Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, January 09, 2006

On Shedding the “sediments of society”

[gary daily col. 34 September 15, 2002]

From the forests and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.
-Henry David Thoreau


When traveling I always extend the trip by reading relevant books before packing my bags. For a trip to the parks in the west, I recently read John Muir’s essay on Yellowstone National Park. As expected, Muir is marvelous in his descriptions of the glories of our first National Park.

Muir is the saint and the publicist of the late 19th-early 20th century conservation movement. He went camping with Theodore Roosevelt and was a recognized influence on T.R.’s wilderness policies. His writings and political activism in the service of the wild places in this large land are considered by most to be absolute keystones in the wide arch of that movement.

Born in Scotland, raised on a homestead farm on the Wisconsin frontier, Muir has a significant Indiana connection--he came a hair’s breadth short of being blinded in an accident while working in an Indianapolis carriage factory in 1867. He spent a month in bed, his world dark, his thoughts considering the “what ifs” of life perhaps equally as dark. Happily for Muir, and gratefully for all Americans and the world, his physical vision returned and the wilderness vision that was to be his life and work took flight.

Muir would write of this time in his life, “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” The lesson he took away from this threatening experience was to heed his previously pent up call to wander the country, to see the natural wilds of this nation deeply and personally. Like the fictional Huck Finn he escaped the city and “lit off for the territories.”

When Muirs’ first extensive sojourn into the wilds of the United States was complete, he had hiked over a thousand miles, from Indiana to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. In the ecstatic prose that never failed him in writing about the wild places he sought and lived in, he poured forth with words such as “divine beauty,” “harmony,” and “spiritual power.”

These descriptive praise songs carried a prescription as well. Roderick Nash in his Wilderness in the American Mind, feels Muir was confident in his beliefs to the point of apostlehood. Civilized man, not an unqualified compliment by Muir’s lights, could become a “new creature” and shed the “sediments of society” if he would find his way into wilderness.

It is rare today to hear environmentalists state their case in these tones and terms. As a person who takes great pride in our national park system, and it is the envy of much of the world, I am more likely to hear and concern myself with issues and questions such as: What, you’re allowing snowmobiles, jet skis, ATVs, tourist-copters, fixed wing fly-overs and RVs the size of eighteen-wheeler semis into our parks? You’re going to allow drilling for oil where!?! Another parking lot next to the waterfall? Are we loving our parks to death?

We increasingly place, as a character in John Sayles uncommon film, “The Sunshine State,” says, “Nature on a leash.” He’s describing the carefully managed tangle of mangroves and the well-placed palms fringing a golf course. This is most definitely not what Muir had in mind. Or that other unreconstructed and more contemporary lover of the wild, Edward Abbey. In his classic book, Desert Solitaire, Abbey tells of being so disturbed at seeing surveyor’s road building stakes snaking through the natural wonders of Arches National Park that he would spend nights under the stars of the Utah skies merrily (or was it in disgust?) pulling up the carefully measured markers and heaving them into the brush and rocks. He would probably call this holy litter. Abbey eventually graduated into more serious guerilla tactics in service to protecting the natural order of wildness in the world. Read his The Monkey Wrench Gang for a manual that speaks more out of despair than hope.

I doubt that my tramping through the back country of our nation’s wonderful parks peels the “sediments of society” from my being. Perhaps I only manage to add a kind of wilderness patina to the calcified layers built up from decades of urban fallout. I am certain, however, that Muir is on to something when he concludes his essay on Yellowstone National Park in this way:

“Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate, under whatever ignorance or knowledge you may afterward chance to suffer, you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings in the blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland.”

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