The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home
Gary Snyder, “The Etiquette of Freedom”
Excerpts from the reading journals tell different stories of the course. The reading notebook is a place for students to work through thoughts about the wild in the readings, discussions, and field experiences. The writing reflects students’ own search for wildness, their reflections on authors’ searches for the wild, and the changing understandings of just what “wildness” means.
Journal Entry – June 25, 2006
The other day I went for a walk down the sandy beach on Douglas Island with my friend Marlowe and two dogs, Harley and Tigerlily. As we walked we couldn’t help but notice the striking signs of Juneau’s mining history all around us. Rotting logs that once held up piers stood in the sand like ancient ruins. Broken pieces of bowls and plates were scattered around the sand in the spot that used to be the miners’ dining hall. The dogs ran back and forth through these historical relics – who knows if they had any sense of the past they walked upon. It must have been exciting to live in Juneau during the gold rush, taking a chance in a far off place. From what I’ve read of mining towns, I’m sure it was actually extremely difficult, and the hardships must have outweighed the successes most of the time. It reminded me of that Gary Snyder poem “Above Pate Valley” where he writes about coming across arrowheads on a trail. This experience was very similar in that these remnants didn’t destroy the natural landscape but rather enriched my understanding of how what it is now is built upon everything it has been. It includes Marlowe, me, the dogs, the birds, water, whales, miners, natives, rocks, layers of minerals and earth. Our walk on the beach was a new instance in a long chain of instances. Snyder ends the poem with “Ten thousand years.” The idea of a place having a long history makes logical sense – I know this beach has been here and people have been here for a long time – but it’s still difficult to leave my present consciousness to feel what that really means. The original miners weren’t here that long ago, but their presence seems distant from the tourist-covered city today. The oldest signs of civilization I’ve ever seen were in Israel. I remember seeing a section of Jerusalem that had been dug out to expose the layers upon layers of cities. It was easier to sense the passage of time through traces of civilization than in uninhabited wilderness, even though wilderness is older than human beings. This idea is related to Nash’s point that 19th century Americans, lacking the an equivalent to Europe’s past great civilizations, looked to their uncultivated landscape as a sign of their potential greatness. It seems like Americans were troubled because they couldn’t see signs of a rich history to build the new nation on (even though if they had looked more closely they would have seen an incredible native history). Here in Juneau, natural (as opposed to human-made) features dominate the landscape. Native artwork is the most apparent sign of a long human history in this area.
In September, I took my ninth grade students to see some petroglyphs on a rock jutting out into the Kennebec River in Embden, Maine. We wouldn’t have found them if a local campground owner hadn’t carefully described how to get there. A trail led down through the woods to a rock at the bank of the river, and when we arrived we took his advice and splashed water on the rock to make the images pop out more vividly. It almost felt magical, as if they gained an other-than-human quality through the centuries that have passed since their original creation. Time seemed to collapse as I looked at the petroglyphs – I was simultaneously aware of the passage of a great deal of time while at the same moment felt closely connected to the people who had once stood where I stood, creating art.
7 July 2006
Over the Misty Mountains Cold…
I climbed Mt. Ripinsky today, or almost did. Not being a mountain goat, I had trouble keeping the pace of my alpinist classmates and professor, so I wound up hiking by myself most of the way. First, I puffed and panted, trying to keep up. Then, I realized I was alone. I stopped several times to wait for the pair behind me, knowing I wouldn’t catch up to the group about twenty steep minutes ahead. Of course, that only put me farther behind them. I thought about turning around and going back, feeling a little foolish and incompetent about not being able to climb up a little hill without having a cardiac episode. I had run four miles outside the other day, after all, and except for having to pop my knees and hips back into their sockets every once in a while, I was fine. So why was I having so much trouble slogging up this hill? My lunch of turkey on seven grain with cheese product and mayo was weighing heavily in my gut. I would stop periodically on an incline, look up, and decide it wasn’t really worth the aggravation…not because I am weak, but because I felt weak, resentful, especially, of the kayaking, mountaineering, polypro-wearing, geared-out wildeors above me and out of sight. Like I needed a prerequisite in high tech clothing to take this course, or at least avoid the dreaded Bread Loaf B-. Wasn’t the special course fee enough?
I’m not sure why I kept walking. Perhaps it was the fear of turning around and heading to the car without knowing anyone, or the fear of standing in the woods, still and silent, with nothing but a half-empty Nalgene with which to defend myself. Every shadow in the brush started to turn into a bear waiting to pounce on my quietly climbing figure. I started to wonder how my lime green t-shirt would look shredded and covered with blood and entrails (mine). I figured I’d better keep climbing; then at least the bears would hear me panting and sniffling. I trudged up the trail, up a natural staircase of roots and dried pine needles and humus, and cursed the well-outfitted wild in my head.
Then, a fork in the road. Disaster! To the left, what looked like a clearing. To the right, I guessed, the trail. I walked on.
Eventually, I passed a marker that said I was 2.1 miles from the summit (a little more than what I had already done). I paused again, deliberated for an unnecessarily long time, and decided that I must, at one point or another, cross paths with the rest of my group on their way down. I wasn’t so much tired as confused about the best course of action, pondering, again, my Nalgene and digital camera as the pathetic trappings of civilization. I might have also had a driver’s license, you know, in case I wanted to rent a car. I trudged on, and thought some more about bears.
Somewhere after a painted sign indicating an elevation of 2000 feet, the trees started to thin. Almost suddenly, I was in alpine meadow, walking up rocks flanked by low-lying shrubs—mountain heather dotted with lupine and blueberry bushes, shrouded in mist. It was like something out of Kurosawa’s Dreams or Norse mythology. I stopped periodically, thinking about how my knees would feel on the way down, to hear blood pounding in my ears and the faint crackle of mist, and nothing else. Every once in a while, the trees below would whoosh in a gust of wind, the sound like a distant highway. I climbed farther up, deeper into the cloud. I couldn’t see the summit, I couldn’t see my cohort, I couldn’t even see beyond the top of the hump I was climbing. Each thirty foot incline looked like the last stretch, but still nothing except silence and mist.
This story has a happy ending: my classmates did appear out of the clouds, wearing all the clothes they had brought up, fingers numb and hair soaking. Charles’ beard looked like sphagnum moss, droplets of cold cloud water clinging to his face. They had stayed four minutes at the summit—about twenty minutes above where I was when we crossed paths—but lacking a view and worried about hypothermia in the snow up top, they turned quickly back down toward the tree line. I held up half the group with my skittishness on the way down, but we made it home, sticking to our three-hour schedule, more or less, legs achy but feeling invigorated by mountain air. Palmer and I prepped dinner, then we all warmed our bellies and our hands by the fire.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006: Climbing Ripinski
When I climbed Mt. Ripinski a week and a half ago, I wanted to summit. I set a fast pace–too fast–at the outset so that my climbing party might reach the goal by our established turn-around time. The others in the group seemed to be of like mind, and we fed off each others’ determination all the way up the trail.Above 2000′, we met another party returning from the top. They warned us that visibility wasn’t good further up and that there were strong winds above the tree line. Rather than discouraging us, the news spurred us on. Getting to the crown of a veiled mountain had become more important than reaching the point from which a 360-degree vista is possible.I no longer needed to see the wide world of the surrounding mountains rising from the bay fed by the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers. Alpine meadows of lush flowering heather, mist-encrusted lupin, and scattered buttercups attracted my attention, each more glorious–to use John Muir’s term–than the last. The summit was still my goal, but only in as much as pressing on towards the summit meant passing through the next meadow further up the slope.Once at the rocky top, my friends and I noticed the chill air, added layers, snapped a few photos documenting our success, and headed down the mountain without much ceremony. We had underestimated the time needed for our descent, however, for each turn brought into focus a new view for my camera. Reviewing the photographs now, I can see how powerfully the mist-enveloped flowers on the cloud-enveloped mountain pulled at my soul.Gary Snyder is correct that “Mountaineers climb peaks for the great view, the cooperation and comradeship, the lively hardship–but mostly because it puts you out there where the unknown happens, where you encounter surprise” (164). I’ve sought great views of the wild–my photo blog is testament to the desire–but my experience on Mt. Ripinski surprised me. Under a veil of clouds, I noticed myself most strikingly out there.In that the mist shielded the range of mountains from my view, it also invited me to focus on the immediately proximate in my life. All around me was silence. And then I heard myself breathing. As much as I admired the striking colors of the ground cover and the angular shapes the fog brought into relief, I considered my presence in the midst of the scene.*Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point, 1990. (Palmer Seeley is keeping a text and a photo blog to record his experiences in Alsaka. For more entries in Palmer’s Alaska journal visit his weblong at http://alaskan-sojourn.blogspot.com/ or his photoblog at http://juneau-photos.blogspot.com/.
John Muir writes that a glacier “is still a truly noble object, even as imperfectly seen from the channel, and would of itself be well worth a visit to Alaska to any lowlander so unfortunate as never to have seen a glacier.” I remember having read this passage in Berlin, below the ground in a subway which was crowded with hundreds of people, knowing that around me was nothing but concrete and a few scattered trees. I could not imagine how it would be like to see a glacier, and here I am, sitting on sharp rocks and looking at one of the ‘most accessible’ glaciers in Alaska. I am in awe of this masterpiece which nature created. From the lake it looked like a giant tongue of ice which the mountain sticks out. Now I can see its various delicate shades of blue and it is dazzling, even without the sun. I touch the ice. It feels grainy and not solid at all. What I touch right now may even be several thousand years old. I pick up a little piece of ice and let it melt between my fingers. The wind strokes over the glacier and blows coolly in my face. What felt agreeable at first after the ascent makes me cuddle in my jacket now. Glaciers functions as a giant air-conditioning for the whole world and we keep destroying them. I wish all people could see this delicate marvel and think about it when they leave the car running.
I wonder how John Muir perceived the glacier and how big it was when he visited the glacier a hundred years ago. On our way to the ice, we saw a little mark which showed the position of the glacier in the 1950s. From that point on we hiked for another thirty minutes before we were next to the ice. It is strangely fascinating to see the effects of global warming! I enjoy the solitude of only our hiking group around. I enjoy not having to talk and having time to contemplate. I think about Berlin and the masses of people there. I feel relived and revived. I know I could never retreat into the wild; I enjoy the amenities of civilization far too much. But right now I feel happy. Right now it is the perfect bliss to enjoy the scenery. If only the helicopters would not fly over my head…