November 6, 1980
Awaking as usual sometime before
the dawn, frost on my beard and sleeping bag, I see four powerful lights
standing in a vertical row on the eastern sky.
Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and, pale
crescent on a darkened disc, the old moon.
The three great planets
appear to be rising from the cusps of the moon.
I stare for a long time
at this strange, startling
spectacle I have never before seen in all my years on planet Earth.
What does it mean?
If ever I have seen a portent in
the sky this must be it.
Spirit both forms and informs
the universe, agreed the New England transcendentalists, of whom
Henry David Thoreau was one.
Nature is but
symbolic of a greater spiritual
reality beyond, and within.
Watching the planets, I
stumble about the campfire, breaking twigs, filling the coffeepot.
dip water out of buckets in this world; the water chills my hands.
stare long at the beautiful dimming lights in the sky and find there no meaning
other than intrinsic beauty.
fabulous," said Henry David Thoreau; "be
it life or death, we crave
nothing but Reality."
The forest spread below us
in summer in seventeen different
shades of green.
There were yellow pine and pinon pine, blue spruce and Engelmann spruce,
white fir and Douglas fir, quaking aspen, New Mexican locust, alligator
juniper, and four kinds of oak.
Along the rimrock of the
escarpment, where warm air rose from the canyons beneath, grew manzanita,
agave, sotol, and several species of cactus - prickly pear, pincushion,
Far down in the canyons, where water flowed, though not
always on the surface, we could see sycamore, alder, cottonwood, walnut,
hackberry, wild cherry, and wild grape.
naming of things is a useful
mnemonic device, enabling us to distinguish and utilize and remember what
otherwise might remain an undifferentiated sensory blur, but names do not tell
us much of character, essence, meaning.
Albert Einstein thought that
the most mysterious aspect of the
universe is what he called its "comprehensibility".
the most mysterious thing about the
universe is not its comprehensibility but the fact that it exists.
And the same mystery attaches to everything within it.
Earth is permeated through and through by
science and technology have
given us the social engineering
techniques to measure, analyze, and
take apart the immediate neighborhood, including the neighbors.
knowledge adds not much to our understanding of things.
"Knowledge is power," said
But power does not lead to
wisdom, even less to
physical contact -
touch - are better means to so fine an
I believe in nothing that I cannot touch, kiss, embrace - whether
a woman, a child, a rock, a
tree, a bear, a shaggy dog.
The rest is hearsay.
If there is a
an ideal realm beyond space and
time, it must contain the hermit thrush.
Otherwise, what good is
And there must be trees too, of course.
a sun that sets each
evening and rises each morning.
And winding through the woods, a trail
with pine needles, stones, oak leaves, fresh bear shit.
We lie in
the sunshine, on the warm grass, and stare
at the mountains, the endless snow-covered mountains, range after range,
standing beyond the dark forest.
The glaciers wink and glitter, running
with streams of melted ice.
Flowers and ice, sunlight and snow.
On this bright
afternoon, in a field of flowers, Alaska seems to me a cold and somber
After thirty-four years in the American Southwest, after too much
time spent dawdling about in places like Grand Canyon, Death Valley, the Maze,
the Superstition Mountains, the San Rafael Reef and the Waterpocket Fold, the
San Juan Mountains and the Gran Desierto, Baja California, Glen Canyon and the
Dirty Devil River, Desolation Canyon and the Pariah River, the Book Cliffs and
the Kaiparowits Plateau and Big Bend and White Sands, the Red Desert and Black
Rock and Barranca del Cobre, Factory Butte and Monument Valley, Slickhorn
Gulch, Buckskin Gulch, Thieves' Mountain, Montezuma's Head, Cabeza de Prieta,
Cabezon, Telluride and Lone Pine and the Smoke Creek Desert, Moab and Upheaval
Dome, White Rim and Druid Arch - to name but a few - and seeing
the full moon rise over the
13,000-foot peaks of Sierra La Sal, while the setting sun turns watermelon pink
a 2,000-foot vertical wall of sandstone in the foreground, then - and I'll
admit I'm spoiled - then by comparison Alaska seems, well, sort of . . .
It fills them with cheer and
high spirits, leading to health
and a long life.
Despite the claims of medical technicians such as Dr.
Lewis Thomas, official spokesman for the
cancer industry, it is not
more and newer drugs we need, not
better living through
chemotherapy, but rather clean
Good fresh real
food. And plenty of
self-directed physical activity.
Medical science has succeeded in
reducing infant mortality rates, thus creating
the catastrophe of
overpopulation, but it has not - despite medical myth - lengthened the
normal life span.
"Three score years and ten," now as in biblical
times, remains the norm.
And in fact the longest lived humans on Earth
are the primitive peasants of places like Ecuador, the
not the inhabitants of Dr. Lewis Thomas's
Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital
in New York City.
We emerge from one nightmare only to find another
threatening to engulf us: the technological
superstate, densely populated, centrally controlled,
computer-directed, firmly and
Call it the Anthill State, the Beehive Society,
a technocratic despotism - perhaps
benevolent, perhaps not, but in either case the enemy of
personal liberty, family
independence, and community
sovereignty, shutting off for a long
time to come the freedom to choose among alternate ways of living.
The domination of
nature made possible by misapplied science leads to the
domination of humans; to
a dreary and totalitarian
which today calls itself science gives us
more information, an indigestible glut of
information, and less and less understanding.
Thoreau knew of this tendency and foresaw its
frantic 'busyness' pervades America wherever we look - in city and country,
among young and old and middle-aged, married and unmarried, all races, classes,
sexes, in work and play, in
the arts and the
We hear a demand
economists for increased 'productivity'.
Productivity of what? For
whose benefit? To what end?
By what means and
at what cost?
Those questions are not
We are belabored by the
insistence on the part of our
politicians, businessmen and
military leaders, and
the claque of scriveners who serve
them, that "growth" and "power" are intrinsically good, of which we can
never have enough, or even too much.
As if gigantism were an end in
reason so many people
flee the cities at every
opportunity to go camping, canoeing, skiing in the wilds is that
wilderness offers a
adventure, a chance for the
rediscovery of pre-agricultural,
desert, mountain when ventured upon in primitive
terms, allow us Proustian recapture, superficial and brief, of
rich sensations of former
existence, basic heritage of a
million years of hunting, gathering, wandering.
impulse still survives in nerves,
not destroyed by the five
thousand years of monocultural and two
hundred years of industrial peonage, imposed on what
evolution designed as a
feeling, thinking, freedom
I say culture;
civilization remains an
ideal, an integrated realization of
intellectual, emotional, and physical gifts which humankind has as a
urban-industrial world - like
the feudal world - offers
a certain elite aristocracy:
the star athlete,
the superstar entertainer,
techno-warrior, the artist
arrivi, the successful
overwhelming majority condemned to the
role of spectators,
One exception remains to the iron rule
In America one relic of our ancient and rightful
liberty has survived.
And that is -
into the woods; a journey on foot into the uninhabited interior;
a voyage down the river of no
red-rock explorers know what I mean.
This category of experience remains open and
available to all.
It is my fear that if we allow the freedom of the
hills and the last wilderness to be taken
from us, then the very idea of freedom may die with it.
We see a white
egret. Another blue heron.
Beaver, buzzards, and bullfrogs.
White clouds passing beyond remote red walls.
From deep in the
entrenched meanders of the endless Goosenecks, looking upriver, I catch a
glimpse of Muley Point on the rim of Cedar Mesa, three thousand
We round Mendenhall Bend, where the river winds
eight linear miles to advance one-half mile on the map.
On the neck of
the stone goose is a little stone cabin, built by a gold prospector named
Mendenhall eighty years ago.
Nobody lives there now.
petroglyphs on a rosy mural wall, I think of the
legend of Kokopelli, the
hunch-backed flute player of the Anasazi, who visited - when the men were
away at war - all the villages of Indian America, from the Yukon to Tierra del
Fuego, and left behind a spawn of syphilitic
"Bill," I say, "what are you so happy about?"
"Nothing in particular," he says. "Everything in general."
know exactly what he means. The magic of a boat.
The splendor of a
flowing river. The freedom of the
Of course a
happy man's true paradise is his own good nature.
We pass the mouth
of John's Canyon, a hanging canyon, as John Wesley Powell would have labeled
it; the pour-off is a limestone ledge fifty feet above the grade of the river.
Two years ago in March there was a double waterfall pouring from that
ledge; this time barely a
Evenings I spend by a little bed of mesquite coals, under
a growing moon, listen for
coyote, horned owls, whippoorwills, things go bump in the
Quietly exultant, we
drift on together, not a team but a family, a human family bound by human
compassion, through the golden canyons of the River of Sorrows.
named, it appears, by a Spanish priest three centuries ago, a man of God who
saw in our physical world (is there another?) only
a theater of
He was right! He was wrong!
Caring for one another,
we take the sting from death.
Caring for our
planet, we resolve riddles and dissolve all enigmas in
and on and on we float, down the river, day after day, down to the trip's end,
to our takeout point, a lonely place in far western Colorado called Bedrock.
Next door to Paradox.
The Apaches who gave the name to this canyon
are not around anymore.
Most of that particular band - unarmed old
men, women, children - huddled in a cave near the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon,
were exterminated in the l880s by a death squad of American pioneers, aided by
Mexican and Papagos, from the nearby city of Tucson.
The walls of
Aravaipa Canyon bristle with spiky rock gardens of vegetation.
prominent is the giant saguaro cactus, growing five to fifty feet tall out of
crevices in the stone you might think could barely lodge a flower.
barrel cactus, with its pink fish-hook thorns, thrives here on the sunny side;
and clusters of hedge-hog cactus, and prickly pear with names like clockface
and cows-tongue, have wedged roots into the rock.
Since most of
the wall is vertical,
parallel to gravity, these plants grow
first outward then upward, forming right-angled bends near the base.
Great cottonwoods and sycamores shade the creek's stony shores; when we
are not wading in water we are wading through a crashing autumn debris of
green-gold cottonwood and dusty-red sycamore leaves.
flourish here - willow, salt
cedar, alder, desert hackberry, and a category of wild walnut.
Cracked with stones, the nuts yield a sweet but frugal meat.
At the water's edge is a
continuous growth of peppery-flavored watercress.
The stagnant pools
are full of algae; and small pale frogs, tree frogs, and leopard frogs, leap
from the bank at our approach and dive into the water; they swim for the deeps
with kicking legs, quick breaststrokes.
We return to the mouth of
Halfway back to camp and the canyon entrance we pause
to inspect a sycamore that seems to be embracing a boulder.
of the tree has grown around the rock.
Feeling the tree for better
understanding, I hear a clatter of loose stone, look up, and see six,
seven, eight bighorn sheep perched on the rim rock.
Three rams, five
They are browsing at the local salad bar - brittlebush, desert
holly, bursage, and jojoba - aware of us but not alarmed.
We watch them
for a long time as they move casually along the rim and up a talus slope
beyond, eating as they go, halting now and then to stare back at the humans
staring up at them.
We have earned enough memories, stored enough
mental emotional images in our heads, from one brief day in Aravaipa Canyon, to
enrich the urban days to come.
As Henry David Thoreau found a
universe in the woods around Concord,
any individual whose senses are alive can make
a world of any natural place, however limited it might seem, on this subtle
planet of ours.
"The world is
big but it is comprehensible," says R. Buckminster Fuller.
to me the Earth is not nearly big
enough and that any portion of its surface, left unpaved and alive, is
infinitely rich in details and relationships.
The very existence of
existence is itself suggestive of the
never get to the end of it, never plumb the bottom of it, never know the whole
of even so trivial and precious a place as Aravaipa Canyon.
lies our redemption.
Once during a debate on a land-use controversy a mining claims
speculator (not a miner, not an engineer, only a speculator) said to me, "If
God hadn't wanted us to dig up that uranium, He wouldn't have put it there."
To which I replied, "If God had wanted us to use that uranium, He
wouldn't have hidden it underground."
Henry David Thoreau perceived the issue clearly:
"They go dig where they never planted," of the California Forty-Niners, "to
reap without sowing."
Should all stay home for a
season, give our wilderness some relief
from Vibram soles,
rubber boats, hang gliders,
deer rifles, and
Surely not the
walled-in prison of the cities, under that low ceiling of
carbon monoxide and nitrogen
oxides and acid rain - the
leaky malaise of an overdeveloped, overcrowded,
self-destroying culture -
where most people are
compelled to serve their time and please the wardens if they can.
For more and more of us, the out-of-doors is our true ancestral estate.
For a mere five thousand years we
have grubbed in the soil and
laid brick upon brick to build
the cities; but for a million
years before that we lived the leisurely, free, and adventurous life of
hunters and gatherers.
How can we pluck
that deep root of feeling from
The deeper America sinks into industrialism,
militarism - with the rest of the
world doing its best to emulate America - the more poignant and appealing becomes Henry's demand for
the right of every individual, every dog, every snail darter, every lousewort,
every living thing, to live its own
life in its own way at its own pace in its own square mile of home.
Or in its own stretch of river.
Floating down a portion of Rio
Colorado in Utah on a rare month in
spring, twenty-two years ago,
a friend and I
found ourselves passing
through a world so beautiful it seemed and had to be
Such perfection - winding corridors of
sandstone leading to revelation.
philosophers and the
theologians agree that the perfect is immutable.
wrong. We were wrong. Glen Canyon was
Everything changes, and nothing is more vulnerable than
will always be one more river, not to cross but
fellow voyagers on
our living ship of stone and soil,
water and vapor, this delicate planet circling round the sun, which
humankind call Earth.
"Truth threatens power, now and always."
Edward Abbey, from Down the River with
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