Monday, July 3, 2017

Of mountains and [too many] men

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The mist briefly parts, revealing a world beyond the summit of Wright Peak

[Warning: It's been raining for a week, and I'm angry. Not at the rain, which is quite enchanting -- mist swirling up from the valleys, droplets pattering on my poncho, sparrows singing merrily away, the whole forest reeking with life -- but at the people. Hordes of hikers in the Adirondack High Peaks who hadn't thought to check the weather forecast, who refuse to believe the trails are flooded, who don't want to get their feet muddy and/or are afraid of wet rock, so who walk around the edges of puddles and cling on to vegetation at the edges of slabs, leaving the puddles wider and slabs ever more exposed, thus creating torrents of eroded mud that course down the trails and making the human imprint a bigger gash on the mountainsides. I'm angry. Expect a rant.]

Yes, those ARE thunderstorms over the Santanonis, soon to swallow up the MacIntyres, and not long thereafter hitting Marcy. Everyone on the mountain: stop trying to check your email and/or the weather app on your phone, put on your rain gear, and get OFF the darn summit!
Why do you go to the wild places -- the mountains, the forests, the deserts, the plains? What is it you seek there? What do you learn?

Why ever you go, whatever you find, is it worth the impact you have on the place? Do you leave a tattered trail of granola bar wrappers, stacked-rock "sculptures", footprints ripped into the soft mud or moss? Even if you practice proper Leave No Trace principles (kudos!), do you absorb any of the wildness, or do you return more self-impressed than -aware? Do you become any wiser, any more attuned to the beauty, the ferocity, the reality of the non-human world?

If you want exercise, that's great, but please don't treat the mountains as an outdoor gym. If you want to spend time with friends, that's great, too, but please don't equate the forest with your local bar. If you want to challenge yourself to complete an impressive task, that's noble, but please don't approach the desert as the setting for your ambition. If you want to witness beauty, that's meaningful, but please don't view the plains as pretty scenery -- flat, small, and static. Please don't dismiss any big, wild place as merely the backdrop for your small personal exploits and desires.

Typical hikers on Cascade, photographing themselves. Staying on the durable rock surfaces, at least.

I don't mean to judge, I really don't. Everyone has their own reasons for hiking, backpacking, paddling, climbing, skiing, etc., and of course they're all valid when they add meaning and joy to life. When individuals let their interests and ambitions supersede the integrity of the wilderness, though -- when people damage ecological stability and pilfer natural beauty in the process of ill-informed or poorly-practiced "recreation" -- that's when I judge. Harshly.

My job is to try to protect the wilderness, specifically the rare and fragile Arctic-Alpine ecosystems found on just a handful of the highest peaks in upstate New York's Adirondacks (also in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and southeastern Canadian provinces.) Every day, I hike up to the summits to speak with people about the importance of watching where they put their feet (and their packs and their trekking poles), so as not to squish the plants, which are perfectly capable of tolerating high winds, intense sunlight, freezing temperatures, accumulations of rime ice, acidic soils, and short growing seasons, but not at all adapted to withstand any sort of trompling. Every day, I witness all sorts of reactions to the place -- praise for the mountain-top views, pride in accomplishing the hike, dismay for the weather, enthusiasm, regret, sheer exhaustion. Why are you here?, I want to ask everyone (particularly those who step on or attempt to picnic in the vegetation and those who go despite acute risk of lightning or dehydration), What is it you're hoping to find here?

Diapensia: one of our classic Arctic-Alpine species, in full bloom. DON'T STEP ON IT!
Mountains. In the Himalaya, pilgrims circumambulate sacred peaks. Ancient Incans used to perform sacrifices to appease the mountain gods. To the Dine (Navajo) people of the American Southwest, mountains anchor the edges of the world. Those practicing the Shugendo sect of Buddhism in Japan climb skyward in an attempt to achieve enlightenment. From Uluru to Olympus, Kailash to Mauna Kea, Denali to Bear Butte, prominences worldwide are viewed with reverence, awe, belongingness, transcendence.

With the emergence and rise of the sport of mountaineering in the mid-19th century, when Europeans set out to conquer the taunting, treacherous, and pristine Alps and Euro-Americans set forth to measure, map, name, and extract resources from "unexplored" Western ranges, and especially since the increase in outdoor recreation in the early- to mid-20th century, when more and more people have had the ability and desire to go "back to the woods" -- to hike, paddle, climb, and hunt not out of necessity but for the sheer joy of it -- views of wilderness have flipped. "Mountains" "canyons" and "deserts" are no longer seen as dismal places to fear and avoid, but rather as precious places to preserve and [safely, comfortably] enjoy -- places to set aside as parks and pleasuring grounds.

Pleasuring grounds. What sort of pleasure? Why do we go to these places? What do we find here? More importantly and conflictingly: in the course of our personal quests into wildernesses, how much damage are we doing to the wildness?

Algonquin Peak, more cloud than mountain
Unanswerable, indeterminable. But worth pondering / ranting about.

"’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not." -- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Morning mist on Marcy
Specifically for mountains, these are my favorite books, which delve much more deeply into the history, psychology, and ecology of hiking:

Sacred Mountains of the World, Edwin Bernbaum (1990)
Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane (2004) (And anything/everything by Macfarlane)
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton (2012)
Backwoods Ethics and Wilderness Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman (1979, 1993)

Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, too. Essays by Arne Naess. I'll toss in Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams just because I reread it every year, up on the mountains, deep in the canyons, out in the desert.
Why is there only one female author on this list? Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and Arlene Blum's Annapurna: A Woman's Place don't yet speak to me. I keep meaning to read Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. Recommendations are welcome.

Lush bog on Algonquin

Enough for now. It's stopped raining; patches of blue sky are visible between the clouds. Time to turn off the computer and go for a hike.

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