ON WHAT PLANET
Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter’s Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.
Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.
All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blonde hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons.”
The seasons revolve and the years change
With no assistance or supervision.
The moon, without taking thought,
Moves in its cycle, full, crescent, and full.
The white moon enters the heart of the river;
The air is drugged with azalea blossoms;
Deep in the night a pine cone falls;
Our campfire dies out in the empty mountains.
The sharp stars flicker in the tremulous branches;
The lake is black, bottomless in the crystalline night;
High in the sky the Northern Crown
Is cut in half by the dim summit of a snow peak.
O heart, heart, so singularly
Intransigent and corruptible,
Here we lie entranced by the starlit water,
And moments that should each last forever
Slide unconsciously by us like water.
NIGHT BELOW ZERO
3 AM, the night is absolutely still;
Snow squeals beneath my skis, plumes on the turns.
I stop at the canyon’s edge, stand looking out
Over the Great Valley, over the millions—
In bed, drunk, loving, tending mills, furnaces,
Alone, wakeful, as the world rolls in chaos.
The quarter moon rises in the black heavens—
Over the sharp constellations of the cities
The cold lies, crystalline and silent,
Locked between the mountains.
INVERSELY, AS THE SQUARE OF THEIR DISTANCES APART
It is impossible to see anything
In this dark; but I know this is me, Rexroth,
Plunging through the night on a chilling planet.
It is warm and busy in this vegetable
Darkness where invisible deer feed quietly.
The sky is warm and heavy, even the trees
Over my head cannot be distinguished,
But I know they are knobcone pines, that their cones
Endure unopened on the branches, at last
To grow imbedded in the wood, waiting for fire
To open them and reseed the burned forest.
And I am waiting, alone, in the mountains,
In the forest, in the darkness, and the world
Falls swiftly on its measured ellipse.
It is warm tonight and very still.
The stars are hazy and the river—
Vague and monstrous under the fireflies—
Is hardly audible, resonant
And profound at the edge of hearing.
I can just see your eyes and wet lips.
Invisible, solemn, and fragrant,
Your flesh opens to me in secret.
We shall know no further enigma.
After all the years there is nothing
Stranger than this. We who know ourselves
As one doubled thing, and move our limbs
As deft implements of one fused lust,
Are mysteries in each other’s arms.
At the wood’s edge in the moonlight
We dropped our clothes and stood naked,
Swaying, shadow mottled, enclosed
In each other and together
Closed in the night. We did not hear
The whip-poor-will, nor the aspen’s
Whisper; the owl flew silently
Or cried out loud, we did not know.
We could not hear beyond the heart.
We could not see the moving dark
And light, the stars that stood or moved,
The stars that fell. Did they all fall
We had not known. We were falling
Like meteors, dark through black cold
Toward each other, and then compact,
Blazing through air into the earth.
I lie alone in an alien
Bed in a strange house and morning
More cruel than any midnight
Pours its brightness through the window—
Cherry branches with the flowers
Fading, and behind them the gold
Stately baubles of the maple,
And behind them the pure immense
April sky and a white frayed cloud,
And in and behind everything,
The inescapable vacant
Distance of loneliness.
The years have gone. It is spring
Again. Mars and Saturn will
Soon come on, low in the West,
In the dusk. Now the evening
Sunlight makes hazy girders
Over Steep Ravine above
The waterfalls. The winter
Birds from Oregon, robins
And varied thrushes, feast on
Ripe toyon and madrone
Berries. The robins sing as
The dense light falls.
Were scattered in this place. Here
I wrote you a farewell poem,
And long ago another,
A poem of peace and love,
Of the lassitude of a long
Spring evening in youth. Now
It is almost ten years since
You came here to stay. Once more,
The pussy willows that come
After the New Years in this
Outlandish land are blooming.
There are deer and raccoon tracks
In the same places. A few
New sand bars and cobble beds
Have been left where erosion
Has gnawed deep into the hills.
The rounds of life are narrow.
War and peace have passed like ghosts.
The human race sinks towards
Oblivion. A bittern
Calls from the same rushes where
You heard one on our first year
In the West; and where I heard
One again in the year
Of your death.
KINGS RIVER CANYON
My sorrow is so wide
I cannot see across it;
And so deep I shall never
Reach the bottom of it.
The moon sinks through deep haze,
As though the Kings River Canyon
Were filled with fine, warm, damp gauze.
Saturn gleams through the thick light
Like a gold, wet eye; nearby
Antares glows faintly,
Without sparkle. Far overhead,
Stone shines darkly in the moonlight—
Lookout Point, where we lay
In another full moon, and first
Peered down into this canyon.
Here we camped, by still autumnal
Pools, all one warm October.
I baked you a bannock birthday cake.
Here you did your best paintings—
Innocent, wondering landscapes.
Very few of them are left
Anywhere. You destroyed them
In the terrible trouble
Of your long sickness. Eighteen years
Have passed since that autumn.
There was no trail here then.
Only a few people knew
How to enter this canyon.
We were all alone, twenty
Miles from anybody;
A young husband and wife,
Closed in and wrapped about
In the quiet autumn,
In the sound of quiet water,
In the turning and falling leaves,
In the wavering of innumerable
Bats from the caves, dipping
Over the odorous pools
Where the great trout drowsed in the evenings.
Eighteen years have been ground
To pieces in the wheels of life.
You are dead. With a thousand
Convicts they have blown a highway
Through Horseshoe Bend. Youth is gone,
That only came once. My hair
Is turning grey and my body
Heavier. I too move on to death.
I think of Henry King’s stilted
But desolate Exequy,
Of Yuan Chen’s great poem,
Alone by the Spring river
More alone than I had ever
Imagined I would ever be,
I think of Frieda Lawrence,
Sitting alone in New Mexico,
In the long drought, listening
For the hiss of the milky Isar,
Over the cobbles, in a lost Spring.
THE LIGHTS IN THE SKY ARE STARS
When in your middle years
The great comet comes again
Remember me, a child,
Awake in the summer night,
Standing in my crib and
Watching that long-haired star
So many years ago.
Go out in the dark and see
Its plume over water
Dribbling on the liquid night,
And think that life and glory
Flickered on the rushing
Bloodstream for me once, and for
All who have gone before me,
Vessels of the billion-year-long
River that flows now in your veins.
A SWORD IN A CLOUD OF LIGHT
Your hand in mine, we walk out
To watch the Christmas Eve crowds
On Fillmore Street, the Negro
District. The night is thick with
Frost. The people hurry, wreathed
In their smoky breaths. Before
The shop windows the children
Jump up and down with spangled
Eyes. Santa Clauses ring bells.
Cars stall and honk. Streetcars clang.
Loud speakers on the lampposts
Sing carols, on juke boxes
In the bars Louis Armstrong
Plays “White Christmas.” In the joints
The girls strip and grind and bump
To “Jingle Bells.” Overhead
The neon signs scribble and
Erase and scribble again
Messages of avarice,
Joy, fear, hygiene, and the proud
Names of the middle classes.
The moon beams like a pudding.
We stop at the main corner
And look up, diagonally
Across, at the rising moon,
And the solemn, orderly
Vast winter constellations.
You say, “There’s Orion!”
The most beautiful object
Either of us will ever
Know in the world or in life
Stands in the moonlit empty
Heavens, over the swarming
Men, women, and children, black
And white, joyous and greedy,
Evil and good, buyer and
Seller, master and victim,
Like some immense theorem,
Which, if once solved would forever
Solve the mystery and pain
Under the bells and spangles.
There he is, the man of the
Night before Christmas, spread out
On the sky like a true god
In whom it would only be
Necessary to believe
A little. I am fifty
And you are five. It would do
No good to say this and it
May do no good to write it.
Believe in Orion. Believe
In the night, the moon, the crowded
Earth. Believe in Christmas and
Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
Believe in all those fugitive
Compounds of nature, all doomed
To waste away and go out.
Always be true to these things.
They are all there is. Never
Give up this savage religion
For the blood-drenched civilized
Abstractions of the rascals
Who live by killing you and me.
HOMER IN BASIC
Glitter of Nausicaä’s
Embroideries, flashing arms,
And heavy hung maiden hair;
Doing the laundry, the wind
Brisk in the bright air
Of the Mediterranean day.
Odysseus, hollow cheeked,
Wild eyed, bursts from the bushes.
Mary sits by the falling
Water reading Homer while
I fish for mottled brook trout
In the sun mottled riffles.
They are small and elusive.
The stream is almost fished out.
Water falls through shimmering
Paneled light between the red
Sequoias, over granite
And limestone, under green ferns
And purple lupin. Time was
I caught huge old trout in these
Pools and eddies. These are three
Years old at the very most.
Mary is seven. Homer
Is her favorite author.
It took me a lifetime of
Shames and wastes to understand
Homer. She says, “Aren’t those gods
Terrible? All they do is
Fight like those angels in Milton,
And play tricks on the poor Greeks
And Trojans. I like Aias
And Odysseus best. They are
Lots better than those silly
Gods.” Like the ability
To paint, she will probably
Outgrow this wisdom. It too
Will wither away as she
Matures and a whole lifetime
Will be spent getting it back.
Now she teaches Katharine
The profound wisdom of seven
And Katharine responds with
The profound nonsense of three.
Grey-haired in granite mountains,
I catch baby fish. Ten fish,
And Homer, and two little
Girls pose for a picture by
The twenty foot wide, cinnamon
Red trunk of a sequoia.
As I snap the camera,
It occurs to me that this
Tree was as big as the pines
Of Olympus, not just before
Homer sang, but before Troy
Ever fell or Odysseus
Ever sailed from home.
How can I love you more than
The silver whistle of the
Coney in the rocks loves you?
How can I love you better
Than the blue of the bluebells
By the waterfall loves you?
Eater of moonlight, drinker
Of brightness, feet of jewels
On the mountain, velvet feet
In the meadow grass, darkness
Braided with wild roses, wild
Mare of all the horizon …
A far away tongue speaks in
The time that fills me like a
Tongue in a bell falling
Out of all the towers of space.
Eyes wide, nostrils distended,
We drown in secret happy
Oceans we trade in broad daylight.
O my girl, mistress of all
Illuminations and all
Commonplaces, I love you
Like the air and the water
And the earth and the fire and
The light love you and love you.
A MOUNTAIN SPRING
Ch’u Ch’uang I
There is a brook in the mountains,
Nobody I ask knows its name.
It shines on the earth like a piece
Of the sky. It falls away
In waterfalls, with a sound
Like rain. It twists between rocks
And makes deep pools. It divides
Into islands. It flows through
Calm reaches. It goes its way
With no one to mind it. The years
Go by, its clear depths never change.
AMONGST THE CLIFFS
The path up the mountain is hard
To follow through the tumbled rocks.
When I reach the monastery
The bats are already flying.
I go to the guest room and sit
On the steps. The rain is over.
The banana leaves are broad.
The gardenias are in bloom.
The old guest master tells me
There are ancient paintings on the
Walls. He goes and gets a light.
I see they are incomparably
Beautiful. He spreads my bed
And sweeps the mat. He serves me
Soup and rice. It is simple
Food but nourishing. The night
Goes on as I lie and listen
To the great peace. Insects chirp
And click in the stillness. The
Pure moon rises over the ridge
And shines in my door. At daybreak
I get up alone. I saddle
My horse myself and go my way.
The trails are all washed out.
I go up and down, picking my
Way through storm clouds on the mountain.
Red cliffs, green waterfalls, all
Sparkle in the morning light.
I pass pines and oaks ten men
Could not reach around. I cross
Flooded streams. My bare feet stumble
On the cobbles. The water roars.
My clothes whip in the wind. This
Is the only life where a man
Can find happiness. Why do I
Spend my days bridled like a horse
With a cruel bit in his mouth?
If I only had a few friends
Who agreed with me we’d retire
To the mountains and stay till our lives end.
There was no one near me for many miles in any direction. I realized then with complete certainty that this was the place for me. This was the kind of life I liked best. I resolved to live it as much as I could from then on. (114)
All of this had tremendous influence on us. My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained. (119)
I have a strong distaste for group activities in the mountains. I can sympathize with the insane Englishman encountered by one of the Everest expeditions, who set off to climb the mountain alone and was never seen again. (122)
The first thing anybody does when planning a camping trip is to make a list, and probably that is as good a way as any to start a book. (126)
There are two ways of being miserable in the mountains. First, you can go with too little equipment, shiver under inadequate bedding with a fire going all night, eat with your fingers out of the cooking pots, cower under a tree or walk all day soaked with rain, and come home in rags. On the other hand, you can let your imagination run riot in a large outfitting store, weight yourself down with all manner of contraptions and unnecessary clothing, most of which you will probably lose or discard, carry a tent which is too large to pitch on uneven ground and tips over or blows down in the night, sleep beneath twenty pounds of blankets and quilts, and stagger along the trail overladen and gasping. Quite a few ingenious souls manage to combine both methods. Either is guaranteed to bring you home exhausted and ten or more pounds underweight. (129)
As a general rule, the heavier the wood (if it is dry), the more slowly it will burn; the harder the wood, the hotter the coals; the softer the wood, if it be without pitch, the cleaner the flame. Woods rich in pitch will give a fat, quick flame and a bright light. Rotten wood, in the damp, deciduous forest of the East, is poor firewood; it burns slowly, if at all, and makes a punky, smoky fire. Decayed coniferous wood, on the other hand, particularly the firm outer crust of decayed “short-haired” pine logs, makes a fine fire, and the undersides of such logs, if they are clear of the ground, will provide firewood in rainy weather. A small fire, just big enough to do the work required of it, is best. Never build “bonfires” and never build a fire against a tree, log or stump.
If you had an unlimited supply of paper, matches, and time, you could afford to build fires any which way, but since you are not so supplied, it pays to learn how to do it properly. The most difficult fire to build is one in rainy weather. I will describe that and you can simplify the procedure to suit yourself.
Gather an armful of dry branches about as thick, at the butts, as your thumb, from standing timber, another armful of similar branches about two inches to three in diameter and an armful of dry wood chopped from the center or underside of a decayed log. Strip the bark from the branches and split them into four pieces. Take four of the smallest pieces and shave them with your knife, leaving the shavings attached to the stick. Make a little tent of these towards the front of the fireplace with the curls down. If it is raining, shelter them with your hat. Have the rest of the wood piled within reach. Light the shavings, and as the flame catches, add the smallest sticks first, one at a time, adjusting them to the flame and carefully preserving the structure of the tent. Don’t put on too much, give the fire just enough to feed it as it grows. As soon as all the small sticks have caught, add the large ones, crossing them carefully to leave spaces between and beneath them for draught. If you wish to be very precise, you can start the fire in a triangle of medium-sized sticks, each laid with one end on the ground and one end on its neighbor, and add the larger fuel, interlaced in similar fashion, to this base. If you are an inexperienced camper, it is a good idea to build all fires this way, then when you have to you will know how. Take care of your matches, it is practically impossible to strike a hot spark from granite, and a friction-stick fire requires exactly the right wood and lots of experience. (135-136)
Some packers and punchers who affect a Buffalo Bill sophistication without knowing much about their business, malign and belittle the burro. They insist he is stubborn, lazy and prone to kick and bite. What happens is that such men treat the little animal badly, overload him, feed him poorly and kick him around generally. He, with the wisdom of Egypt and the Ancient East from which he comes, stoically accepts his fate, bides his time, and when he gets a chance, returns an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This alone shows that he is a lot smarter than a horse, who can be hammered by a sadist into neurotic subjection. If you go camping every summer and have a place to keep him over the year, buy a young burro and break him in yourself. If you treat him properly he will be as devoted and intelligent a pet and servant as any dog. In the winter the children can ride him, or you can yourself if you weight 150 pounds or less and don’t overdo it; and in the summer he will carry 75 to 120 pounds up and down steep trails without a murmur. A good burro, not spoiled by bad handling or too old, will get along as fast as you care to walk, but not as fast as a large spry horse. Carrying 75 pounds or less he can make his way over any kind of terrain, short of actual mountain climbing. He will stay in the meadow where you put him and not stray, in fact, if you give him a little barley, salt, sugar or a bit of bread every day, his principal fault will be a tendency to tag around after you like a dog. He can be taught to go ahead of you and stop, if he meets a sign or crosstrail, while you botanize in the hedgerows. He soon learns to sound snow and keep away from pockets and bridges when crossing a pass. He can estimate distances better than a mule, let alone a horse, and seldom gets himself wedged in rocks. Loaded down, he will navigate streams that would sweep you away. (I once almost lost my life by following a burro into a high ford which he crossed with ease.) He is a companionable beast, and if you let him, he likes to come in and lie down near the edge of the firelight at night. If you are traveling alone, this is welcome company, but I wouldn’t advise you to carry on long conversations with him; passing rangers may get the impression that you are a little dotty. I never heard of a house-broken horse, but a burro can be trained to respect the precincts of a camp. He doesn’t have to be shod, he can be trusted to keep away from poison feed, he seldom gets sick, but usually dies of old age, sometime after his thirtieth year, and he flourishes at 14,000 feet. In general, if he could only cook and pack himself, he would be a lot better trail companion than many humans. (137-138)
The trail is what counts. Camp is very well, but too much time is occupied with housekeeping; the daily objectives, peaks, meadows, lakes, beautiful campsites, have the final, brief pleasure of achievement; but nothing can compare with the wonderful sense of freedom, the constantly varied interest, of travel through mountainous country. . . . The mountain landscape is infinitely varied and constantly changing. Movement is free, easy, relaxed; the streams are full of fish, the trees are full of birds, flowers grow by the trail, deer jump from their coverts, even the air is intoxicating. It is the fact that we are on our way that is important, where we are going is a minor detail. (140)
Climbing down is often more difficult than climbing up. (142)
“The Indians liked me,” Hale D. Tharp said, “because I was good to them. I liked the Indians too, for they were honest and kind to each other. I never knew of a theft or murder among them.” (145)
I have always felt I was most myself in the mountains. (147)
Most men are like that fellow Hercules wrestled with, Antaeus. If they can make contact with the earth every once in a while, they keep their strength. Of course, a lot of people don’t know this, and so they wonder what’s wrong with them. (148)
Some day I’ll be too old, but I will still have some wonderful memories to wander in. (149)
Big doings in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite Park, with the dedication of the finally completed new Tioga Pass Road. Plenty of ceremony and celebration and celebrities, but everybody was a little embarrassed. You could smell the twinges of conscience in the air.
Only recently an outstanding spokesman for the Department of the Interior had referred to the project as a serious mistake. Here was a case where recreation and conservation had collided and, in the opinion of the authorities, conservation had been pushed aside, if not totally wrecked.
Is this true? I am by way of being a rabid conservationist myself, but I wonder. What is conservation for? In the final analysis it is always for people. Unless we are sentimentalists, we don’t conserve the bison or the Big Trees for themselves, but for us.
As the population explosion goes on exploding and our environment grows more and more mechanical and man-made we must be ceaselessly vigilant to defend and preserve those remnants of the environment from which we came, the organic web of life that nurtured our ancestors when they first started chipping rocks. However we as a species came to crowd the earth, let’s hope we can always save enough of the prehuman world so that we can at least imagine ourselves as part of the balance of Nature. If we don’t, as the fellow said, I don’t know what will happen to us.
Reverence for life in the abstract is fine, but I am willing to let Albert Schweitzer worry about the spirochetes his injections kill. My reverence is for human life. So I am all for the preservation of wilderness areas, but not just so the bears can look at each other.
Conservation does not mean locking up sections of the natural environment in museum vaults from which the public is effectively excluded. It means careful, intelligent use that disrupts the nonhuman ecology as little as possible.
Careful, reverent use comes from the attitude of a whole people, not from a table of prohibitions thought up by the authorities. Switzerland is a pretty crowded country, and yet a lot of it looks pretty much as it did to Hannibal. England is still more densely and far more uniformly populated. No people has ever had a greater love for their countryside. True, it doesn’t look much like it did to Julius Caesar, it looks much prettier.
The point of all this is that while I am prepared to resist any attempt to build a road over the Sierra through the Kings River Canyon or to turn the Golden Gate Panhandle into parking lots, I don’t see any great virtue in refusing to improve an existing road that the public insists on using anyway. After all, the public have a right to at least one place in the state where they can drive to high mountain meadows and alpine lakes. In this instance they have been voting for the right with 40 years of burning engines and burnt-out bearings.
The real conservation problems in Yosemite are, first, the rescuing of the Valley itself from imminent destruction, and second, the education of the public.
I believe all overnight use of the floor of Yosemite Valley should be abolished within the next 20 years. Perhaps the hotel and a few camps could stay for the use of conventions and conferences and other public activities, something like Asilomar. As it is, the place is an outdoor slum.
On the second point, trails, camps and viewpoints littered with gum and film wrappers and beer cans are far more dangerous than the paving and widening of a few miles of mountain road. Switzerland and England are beautiful because of the taste and sensibility of their people. A nation that doesn’t give a damn how much of a mess it makes wherever it goes can pass all the laws and create all the primitive areas it wants, but it won’t begin to understand the meaning of conservation.
Believe me, this is not just the good old editorial about litterbugs. What we call conservation comes out of a kind of spiritual courtesy. It is a Confucian virtue. Confucius had a word for it, he called it “human-heartedness.” (149-151)
We are still blessed in this country with a vast reservoir of undistorted, genuinely unspoiled, wild country where mankind has so far interfered with nature very little, if at all. This is not just a “wildlife resource,” it is a human resource, a reservoir of recreation, peace and contemplation.
Use which preserves those values is conservation. Use which destroys or inhibits them is not. (151)
What will happen when we stop making bombs and devote the money to life enhancement instead of destruction? (154)
Some of the human race behave quite nicely if given a chance. (155)
It is not everybody whose life can sometimes match the most perfect expressions of art. (163)
People are becoming redundant. There are no jobs for the minorities demanding job equality. The population of a whole state—West Virginia—is in danger of becoming swept under the rug as obsolete. The demands of the automobile take precedence over the amenities of human life in the planning of our cities. The aged are housed like criminals. A Youth Conservation Corps would conserve youth as well as nature, and youth, like old age, stoop labor and locomotive firemen, is in great danger of becoming redundant—and that before it ever gets started. (164-165)
When you read this I will be far away in a tent in the High Sierras with my daughters, Mary and Katharine.
People often speak of going into the wilderness to get away from it all. Maybe that is what I did when I was young, because I remember months together spent alone or with my first wife, Andrée, living out of a rucksack and seldom seeing anybody. The Sierras were less used then and it was easier to do.
We spent our time in meditation and wonder—climbing is an exercise of wonder and fishing is an exercise of meditation—gathering our strength from within ourselves. When we would see people in the distance, we would avoid them, and we were always irritable when we had to come down for supplies and mix briefly with other humans.
I guess that is what age does, what they call maturing, because now my motives seem to me quite the opposite. I go to the mountains not to get away from it, but to get with it. As 11 months roll by I feel myself getting more and more mechanical in my attitude towards other men. Imperceptibly men take on the masks and costumes of causes and tendencies, and classes and forces and ideologies and all the false faces of generalization with which we classify human beings.
The most mortal of sins, said Immanuel Kant, is to consider another man as an instrument or a means and not as an end in himself. Yet our whole society strives, inhumanly and insensibly, to make instruments of us all, one to the other. We are all corrupted by a world in which everything and everyone is a means to something else. I resist it always, but it creeps over me like an infection, the virus that turns each other man, himself an “I” like myself, into a thing in my eyes—and so secretly turns me slowly to a thing likewise.
So if I go away for a little and associate with rocks and stars and flowers and fish, the living perspective comes back. Alice over in Africa, the President in the White House, the murderer on Death Row, the Pope in the Vatican, the people that pass in the street—they cease to represent anything but themselves—human like myself. They aren’t Marxists or Catholics or Democrats or Americans or Eskimos or Negroes. They’re just like me. We’re all here together and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
It is August, and as I lie under the sky of late summer and watch the Great Nebula of Andromeda swim past overhead—a cloud of millions of stars all as big as our sun—I think of the world down below the mountains. There are over 2 billion men out there. Each one of them is an animal like me, naked under his clothes. Under his skin his body is full of blood and bones and meat and mysterious capsules and sponges which hold his life. Sometimes these things hurt him and one day they stop working and he dies and decays away. He doesn’t represent anything except himself, a self called Barry or Nikolai or Wang or Nkekerere. There will never be another one like him. Each one of him swims by my imagination like the Andromeda Nebula, a 2-billion-fold cloud, and each one of him says to me the word that denies absolutely that he can ever be a thing, the word I call myself—”I.” (165-166)
Last week I was away, in a cabin deep in the woods, recollecting myself. No papers. No radio. No phone number. I go away as often as I can, which is not very often. Sometimes I write. Mostly I don’t even think. I just contemplate — the forest, the world beyond it, myself, or the object of contemplation that comes when the mind empties itself of itself. Sometimes all existence seems to slip into focus. All its violence and tragedy and disorder take on a form and meaning that the mind can grasp briefly. Then the turmoil of existence seems a matter of scarcely perceptible changes of phase, like an ever so slightly varying colored light shifting over an immense diamond.
What holds a civilization together, and makes the difference between creative growth and decay? What is the foundation that underlies and sustains all the activities of a people and energizes and forms that special unity we call culture? Peace. The peace which comes from the habit of contemplation. It is not intellectual knowledge of the unity of human endeavor, nor a philosophical notion of the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is an inward sense and an abiding quality of life, a temper of the soul. It is not rare nor hard to find. It offers itself at moments to everyone, from early childhood on, although less and less often if it is not welcomed. It can be seized and trained and cultivated until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life. Without it life is only turbulence, from which eventually meaning and even all intensity of feeling die out in tedium and disorder. (168-169)
With ever-increasing frequency, for the past ten years, in San Francisco, in the Bay Area, in California, and all over the country, the small and embattled forces trying to stave off the destruction of a decently habitable environment have been faced with the technique of the massive, irreversibly accomplished fact, with blitzkrieg, schrecklichkeit and efficient and plausible third column takeover.
Ecology, the relations of living species to one another and their environment, is precisely the field that lends itself best to irreversible processes — except maybe chemistry. The redwood forests of coast and sierra can no more be restored, for instance, than can the firecrackers of Chinatown’s New Year celebration be uncracked.
The rapidity with which we are creating an environment in which the human species as we know it can no longer thrive is astonishing. The resilience of the environment is exhausted, it can no longer recuperate from large-scale destruction in less than many centuries.
The forces that stand to profit from destruction now know this and they have learned to move quickly, on the largest possible scale, and if it can be managed, with an elaborate public relations camouflage which disguises them as “conservationists.”
Once the forest cover of northern California streams is destroyed, flood, fire and erosion quickly create an irreversible situation. The top soil is out in the Pacific Ocean or clogging the larger streams and we are not all that technologically advanced that we can put it back.
The Walt Disney development of Mineral King—far in excess of the Forest Service specifications—will be like a nuclear explosion in the heart of the finest mountain wilderness in California. Disney anticipates two and a half million visitors by 1976.
It was possible to put Nagasaki and Hiroshima back together again—give or take a few dead humans. Once gone, the wilderness is gone forever. (169-170)
Water turns into steam very suddenly; just as suddenly we have been brought face to face with the question, in the words of Lawrence Halprin, “Is man merely a dominant species in a transitional life association or is he the characteristic member of a climax of living things that will endure for a geological epoch or more?” The cockroaches and octopuses are waiting. Perhaps we cannot turn the steam back into water. Perhaps the critical point is gone.
The sudden popularity of ecology is not a craze. It is the response to the deadly crisis caused by a craze called the profit system. Man’s end is in sight. One thing ecology has always taught is that the relationships of living things to each other and their environment are governed by critical points, where catastrophe occurs with great suddenness. (171-172)
In the past, men have planned utopias where life would be better, and they have advocated revolution to get rid of the predators of society and bring about a world where man was no longer wolf to man. Meanwhile, the human race struggled on, crippled and thwarted by exploitation and its side effects, from alcoholism to silicosis, but it survived.
For the last 200 years we have seen the growth of an economic and social system based fundamentally on the extractive industries and with a built-in dynamism that forces it into ever-increasing production at all costs. This competitive system has universalized a morality based on covetousness. For the last 50 years, the benefits, such as they are, of this system have been extended to most of the productive workers of the major industrial countries, the “metropoles.” This is least true of the United States, where about a tenth of the population is redundant—youth, the aged, Negroes, Southern poor whites and others. This is not due to the backwardness of the American economy; quite the contrary.
We have just gone through a long boom period with ever-accumulating surpluses; yet the overall production has never passed 80 percent of capacity. The source of profit is no longer, as it was in Marx’s day, labor power. Every year we need fewer people to produce more. The surplus we lock up in subsidized housing projects, in Aid to Dependent Children or in Garrison State College or toss in the Disposall of Vietnam. Our social-economic structure is itself in a state of civil war. The old extractive, industrial, financial structure based ultimately on the exploitation of labor power applied directly to primary raw materials is at war with the new technological society of computers and transistors and the Keynesian morality of Hugh Hefner’s la vie luxueuse. Meanwhile, outside the metropoles, starvation, disorder, breakdown sweep over the southern three-quarters of the globe.
Twenty-five years ago all the contradictions and conflicts of the present had already come into existence, but they only threatened individual men with war, hunger, and crippled lives. Today, an extractive, accumulative society more than just threatens—makes certain—the extinction of the human species within a comparatively short time.
The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere can no longer be kept in balance even over the equatorial regions. A dense fog of carcinogens blankets whole areas—the Rhine-Saar, the Upper Po, the Bay of Naples, the Tokyo-Osaka-Nagasaki metropolitan complexes—as well as the major cities. I have crossed the Siskiyus and seen the smog filling the entire Central Valley of California, and I have seen it rise on the warm morning air from around Milan and cover Lake Como in the Alps. Lake Erie is a cesspool. Lake Michigan is unfit for swimming at Milwaukee and Chicago and stinks all summer long so that the grand rich are now abandoning their lakeside stately homes to charitable institutions, dance seminars and apocalyptic Black religious groups. If all the atomic energy installations now planned are built, they will raise the temperatures of the oceans with cataclysmic results. The things we are doing to our environment are changing it far more drastically than the changes necessary to account for the extinction of the great reptiles at the end of the Jurassic Age and incomparably more quickly.
I have quoted before the old, now-abandoned slogan of the U.S. Forest Service: “The forest is a crop, not a mine.” Unless we can stop treating the planet as a mine and start treating it as a crop, people now living will see the beginning of the end of the human species.
What can we do about it? Probably very little, because the old order is shutting down with a police state. In the Thirties the Marxists called Fascism and Nazism “forced rationalization” of the German and Italian economies. (Lenin admitted that Bolshevism was precisely forced rationalization.) Today, the state, but most especially the American state, is dedicated to forced irrationalization. Unless this can be halted, there is no hope for the human race. But what does this mean? It means de-mounting the whole structure, rebuilding it and starting in the opposite direction. Growth rates and GNPs and capital expansion have got to be replaced by changing the standard-of-living value system so that the possession of large numbers of commodities becomes a vice, not a virtue.
The extractive industries must be reduced to a minimum. The use of fossil fuels must be brought to a complete stop; coal, oil and gas should be consumed totally with nothing but completely inert residues at the sites and sent out over wires. Atomic plants should be stopped until it can be determined how to destroy the wastes. More and more articles should be made of organic plastics. Chemical fertilizers and insecticides must be replaced by organic manures, which now pollute all our bodies of water instead of being pumped into the fields, and by the ecological management of the health of agricultural crops; for instance, replacing poison sprays with ladybird beetles. There are innumerable ecological maneuvers of this kind now known. Along with this would have to go a complete moral conversion from the acquisitive, competitive, covetous “virtues” of present society to a whole new scale of cooperative mutual aid simplicity value system not unlike the South Sea Islanders of romance. The population growth must not just be stopped, but reversed. The optimum is probably about one billion people to the planet.
You say this sounds like turning the whole world into a national park? Precisely. We must save ourselves as we are trying to save the sandhill crane. All power to David Brower! (172-174)