Monday, January 13, 2014
"California Zephyr" Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard
The following is excerpted from an as yet untitled book that I wrote about waterfalls. It is the first of many parts about this, but I place them here since I will be going back there when the weather breaks for the snowier, colder, and icier.
A sense of all-encompassing wonder is how I felt when I was introduced to the world of Ricketts’ Glen State Park in northern Pennsylvania in 2002. As I walked along these paths for the first time, I was enamored with all that I saw around me, and with that, I was so thankful to be there with someone who could take the time to show it off to me from a point of experience, even if that experience was only one trip that occurred several years before we entered the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania together on a happy day of sun and shine and water splashing on the rocks of Luzerne County.
On that first day that I arrived at Ricketts Glen, I learned that if friendships are meant to teach us something or give us something important to go forward with and onto the true learning that we need for life, then my camaraderie with ST, a gal I worked with as a tutor , would be remembered for the trip that we took to Ricketts’ Glen in July of 2002.
On that mid-summer afternoon and into the early hours of its evening, we wandered up the sides of one of the most typical of Pennsylvania’s version of tall mountains. While a person from the west side of America might belittle the lack of height, ST and I instead chose to be amazed by the flowing waters that meandered a thousand feet downhill from Lake Jean. This was water that had once sat placidly in its mountaintop home at almost 2,300 feet. Nevertheless, over time, it had slowly moved through the tiny streams that cut their way through the lush forests or trekked across the dried up lake areas that once stood atop this mountain, all in an effort to eventually crawl together and transform into a rushing and forceful path that merged them and the other streams of this state park to join together at a place where they were now thrusting their way down into Kitchen Creek and Shingle Brook.
When ST and I began our adventure, we were at the opposite end of the rushing water’s journey. Instead of flowing down the mountain with the rushing liquids, we saw as it seemed to lay flattened out at the end of a violent journey down cliffs and through rocky gorges to arrive in a widened out place of green. Like rollercoaster passengers at the end of the amusement ride, there was momentum to this water, and there was a sense of how the waters were still being abused by the course that they had taken. Like the last little bunny hops that jolted riders up and down, little bits of white water thrust up against the rocks and branches that accentuate the stream, and my eyes were fixed on ALL OF IT as the rushing waters vanished under the bridge and down Adams Falls to head off to God knows where.
As a result of this brief vision of what was to come, I knew that Ricketts Glen was going to thoroughly captivate me.
As for the trip to Ricketts, that was a journey that seemed to take a long time as our efforts in getting to Ricketts Glen that day wasn’t exactly defined as "hell bent and determined." To be honest, when we left for the day, we weren’t concerned about how much time we would need to get there and how much time we would need to explore the sights of the park. For all ST’s great tales of how awesome this place was, she didn’t seem to reflect time in her description. As a result, our lackadaisical approach to getting there was emphasized with our post lunch starting time.
Like with most of life, there was definitely a compounding of these problems in how we chose to drive to Ricketts Glen. Instead of taking what would come to be the direct way, we took the long way that somehow looked shorter on the map. This makes sense if you realize it was also driven across some slower roads, so that’s why it ended up being the longer way, but it also makes sense if you think of those roads as squiggly roads that just are longer.
As with many things, it wasn’t like we were DELIBERATELY TRYING to delay the fun of a day, but this off the cuff nature is how many things in life happen. To add to these delays of going through Wilkes Barre instead of Bloomsburg, we stopped off at a couple of nothing stops along the way for food and to stretch our legs. Of these, the image of me standing beside a giant ceramic cow comes immediately to mind as it truly represents who I am, for better or for worse.
Nevertheless, for all of the stops and the wrong ways, all things would work out for the best in the casual time of a lazy summer day that two friends spent together.
When we eventually arrived at the waterfall kingdom, we parked my truck in the lot off of Route 118 and checked out the aforementioned Adams Falls, mugging for pictures as we marveled at how the rocks that surrounded it had been cut straight through by the erosive forces of years and years of churning and rushing waters. Following these waters down from the waterfall let them push through a huge gash in the earth and off into the flatter areas of the park where they quietly vanished.
From there, we walked across the street to the start of the main trail and began our journey to the more picturesque parts of this state park.
I had no idea how much more beautiful it could get (apparently #3 in the Northeast for Backpacker's poll of reader's favorites), but I was more than willing to find out as my legs hustled to meet the pace of my brain’s desire to process everything ahead of me. With that, after the first hundred or so yards of a commonplace streamside trail, everything started to grow more and more gorgeous along the path up the mountain.
To illustrate this fact, before I even began to comprehend daydream images of what these picturesque places might look like, I was still focused on how enamored I was with the way the stream flowed alongside the dense clumps of ferns and bushes that were growing alongside the rocky sections of the stream. Magnetized to capture every image and create connections to the memories that I stored in my brain, I was blazing through picture after picture on my super-cool (for the time) 35mm Minolta camera with its interchangeable lens. To accompany this, I had my backup 35mm Olympus fixed lens camera, which I used to shoot black and white film when the need arose. All of these pictures would then be brought back to my endless shelf of photo albums that waited for me in my office.
Point. Click. Repeat. Go through the pictures and see what’s good. This was still 2002, so I wasn’t yet posting them online after scanning them. That would come a few years later. Still, I was doing my best to share them with anyone that I could make look at my pictures. This was the order of business, and with it, I followed my commands like a good little soldier.
When it came to photographic expertise, I never had any of the fancy settings that some of these guys and gals do. When these people operate, they will slow the river down like it’s a surreal moment of escape out of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and then they take the framed shots to the photography shows to woo and ahh the judges. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. In the end, it does sell pictures and encourage vacations. Nevertheless, my pictures don’t do this frozen world softening of waters. They just reflect the image as my camera catches it. Sometimes, it’s a beautiful shot that frames the rushing waters with the rocks, the living flora, and the leaves of seasons past strewn out across the ground in a perfect composition. Other times, the sun is too bright and the waters have no individual quality. They just blur together and glow in a single sheet that is unlike anything "real" that I saw that day. Maybe this is just me trying to be over-perfect, or maybe it’s me wondering what I’ll take to the photography shows and why this one picture or the other might look good to an untrained eye, but I really do notice those slightly flawed things when I look at my images.
For this reason, I have an excuse to go back and see and do it all again.
Point. Click. Repeat. Go through the pictures and see what’s good. Post them online. Share them with the world. Use my artist’s brain to capture the image that you will want to see in order to feel inspired to travel.
I never had any formal training in the use of a camera. Then again, I never thought about getting the training either. My camera genesis was really simple. One day in Air Force tech school, I just bought a 110 camera in order to take pictures of all of the people and things that I saw along the way. In Basic Training, other people had pictures of their friends. I didn’t save for two index cards filled with cut down images of friends. I didn’t even know these cards were in my wallet until my flight had to get our stuff inspected, and then all of a sudden, there these goofy images were. When it came my turn to be inspected, Staff Sergeant Honig referred to these people as "mode," and frankly, in retrospect, I have to agree. They were young and artsy people, unlike anything or anyone they thought I should have been hoping to be around now that I was in the military. All the same, they were my friends, and I didn’t want to lose my friends or my memories, no matter how much anyone else looked at them as something else, so I began to accumulate images of them for all time’s sake.
A lot of pointing, clicking, and repeating was occurring between 1991 and late January of 2014. These captured new friends and new places. In looking at some of those photographs of England in 1991, it seems like they’re out of another universe. The colors seem duller and even the castle pictures don’t appear near as vibrant as what a cheap modern camera can do (let alone a good camera or even a phone camera). All the same, the pictures are still here, most of them anyway.
For a time, I chopped pictures down to just the essential parts and built photo pages with them. I’m not sure why other than to say that there was no zoom to my early camera’s lenses, so I got a lot of un-necessary background detail. I came to regret some of that over time, but fortunately, with doubles, some pictures were replaceable. Others, not so much.
As of now, there are just under 20,000 surviving memories filling the digital storage space of my computer. As a result, I have Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice; I just don’t have it in the correct atmosphere with the correct teachers and the best equipment.
Even when I moved beyond that crappy little disposable 110 and moved onto a 35mm camera in 1994, nearly four years after I started protecting memories, I still wasn’t contemplating getting professionally-trained at the "fine art" of photography. Sure, I would take a lot of images of cathedrals in black and white, and I would I try my hand with black and white on natural images. In this, I had won some and lost some of the battles to bring back a different color or lack of colored world to the pages of photos albums that I was compiling. It cost a lot to do some of it, and it wasn’t always worth it to pay the cost of film and developing to experiment in this artistic way. Now, all of these image adjustments are possible with digital technology. In addition, I can see it before I get it printed.
Life is good for a modern photographer.
But at that time I was going into Ricketts Glen with my trusty camera bag at my side, I had nothing to base my waterfall photography experiences on. I just wanted to have a lot of different pictures to prove that this place was really here. To put this concept another way, I wanted to show the world that I really saw this place that I was at on that specific day. Thus, I took photographs of anything I could possibly want to see (and pay to get developed) later, and when I finished with one little corner of the world, I kept walking, kept gawking, kept absorbing it all, and I kept finding more pictures to take.
Being there made everything else in life good because in that moment everything else felt confusing. In this, being at Ricketts Glen made it feel great to be alive as a thirty-year old guy discovering the universe and all that it had to offer me. Instead of that lost sense of place that I had wrestled with off and on since I returned from England without any concept of what good things could be here for me in America now that I had been forced to give up my time in England due to poverty, the end of a relationship, and the need for a real job, I was in a really awesome America that I never dreamed as possible. The being at Ricketts Glen, the being with ST, the summer day, the potential of some spiritual rebirth for life after all that had happened up until then with every aspect of life with its failed and unrequired love, the constant pursuit of a non-fleeting variety of happiness, the drudgery of work, the place in life that is family, the need for more friends, and the constant attempts to try to find who I was.
Ricketts Glen had made possible the potential for all things after it to be very. Right here, in the waterfall kingdom, I was appreciated and I was appreciating, and it felt peaceful and calm. I felt peaceful and calm, even as my mind stirred with the energy of the hike and making this sensation a permanent part of me.
To be here and to be in a place - that was very good.
Over ten years later, I think of the word "kind" when I think of how being at a place like this can make me feel. At that time and when I let myself get back into that waterfall mindset, I felt and feel like a good person. I don’t feel consumed with the need for interpretation and differentiation that I do when I spend time as a teacher who is grading his papers. Instead, at points like this, I become someone who is kind to me, to my friends who are with me, and to all of the things that I encounter in the natural world. In many ways, it sounds like the repeated words of Granddaddy’s "Nature Anthem."
"I want to walk up the side of a mountain. I want to walk down the other side of a mountain. I want to swim in the river and lie in the sun. I want to try and be nice to everyone."
This isn’t meant to sound like some kumbayah expression of some latter day sixties hippie reincarnation that is relived long after it needed to vanish in the muds of Woodstock, but rather, it’s meant to reflect on how when we’re in the right place, we are at our best. We’re not focused on the stuff that needs done or the stuff that we’ve created or the stuff that’s been done to use. We just get to be the "us" that we’re supposed to be, and that’s a very good thing.
As we fulfill this place for ourselves, we adhere to the words of songs such as "Light and Day" by Polyphonic Spree. Here, we enter into a better mindset than focusing on the job, the politics, the stress, the depression, the loneliness, and the antagonisms of life. Instead, the utter jubilation of being amidst Nature at her best is similar to the feeling of Tim Delaughter singing his words across a concert venue in that way, which perforates the angst and sadness so that we too can "follow the day and reach for the sun!"
When we’re in this place, we don’t want to hurt other people, which is what life all too often becomes in its opportunities for selfishness and retaliation. Even in our professional lives, the reality is that many of us have the opportunity to do serious damage to other lives. Whether it is as a hamburger flipper at McDonalds or a corporate business owner, we have extreme quantities of power that can be horribly unchecked if we decide to use them in that way. In our personal lives, this is true as well. Be it power over those people who we are in relationships with, our children, our students, our constituents, our customers, our families, our friends, our pets, our worlds, and ourselves, we can create a lot of negativity for the world around us. Even if we don’t intend to, our spur of the moment decisions and actions can affect other people in a domino-style process.
Nevertheless, in the waterfall kingdom, any person can just be like Trey Anastasio when he sings on "Kill Devil Falls" that he was there "clearing my head." It doesn’t matter if it’s over the girl (like it was for him), the job, the bills, the stuff we did, the stuff that was done to us, whatever. We can just be right instead of being wrong, and if we breathe in deeply enough, we can make all of the bad stuff go away, and we can replace it with good stuff instead. Even if it’s just for a short while, we can make it all better. And when we do this, we can be the good people we need to be for those people who interact with us.
With or without the music of Phish behind this feeling of clearing out the bad stuff, this is something that I know to be true, and this is also one of the main reasons why I have come to find myself going back to these places over and over again.
Back on that waterfall trail outside of Benton, Pennsylvania, I was just beginning to experience this philosophical wisdom imparted through the forests and streams. Along the way, eventually, as they always do, the neural pathways of my mind formed a clear trail to an aging image of something that I could use to compare to the streamside scene that I was now gazing upon. Prior to this image that was forming in my head, this world was completely new and unique to me. Now, in the micro-seconds that were leading up to the processing of said picture, I just couldn’t imagine how much beauty could exist in one place, but suddenly, I remembered a place where beauty like this did exist, and as I did, I saw these similarities, and my mind transformed from the world that I was in to move into the past days of my life in some romanticized vision of a ghost world time that had been "lost" to everything good, bad, and indifferent that I had become over the past six years. With that, everything that I could become because of both of these places was quickly burned into the deepest parts of my mind so that it could be used when I could recognize the treasure that was given to me.
And just like that, there I was standing in a place where I would someday be able to be "found" in the distant future. However, at the time, it all just seemed like my long lost, but interconnected sense of history remembered by an over-active mind that was working double time to relive the past in the present instead of living in the now with a blank slate of possibility.
That’s the story of my life.
At this place where I was to become enlightened, the wide open path of Ricketts moved through to a section of the stream where I gazed upon the remnants of a big heavy tree that had fallen across the stream. Instantly, as the computer image match of my mind realized what image that I was seeing, I was taken back to a trip in the not so distant past. On that journey in 1997, I went to experience the famous Muir Woods of California. This was a forest that was named after the single greatest human force that America ever had in creating the National Park System.
And on that journey, I was completely overwhelmed in the natural beauty and grand majesty of what I was about to see. And while this was in some parts "just another forest," it wasn’t even close to being like anything I had seen before since the all-important difference was the size of the ginormous redwood trees that were dominating the magnificent arboreal world that was all around me.
And as there is with everything in life, the story of my having seen the trees wasn’t even the most amazing part of this story. While the story of how I came to appreciate these trees and how I ever got to spend that March day casually hiking with a once good friend of mine is important to this story, and it will be told, this vision takes a backseat to the story of how John Muir made it possible that they could still be standing here and not whittled into chairs or transformed into office memorandums.
Without him, all of these forests and mountains and streams might have been spoiled and used up a long time ago.
John Muir wasn’t a handsome man to look at. With his wild and unkempt mane that curled up from its matted down attempt at posing for a portrait, nobody would mistake him for Channing Tatum or Bradley Cooper. With his long beard and wild man of the mountains look, People Magazine definitely wouldn’t be interested in doing a cover story about him for their readers who would rather hear about the airbrushed "beauty" and surgical "improvements" of the Kardashians and the men that they have ensnared to their clan or the metro-sexual "masculinity" of Brad Pitt and its ability to impress the Angelinas and Jens of the world.
If he were alive today, instead of lauding Muir with praise for the internal man that he was, the style-makers and trend-setters of the world would rather laugh at his long and pensive look unless he somehow managed to woo some Julia Roberts into marriage, and even then, he would be dismissed and ridiculed for being beneath someone as beautiful as her even more than Lyle Lovett ever was.
So much for beauty only being skin deep.
On the other end of the modern manly-man spectrum, Muir wasn’t exceptionally hearty and rugged like some John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or even a Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson because of his emaciated and haggard Civil War veteran looks. When you gaze at his pictures, you definitely don’t think of six-pack abs or 24-inch pythons. Hell, he doesn’t even transform to meet Nashville’s standards of dressing down convincingly for the ladies who love the male protagonists of Harlequin cowboy novels with their Blake Shelton look of down-home meets country-strong.
If he made it to Nashville, he probably just be lost in the back, sitting with a steel guitar or quietly picking a banjo to create a harmony for the soft voice that sang in front of him.
Even for the more modern and gregarious guy’s guys, he wasn’t boisterous and full of life like a Vince Vaughn character, nor did he have the learned, scholarly look of Richard Dreyfuss as the expert marine biologist in Jaws. To this end, if Muir was running for office, his opponent would probably be someone that you were more interested in sitting down and having a beer with, unless it was some Lurch-looking guy like John Kerry, who would always find a way to come up pompous, dull, and in search of a vote by any means necessary.
And when it came to the men of the early twentieth century, the adventure pursuits that interrupted the drinking tales of Ernest Hemingway would definitely outsell Muir’s spiritual poetry and call to preservation at a rate that would be so big that your head would spin just staring at. Considering that Hemingway spent more time with procedures and nihilism than action, that’s really saying something, but we are a picky audience who wants constant entertainment all the time (or someone we hope will give Lady Brett her due attention). We’ve managed to make this more of an issue over time, but even back then, Muir’s words were definitely a "niche" appeal.
In addition to these other issues, while the average reader at the time would rather experience the fictional exploits of Jack London’s characters, John Muir was really and truly sojourning between the life that he was forced to live as a family man who was supporting his family and his alternate reality of his goals to experience the uncompromising discovery of the wilderness. In this, he really was expressing a deeper and more challenging understanding of what both he and the world around him needed to be instead of just providing the daydreams that would replace the all-too lost opportunities of cooler and more adventurous page-turner novels.
Not that Jack London wasn’t living this rugged outdoorsman life some of the time; it’s just that he wasn’t living the life of the characters that he wrote 24/7 though he was definitely savvy and familiar with what he wrote about.
And to this preference for what a man’s outdoor pursuits offer to the world, I agree that it’s more exciting to wonder if the sled teams will make it to their destination before the packs of wolves eat them and their little doggies than to put the extra effort into envisioning the pictureless descriptions that Muir would rely upon when it came to the waterfalls of Yosemite. While both men were political, each man went his own way when it came to the expression of the story. The naturalism of Jack London, even in his political stories, is a story for a different man than one who goes to the woods to feel God's presence in all things.
That said, because of the philosophical essays of Muir, we have places to play and relax. Can we say what we’ve gained from London other than being entertained with an exploration of Spencarian ideals, descriptive expressions of Alaksa and the Northwest Territories (and at times, the South Pacific), and the Nietzschean concepts that exist within the dominant primordial beast persona of Buck (it sure as hell beats the female narrator Avis in the Iron Heel who should, and does, just get a room with London’s other persona Ernest Everhard where she can sex him up for being the radical socialist wonderchild that he is in his own way and for encouraging her to be the socialist disciple that she will become before they are both killed off by a vengeful dictatorship)?
For when you stop to really think about it, beneath all of the poetry about mountains, Muir was a man of purpose and experience, and when it all comes down to politics, we want those things – not some post-teenage love affair that takes place around the benefits of socialism. We want something more – something that comes with the lines that were drawn into the brow after fighting and fighting and exploring and living life for something far greater than the simple nature of just seeing and breathing.
We need the feeling, too.
We want a hero that is pure and true as opposed to just a rugged fighting man.
As a result of those all-important words and how they managed against all odds to disseminate into the world as a whole, when you look at Muir’s inspiration, aspirations, and achievements, you have a true hero for generations to come. For me, I’d rather be sitting back and listening to John Muir tell me about his exploits amongst the glaciers and the waterfalls from the man himself than being forced to endure the chest-pumping bravado of a Bear Grylls-inspired explorer who is insured with a backup plan to get him out of trouble if Mother Nature comes around to dropkick his butt into next Tuesday. Not to knock Mr. Grylls’ survival skills or knowledge, he’s got his stuff together and he plays it well on TV and in real life (and his book of advice is right on), but when it comes to being a man existing amidst Nature as opposed to a man who is hell bent on overcoming it, I know which one I would rather learn my place in the wild from (that said, if it comes to getting my sorry self out of trouble were I to be lost and injured in the wilderness of my America or wanting someone to regale me with his stories of ultimate adventure...).
As for the inspired wannabes, the adrenaline fueled man of the outdoors can always be found with a beer in his hand and a story to tell, but for what part of the story is real and what part is embellished with adjectives, adverbs, and verbs (not to mention details) is a serious question to entertain. For that matter, at what part is this story real, and what part is embellished?
Thus, in the simple realness and passion of his life and for life, there is something more fitting and more important for us to come to understand in our quest to fulfill the deeper American sense of being in the words that John Muir has spoken than in the page-turners and talking heads of our generation.
And if as a result of these one-liner quotes and the descriptive prose, which together has withstood the potential to deteriorate like the sands of time, Muir’s name is now immortalized on trees that have existed on average from 600-800 years old, then that is something very good. And if Teddy Roosevelt’s rededication of this California park that I was at allows it to transform into a protected refuge, a place that now bears John Muir’s identity, then we have achieved something that is greater than the sum of two men for it is parallel to the ideas of what our country is and what its people should be.
Furthermore, if this gift of land that was purchased by William and Elizabeth Kent has done what they set out for it to do when they bought it as private land in 1905 and re-dedicated it as a public park in 1908, it is that the now 1,200 year old trees that stretch up to 258-feet tall stand as a symbol of Muir’s spirit, and for this, to know that it is Muir’s name that these philanthropists requested that it be named after and not just a do-nothing politician who was willing to sit and be lobbied about regarding someone else’s cause is fine by me. Not that there is anything wrong with Teddy Roosevelt’s name being placed on a tract of land since he at least loved the wilder places in America, but as for the desk jockeying orators who know nothing of the simple pleasures of nature, if their names must adorn anything, let them adorn downtown office buildings and college lecture halls instead of the isolated and unspoiled destinations of this country. Better yet, let them adorn public restrooms in city parks where they can be filled with as much fecal material as the person who they were named after was.
The other thing that we have learned from Muir and his parks ideas is that this place is all of ours. There is no fence with a sign that says "no trespassing" around it. "This land is your land. This land is my land." This is California. This is the redwood forest. Above us is the endless skyway. Here, in this western paradise, there are also golden valleys and diamond deserts. We’ve left the squares of the cities to the hustle and bustle of those who are more suited for them than the dusty paths and the early morning fog lifting off of the mountains. We’ve taken what we can from the shadow of the steeples and brought the voice and works of God to the unspoiled fields, rivers, and mountains while leaving the stained glass and the material symbols of faith on the walls of our churches.
Edward Abbey would agree with these words of Woody Guthrie since they show the difference in being a part of civilization and being relegated to absorb a society’s culture as its lowest common denominator is shoved down our throats. In this, there is the holy and good of the unspoiled world, and there is the carnival-like attractions where we make things, even natural things, into the "amusement parks," a term that a Native American named Wolf once expressed to me when he reflected on how many of the things on the land that he was living were being sold as tourist traps (stuff around Ute Mountain Tribal Park).
Through all of their trials and their travels, Woody, John, and Ed saw that the natural wonders of the poetic and scientific world and even those of mankind stand above "man-centeredness" and this feeling that we can conquer the world for our own selfish intentions.
And we may know, personally, how many of us have come to feel as this domination has beaten our society down as we crawled toward the relief offices, or we just looked for some kind of solace from the pressures of our personal lives. Nevertheless, when we enter into places like the one named after Muir or James Ricketts, we can choose to leave those feelings behind us, too. We can do this in each and every one of our special places where we can go and recharge our souls and feel alive again. We can abandon the stale air of our homes and feel refreshed and vibrant and alive instead of air-conditioned or heated by the climate control machines that keep us perfectly incubated against the elements.
And most importantly, when we enter into these places, we can shake off the death of our daily routines and feel completely purposeful and alive.
To make this commitment to getting out in the open air and truly live, Dr. Seuss said it best when he penned "Oh, the Places You’ll Go!" In this work, he spoke to his listeners and informed them that when they go to these places that they’ll "head straight out of town. It's opener there in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don't worry. Don't stew. Just go right along. You'll start happening too."
Truer words were never spoken.
And when we are there in these better places, we can go to parks like the ones that Muir personally fought for in California and Alaska, and we can go to the other National Parks and state parks and city parks that exist because people like him cared a whole awful lot to preserve them in other states, too since they seemed to sense that they should do this because they knew that if they didn’t work to preserve them, nobody else would and they’d be a hell of a lot worse off in the future. The great Doctor also knew this when he wrote his environmental classic The Lorax and stated that if "someone like Muir or his disciples and kindred spirits didn’t care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not."
And so, thanks to Muir, there are now whole generations of disciples who create a pyramid effect of additional disciples and their disciples and on and on and on with his words that we can read today as if we were listening to him in person during those crucial times. Now, because of this, he is the wise and sage grandfather whose influence we can also feel in the thousands of voices that have taken up his goals to create a better America by preserving our America for something more than just the hordes of Japanese, Pakistani, and German tourists who come here and seem to love it more than all too many of my fellow American citizens of all colors, creeds, and races who never quite make it there to gape at the negative space between North and South Rim at the Grand Canyon. And for those who don’t get to go there and feel all of the reasons to love it, they also never wonder if today is the day that they will stare face to face with a giant bear that is walking casually through the forest with his teddy bear persona carefully hiding his sharp teeth and long fingernails, which make his menacing growl seem all the more scary than the soft and furry look that these casual images betray. They never wonder if they’ll be walking through tall grasses or above rock fields and stop in sheer terror as they hear that distinct rattle from what is slithering around underneath us.
They may never feel the fear that a black bear or a rattlesnake can bring, but they never really get to see the other things that matter, too, because they were never taught to wonder if they’ll see a herd of elk walking through their campsite in the morning as they casually make their way toward breakfast long before sunrise in a way that see them want to wake up their sleeping companion to see this completely amazing thing that they see.
This is something I know a little bit about since my wife reminded me of a child on Christmas morning as she woke me up to stare out the window of our cabin at the early morning mists and shadows as they were interrupted by a dozen 500 pound elk cows wandering down the hill.
Instead of experiencing the good things in life, they just live out some dull meaningless life of work, eat, shit, sleep, accumulate, repeat. If you translate Thoreau’s "quiet desperation" and e.e. cummings’ "furnished souls" for modern times, this is pretty much the emptiness that they express. In between the necessities of their passionless lives, they never dream of there ever being anything more. They never aspire to experience, learn, or to be something more. They never do anything that will exist after they are gone in any way that is something other than buying the stone that will sit atop their coffin or the house that their children will be given, should they want to spend their entire lives in it.
And that’s assuming that they’re part of the Blackberry generation and they’re not part of the nihilistic existence that doesn’t care about anything that isn’t themselves. The extreme violent end of the me, me, me cycle seeks for hedonism while practicing explosive behavior at all who stands in its way. How long can anything stand in its way? What does nature have to offer to it?
Through it all, instead of being, they just are. Every verb in their life is a state of being instead of an action. They are tired. He is at work. She is on her phone. We are frustrated. I am confused as to what it all means. I will be there because I have to be. They are sick of it all. He is alone. I am empty inside.
This just doesn’t have to be if they CHOOSE to live as something more. However, if this is our goal, we have to DO, not BE.
In this sense of possibility and wonder, preservation and commitment, and effort and adventure, John Muir, the man and the forest of redwood trees that have been named after him, are symbols of strength, perseverance, and survival in a world that would seek to brutalize them in the name of their unchecked domination over anything too weak to stand up for itself. And through it all, they have survived the challenges of life and the struggle to remain. They did this in the same way that William Carlos Williams’ world of February and March does when its roots grip down and begin to push upward through the dead brown leaves, muddy fields, cold winds, standing water, leafless vines, dried weeds, and twiggy stuff of branches to create a new spring that is unlike all of the other springs that have come in the years past. It does this just like the way John Muir survived the beatings of a father bent on making his son memorize the Bible by any means necessary, and it accomplishes this the way these trees have withstood the weathers and the greed of anything and anyone who has come into the forest with the desire to subjugate the forest to its will.
And they, like the visions of America that I choose to be aligned with here in the Muir Woods, have stood strong through it all to be worthy of the title "National Monument."
Despite the fact that John Muir wasn’t what we think of as modern politician, he was a hell of a persuader. In addition, he was the founding president of the Sierra Club, which gave many modern conservationists a voice by following in the footsteps that he had walked in. This alone would make him notable to modern times. However, he didn’t do this by blogging from his mother’s basement about his bitchings and his gripes regarding someone who gave him the wrong order at a Wendy’s drive-through window. He did this by getting out there and talking directly to the people to the people who needed to hear about the atrocities being done to the natural world for all times’ sake in the name of quick easy fixes now.
It was by using his voice to convince people like Teddy Roosevelt that there was more to life than just going into the woods and blowing animals away with his mighty rifle, at least if he truly wanted to be a friend of the wilderness, in which John Muir really stood out. Here, Muir made Roosevelt recognize a new vision of what he understood as man’s place in nature. Perhaps, Roosevelt already knew some of this, but sometimes, learning is just coming to understand that we are all kindred spirits in the same cause. The Roosevelts of the world needed places to hunt and places to fish, so let them have it. The quiet outdoorsmen like Muir needed places where they could be introspective, so we should let them have that, too. Both groups might have had different intents when they entered into the woods, but in the end, they both needed places to recharge their batteries and places to experience the grand wild of nature.
And to do this, they both needed nature to be in its space where it could be alive and thriving for those people who wanted to enjoy it in any way that they wanted to.
To put it into perspective, at a time when our American ancestors were destroying the last of the passenger pigeons and putting an end to the once vast herds of bison, man was realizing that he was finally vast and powerful enough to do some serious damage to the world around him. Man had made it coast to coast and established his cities all across the United States. He had made the Transcontinental Railroad, so it was now possible to go from east to west and back again. Nothing more stood in his way except the time and energy that it would take to repeat the process in some other location. Knowing this brought a hell of a lot of power that was both good (he could take action to stop negative things) or he could do evil with his mighty axe of progress (and really leave a mess of negativity behind him).
To the latter, he got creative in finding new and unique ways to kill the Native Americans that he didn’t put on reservations (guns are so "primitive" – think smallpox in blankets). He built the industrial revolution with factory belts. He modernized the cities with steel and concrete. He dammed up the rivers. He dreamed big dreams and lived his life in such a way that his only limit was himself and how far technology had advanced by the time when he was breathing his life’s breaths on this planet.
And there were no consequences. Ethics were the spoken (not societally-acted upon) privilege (or private actions) of those who lived in holy buildings, academic institutions, or the politically minded, and it was never touched upon in the hallowed halls of politics. Anyone who said anything to the contrary was un-American.
Roughly, a half of a century before Dr. Seuss, we experienced the foundations of knowledge, which will tell us that one truffula tree is nothing compared to the works of an enlightened man. Besides, after we take our raw materials from the ground, there are still vast forests that haven’t been spoiled for the Swomee Swans, Brown Bar-Ba-Loots, and Humming Fish to do whatever it is that they do – at least until we need those forests for something else, too (and guess what – no protection is too much to stop it if we can justify it – and we can always justify it).
But here’s the thing: while we’re doing this, we never think about what happens when an entire forest of these trees is removed. We simply choose to keep on keeping on and doing things business as usual, which sadly, now, has gotten us into trouble because the side effects of our little projects are coming back to haunt us.
But none of that mattered because we were advancing to new heights. We came out of the cave and experienced the high life because we loosened our chains, and we found freedom through our achievements. We weren’t ever going back into darkness, and why should? Progress doesn’t mean retreat. We might feel sorry for those still confined to their prisons, but we weren’t going to hide the things that we had exposed to make them feel better for what they don’t have.
No, we were going to enjoy them in full.
Nevertheless, at the same time, some people transcended in their ways to the point that they realized that they and some other people actually cared enough to slow down, limit, and stop some of these actions in an effort to preserve what we had and to not let our great animal species go the way of the dodo birds. They didn’t all want to stop the consuming, but they didn’t want to go all out. In this any progress that is achieved is a good thing.
In looking back, these people might have thought about how not all animals survive. In fact, the dinosaurs were ancient history. William Buckland officially-named the first one a Megalosaurus when he dug up its bones in 1824. However, other people were finding these long since dead beasts. Throughout history, something had wiped them all out. The official reasons were wide and varied and each generation would find new clues to their demise, but one thing remained the same throughout all of these scenarios: the dinosaurs weren’t on this mortal coil with us anymore.
As people wonder, they think about animal demise for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are to feel guilt for things that they haven’t done. Some of these reasons are to alleviate guilt in the name of unlimited profits. For most of us with a scientific background, we think about how one animal is part of a long chain of what other animals eat and are eaten by. Too much of one thing and not enough of another item messes the program up for all things.
And we can imagine what happens when it’s multiple things and their environments that are getting removed in the name of progress.
A century later, some of us still wonder what happens to our deeper souls when we are forced to smell the fumes of gasoline that our fellow man has dumped all over the last scattered vestiges of the grove of trees that they have just clear cut to burn the remains of their stumps down? Is there something that gets inside the body in a way that connects it to the soul, and as a result of it, the pollution never leaves the person again?
Here, let’s step aside and focus solely on what we can prove objectively. Assuming that all dirt and grime just washes away, what are we really losing? Doesn’t nature have some failsafe system to fix itself? Can’t we just find a way to help that along? We do have the technology, right?
And so there are ways to grow a forest. It will take time, but we can make them whole again, so what’s wrong with how we do it? What’s the difference if real forests don’t have trees that grow in a row? A tree is a tree is a tree, right?
But when we stop to think about it, something is dreadfully wrong with the tradeoff that we are making for what we have given. Do we even know that this is an exchange that is done all too often to allow us to create junk mailings and seemingly endless and arbitrary paper products for increasingly disinterested people?
Nevertheless, I have to ask if this makes me a hypocrite to want these words printed out on paper, just because I think they are slightly more valuable than what I do not like. Does that distinction that I make change anything in all of this?
And do we as a people ever stop and wonder what else we have to do in order to fulfill the all-knowing edicts of our former leader and current leaders’ calls for healthier forests that aren’t as thick and as dangerous as the ones that would have otherwise been susceptible to wildfires? And if the logic behind this one thing is flawed, do we ever stop to wonder how many other things are flawed in their thinking, too? And do we just bow down and agree to accomplish these tasks their way because we know that we must do this?
Some people will ask, "What is more important, our precious woodland utopias or the sound of the falling timbers that we, ourselves, have cut all the way through in order to continue to produce commerce and progress?"
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. To see where we are in the modern world, I can say that I’m sure that we as a society have evolved to the point where we can’t just not do some of this, Once again, the threat of joblessness, anarchy, and mass starvation looms if we don’t function as a working people. And when we stop and think about it like that, it seems that our progress and population is slowly killing us.
All hail the modern world.
All the same, the little kids sing their songs and pay their parents’ money to go see teeny boppers voice over the demise of the natural world, and they are indoctrinated to feel green and want to save nature without walking in it. They echo the statements and demonize those who walk the forests in search of profit. It’s so much easier to do with the prepared rhetoric.
But when they do this, what they don’t know is that it’s never so simple as to just echo the cause that nature must come first. Should natural beauty persevere when people need to feed themselves? Like the fate of mountain gorillas in the Congo, there are serious ramifications when the government stops giving people the right to take care of themselves with natural resources. It’s times like these that shots get fired, and people go and "kill somthing like it ain’t no thang." And just as a shadowy population rises up to answer this call as they "pop a cap" in the gorillas, someone, somewhere, retaliated as he or she deemed the primates’ rights as superior to those of the people. Now, we have to wonder what will happen in sections of America to our people’s lives when they are told to back off of the now sacred land of the ivory-billed woodpecker so that the federales can do their damnedest to make sure these black, red, and white feathered creatures don’t ever become extinct again. We see farmers taking to the gun to assassinate birds of prey. What’s to stop them from taking out any animal that they see in the name of their own good?
And even for a person like me who is writing that we must put ourselves and our good aside for the betterment of the world and all that is in it, I have to ask myself just how much I know about the greater good and attaining it, and the answer is simple: I love nature, and I want to protect it for all who love and respect it. Who is to differentiate a hunter, farmer, hiker, or birdwatcher in the grand scheme of things, despite their differences in what they do with the land?
In lecture halls, we, the teachers and the environmentalists, are insulated from the real world as we ask ourselves, "What’s more important, the environment or the economy? Who is more important, me or the world around me?" We’ve shown how clear to see it is that anthropocentricism is evil, but is a world that can’t meet Maslow’s most basic needs since it can’t get them shipped in via the highways and byways a preferential alternative?
The answers all sound so easy in a vacuum, but in reality, nothing is simple
I know. I’m a hypocrite, but I’m choosing to learn from it (I hope). I’m not unfixable. I’m a human being, warts and all (sometimes more of one than the other – it is part of the charm of who I am). Just the same, this hypocrisy is also part of my nation’s heritage, and it’s a part of our future – unless someone finds a way to make us all better people. For all of the problems that it causes and the things that it makes happen, I’m glad that there are people who are willing to put their foot down against those who would just tear our pristine environments apart in the name of progress and profit in order to make sure that there’s at least a natural world that we can fight over in the future. I just wish that my fellow people would also rise up and look at population sustainability in ways other than just looking at attacking all businesses carte blanche because when they do, they might realize that it’s time to start making people be responsible for themselves and their future children.
And while these people who consider these things will have to endure the slings and arrows of the defenders of the dead philosophies of a past time and the run amok consumers who would demonize them without restraint, mercy, or truth, then at least let us, the ones that are looking for a brighter tomorrow as opposed to a dried up husk of the world that we once called our own, celebrate the achievements and struggles of the men and women who stood up to say that something is wrong in the world and that this problem must be solved by finding time to understand why they did what they did.
A person only needs to look at places like Muir Woods and Rickett’s Glen to clearly see what men like Muir's efforts were all about, and who knows, it might lead to some workable compromise or transition to better, healthier days..
Since the beginning of the time that could easily be labeled "Because of Muir" or "After Muir," society has seen many changes to it. These go far beyond just fencing off some property for a simple park. First, there was the previously mentioned Teddy Roosevelt showing America that one of his powers as the President of the United States was the unstoppable ability to rename and to protect lands as National Monuments. It might take an act of Congress to make a National Park, but he could circumvent their bickering with a temporary and simple act such as creating a National Monument. This recognition and protection gave people a chance to debate going further down the road of establishing increased stewardship and respect for what we have been given as citizens of this great America.
And it also brought attention to the plight of natural resources.
In this debate of politics as usual, when the considerations by Congress are made, it’s all about size, money, and land use. In short, if they choose to go all the way with this relationship, it’s a political statement of authority that manages to express the mathematics of how many people of one group are in power versus how many people are in the other group. Sadly, this has become a game of living out the Democratic Party’s supposed party lines of environmental protection versus the Republican need to cater to big business (even if they’re both backed to large degree by the dollars of big businesses). Nevertheless, this isn’t to say that the Democrats have it right or the Republicans have it wrong since it’s just as possible that a Democrat would be willing to stand for the protection of the environment while all but rejecting experiencing it in their personal lives in favor of the hustling, bustling city life while a Republican could be walking the woods with his hunting dog and shotgun while railing against another all-too powerful or extensive government land grab. Hell, in some places, they deliberately advertise Republicans who believe in global warming and Blue Dog Democrats respecting business to show that there are no stereotypes to the get in line or else mentality of the two big parties of stagnation.
Nevertheless, there is too much get in line or be defeated from within going on.
Perhaps, as was stated several lines above this, this is due in part to some of the Republican agenda that is the laissez faire approach to business mixed with the idea by some people that all things must be profitable (and to some degree this is true). Perhaps, to these dollar-savvy people, this is a time when government needs to stay the hell out of other people’s affairs and let the ethics of a people be the deciding force in how an area is used. Perhaps, it’s just a line in the sand that is drawn against the Chicken Little mentality that the sky is always falling and that fateful Newsweek article on global cooling from 1975, which we’re still waiting to see pan out. For others, maybe it’s a misguided vision that Christ will return quicker if we can get around to dropping that final tree today.
Whatever it is, the war against the environment and those people in government who want to fight against it sure has gotten prevalent in our society today.
But as for me, I don’t believe that all things need to be mega-profitable (at least at the sake of the environment), and I know that there are many other people who are "progressive" in the same way as Teddy Roosevelt and I who see the fact that people will enjoy them and many of them will pay to do such (in fact, some will pay more than others). Because people are willing to defend what they enjoy, some of them are willing to stand up for the important things in life by any means necessary. They are willing to reject the urban sprawl that seeks to connect all cities together in favor of having forests. They like the dark spaces on the continent, which don’t glow brightly when they are viewed from the clouds and the stars, so they will fight for the right to view the stars at night. They like the feel of sleeping on the forest floor and seeing the animals and the natural world more than they feel that we need to have a McDonald’s every ten minutes down the highway.
People from the middle of the country might not understand it the same way that those of us on the West and East Coasts do, but we all share the feeling that we don’t want to lose our lifestyles, culture, heritage, and scenery, be this from a rural or suburban perspective.
(Here, it should be said that this absence of urban doesn’t disparage a sector of the population, but it does say that Nature as I know it does not exist in the cities. Granted, some more progressive cities have tried to reclaim sections of their inner sanctums for escapable places, but in reality, it will take a complete rejection of their surrounding cultures to reclaim nature in the more pristine places that lie outside of society’s grasp.)
With regard to this, a perfect example of this was in the year 2000. I drove through South Dakota for the first time, and on Route 90, which is the main road that you take if you are going to go to the Badlands, there was a billboard that stated that "We Dakotans reject animal activists. Furs, game, fish, and livestock are our economy." It seemed so forceful in its declaration and understanding of ethics, and yet it stood so firm in its opposition to outsiders and their mentality, as if there can only be one correct way, and this was the way that it had to be. I looked at it and I reflected on what it meant and what an animal activist was.
Was this an ELF type? Was it a hippie with dirty feet or was it Sarah McLachlan crying for the abused pets? Was it someone that believed in global warming? Was it a member of Ducks Unlimited or some person who calls it harvesting and not hunting?
Or is it something else?
I asked many a class of students what they thought about it. Many of them were shocked as their urban ways couldn’t even grasp that anyone would feel this South Dakota way in a world that had made vegetarian dishes a culinary delight while spitting on the meat and potatoes ways of the American heartland.
It’s clear that we’ve come a long way since the choice between macaroni + cheese and salad as being the only choices for vegetarians (vegan? what's that?).
However, when I think about this sign after having contemplated it’s meaning over a dozen years, I have to ask the question, "Would these South Dakotans who are so down to earth and laidback in their ways run John Muir out of town on a rail for daring to suggest that we need to conserve our natural resources?"
I have a lot of other questions for them, too. Would they embrace his ideas that we shouldn’t put a price on keeping our land unspoiled for future generations? Would they agree that the self-sufficient farm and the business farm can still exist in time with all of these principles if it is managed properly?
Or would they just see the danger in someone challenging their ideas in a way that might make them think about the greater implications of what they’re doing and view him as an enemy of the people?
The answer is uncertain and it’s impossible to stereotype and pigeonhole any population, but let’s just say that South Dakota won’t be receiving an influx of city folk any time soon, be it because of signs like this or because of the stereotypes that they have been labeled with by those people who have no interest in being a part of their "ways." In this, they’re safe from their future "son in law" Pauly Shore, at least for now.
However, as to whether their isolation in the north central part of this country will leave them in a state of suspended animation or will it allow them to thrive in their own part of the world is a question that remains unanswered
For now, only time will tell.
Going back in time to Roosevelt’s decisions to make these wild places into protected places, we explain these initial notions of protection further as we explain what each state of protection is. Here, we can see that with a National Park, there is no hunting, mining, or other "consumptive" activities that are supposed to be allowed. As the designation decreases (and there are also NATIONAL historical sites, battlefields, seashores, preserves, memorials, lake shores, rivers, recreation areas, parkways, and trails, not to forget individual designations like the White House, which is apparently its own classification), the permitted activities become more open to the general public. Obviously, just by declaring things "state" instead of "national" also decreases the amount of protection given to an area.
With that said, in recent years, no place is completely safe as fossil fuel drilling has become a reality at National Parks. American use of oil has skyrocketed from our cars to our plastics to our medicines. Everything runs on oil. Without it, Herb Spencer would be alive and well in the abject violence of survival of the fittest. However, despite this consequence that can and will come with the end of oil before the great switch, we have to wonder if people are really willing to give up their most beautiful of natural treasures for it?
Sadly, the answer in some cases is a resounding "yes."
I remember back to the famous commercial of my youth, the one with the "Native American" crying at the pollution that he was forced to witness on his land, and I wonder what kind of radical agenda John Muir would need in today’s world to productively show his angst at what has been done to his parks in the name of progress. Anyone can make noise, but not everyone gets heard. In addition, not every extreme reaction is a good reaction. In this, the comic violence of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (as opposed to the sheer brilliance of Desert Solitaire) and the misguided people-last mentality of many extreme groups are highly-counterproductive to any progress toward a fair compromise. So too is the idea of spiking trees or bombing a housing development to get a point across. Sadly, a long-term tree sit and its civil disobedience doesn’t apply to the more militant factions, not that it necessarily works, but it’s at least a way of getting attention, even if it’s only in the Legacy of Luna and on the Simpsons.
These groups seem to be lost to the concept that you don’t win hearts and minds with the most extreme push that can possibly be mustered. But this is America, and we are the land of all this way or all that way without respect for compromise and tolerance, so the destruction and the retaliatory violence will continue on and on and on...
Nevertheless, if people who want to make a difference can learn anything from Muir, we can remember the stories of his anger at what had happened in the eight years that he was away from Yosemite National Park stand out for what he did to prevent further tragedy. Still, if we ask about these issues he would be facing today, what would he have to say about these things that we are forced to do as our country keeps "biggering and biggering" without regard for anything other than its own need to continually expand at the same rate in some modern version of Manifest Destiny.
However, it’s not just America "biggering." Instead, we see a world of people looking to live the American Dream. And why not? Houses, cars, vacation, possessions, creature comforts, and the new necessities of a day to day life aren’t just for a certain group of Americans. Why not for all Americans, and while we’re at it, how about Africans, Asians, and all of the populations south of the Rio Grande River? Even if we should have learned anything from the mandatory indoor long-distance runs during the Beijing Olympics, the by-product of too many days of over-pollution that were the result of a lack of OSHA-style standards, we need to be well aware that countries will "bigger" at any cost. Damn, the future. It’s all about the now.
But let’s not say anything about that; let’s pass out some medals.
Many science fiction works have addressed this type of plight that sees mankind living in dystopian and dead worlds piled high with trash. Be they Idiocracy or Wall-E, they showed us the error of our ways with visions that would make us think and laugh. But have we really learned what the cost is when we don’t have any more spots to landfill and any more places that will accept toxic dumping remains?
They have to go somewhere; Nevada only has so many mountains to hide the worst of our problems in.
Edward Abbey spoke of other consequences of overpopulation as well in "Immigration and Liberal Taboos." This definitely wasn’t done in the same way as Dr. Seuss did when he wrote The Lorax or biology textbooks do when they talk about population sustainability, but it was effective in expressing how a problem that moves from one area, which was wiped out by the effects of poverty, can move their people and their problems to another area when poverty is simply shifted to the better hope for a tomorrow. Granted, Abbey’s voice isn’t the voice of everyone, but he was an equal opportunity attacker when it came to the faulty ideologies of both conservatives and liberals, two groups that make our current predicament possible with the things that they have gained from a cheap labor source and an obligated voting bloc (respectively).
Perhaps, if Abbey was still alive and well, he could address how this dangerous migration of desperate people from one land to another via the for-profit transportation of them (and drugs) by violent people has created a very dangerous place in places like Organ Pipe National Monument. Thinking of the casualties to said immigrants who die of heat exposure or rangers like Kris Eggle who were murdered in the line of duty, John Muir would have a whole different set of issues than just an excess quantity of people selling goods at the park, grazing their sheep, moving their settlements into the area, or sending fiery rafts over Yosemite Falls.
Methinks that modern times would make his head spin.
Nevertheless, for what he could and could never foresee, he worked hard to make the National Parks our places of refuge, and for that, to have walked into Muir Woods, the place that was named for him and protected because of him, is a powerful experience in my life.
And on that day that I had got to experience the Muir Woods in the early spring of 1997, I was properly experiencing California for the first time with a gal named K that I had met while I lived in England. Years had passed in our time knowing one another, and it had been almost a year since we saw one another when I was given free airline tickets that belonged to my aunt, which she was unable to use. I definitely knew how to use them, and I made them count on two different trips to the Left Coast to see K.
After returning to the "dismal" post-Air Force world of Pennsylvania, this was a pair of dream trips in so many ways. However, before I can express that, I have to explain why I hadn’t properly experience California the last time that I was there.
TO BE CONTINUED....