in my world where thoughts and language are not something we posses alone, but with one another. Those deepest and most revered inner sanctuaries of our minds are not solely ours. Muir’s thoughts, like those of Leopold and Carhart, were not their own, but a cultural movement afoot where “great men” don’t exist out there inventing ideas. We do it. We all do it…together. And this divide of human and nature is killing us, as it does the oceans. What have we learned from Rachel Carson?
We travel out into wilderness areas with all our costly technological inventions of Gore-Tex, polyester, nylon, and carbon fiber trekking poles, graphite tent poles, aluminum tent stakes, synthetic replications of down wrapped in nylon baffles and blow-up mattress…all of it made by cheap labor in other countries except for those rich few who might buy custom made bags in America. It is almost impossible to buy an American made backpack. There is one company I know about. We say we are going to get away from hustle and bustle of cities. It is a farce. I do think there is value in self-reflection and trying to understand the way culture influences. I think we should learn to push the boundaries of those cultures and communities—expansion, diffusion, and entropy. And nostalgia plays a role in uniting our past with our present. We must remember, but understand how memory is false, malleable, and amorphous. The beauty of the land we protect gives me hope, but I am beginning to realize the real hope for a future is not in wilderness, except the way wilderness is in our minds.
The drone returns along the southern ridge, and dives along a small arête; it seems to be gliding into thermals to try and catch winds rushing up these jutting ridgelines where the entire canyon narrows. The plane begins to dive and swirl like fighter pilots…like falcons. It crosses back across the canyon and banks high off the other side, then dives back along the arête towards the river and zooms up the southern side again. I am mesmerized by the piloting, by the acrobatic dance of machine and man and wonder from where the controllers watch and pilot. When I first saw it I assumed it was on GPS coordinates as some of them are, but this one is flying, and skirts the sky and wind like a bird with such familiarity, it careens up right over a grove of digger pines, races out into an open and then begins to spin downward like eagles fucking and falling; it doesn’t stop. It thumps to ground and there is silence. The movements were so alive while it danced in the thermals it makes the silence gut wrenching in the way any death feels. It is miles from where any people might easily access it. I kind of picture Leopold watching the green fire die from wolves. I hate watching death. In Alaska, each day, every day, sometimes hundreds of fish, I would hold them in my arms, crash large stones across their heads and feel the spasm of life leave them and I learned to hate it. Once they stopped moving; I could almost breathe again, swallow a bit, ask forgiveness, but I never understand whom I was asking. The fish? A god? The river? The earth? As much as I know death is a natural part of the system, I don’t wish it upon anything, nor do I wish to hasten time.
I watch ridgelines to see human motion hiking down to retrieve this alien technology from alien landscapes, but how often humans have dreamt for wings. I can only imagine the millions of years of humans watching sunsets as birds ride thermals from the emanating black rock. Here. Right where I am sitting, surely for thousands of years people have watched the same sun set across the same valley, as birds mock our grounded existence in a ballet of movements with the wind. Do we do anything as graceful?
My grandfather is 97 now. We hope he will make his 100th birthday. He refuses to use a walker or a wheelchair and gets around on crutches. I don’t tell him about the trips I do into the mountains now because I can see the way it disappoints him. He tells me, soon, as soon as I get this knee, or this hip, or this leg fixed, I will be back out there. Crutches are just temporary. Surely, he will be back out there again soon.
My father and I go each summer now into the woods together along with my younger brother if he is free. This year we went into the White Cloud Mountains, east of the Sawtooth Range. My dad usually picks the routes, and they are treacherous, long, exposed, perilous, and leading to some of the most spectacular views and fishing. This year was no different. We summited little known Patterson Peak, going off trail, and descended a terribly rocky scree field into a half frozen Glacier Lake. At 62, my father is still nimble and eager and I hope I have him as a backpacking partner for another 30 years. I know of no other person with whom I would want out there with me. We come from a lineage of people who head outside to get away from everything. My dad has a difficult time finding people his own age that will hike and hunt, or hike and fish. He goes with younger people each year and usually walks them into the ground.
I’ll never forget hiking a long remote beach after a long dugout canoe ride along the southern part of Madagascar. We woke in the morning to find people all around our tents, preparing for a day of harvesting food from the ocean, watching as we packed our belongings back into our packs. What were we doing just sleeping where they worked? Or maybe it is the little villages tucked deep into the mangrove parks in Guatemala—dirt floor dance parties in the humid heat of the tropics. I have always loved cultures moving with the moon and tide. I loved that movement in Alaska, breakfast to dinner, and even visitation of neighbors across the lagoon dictated by the distant pull of the moon on water. Maybe the more you learn about how the system works, the more connected you find your life at all places and times and the less “wild” the whole experience becomes because I can sit here on a rocky outlook above the town of Chico, CA, and watch the sun set and a drone crash, and watch the city lights ignite like a sun moving through smoke clouds, and hear the death bell tolls, and see the whole thing as wild and wonderful and know that while I sat here the earth spun around the sun, the sun around the galaxy as the galaxy blasted out to the Great Attractor; we have moved millions of miles. There is always change and movement, endless and relentless movement. Nothing stays the same and that is the real wild part of life; even the most patterned part of existence is on a path towards change. The most untrammelled place by man is right now, in this very second. The future, intimately connected to this moment, is endless wilderness.