"If you refuse to pay unjust taxes,
property will be confiscated.
If you defend your property,
If you resist arrest,
you will be clubbed.
If you defend yourself against clubbing,
will be shot dead."
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 apparition, a 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
I dip water out of
buckets in this world; the water chills my hands.
I stare long at the beautiful dimming lights
in the sky and find there no meaning other than intrinsic beauty.
"Reality is 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.
The 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 mystery.
technology have given us the
social engineering techniques to
measure, analyze, and take apart
the immediate neighborhood, including the
But this knowledge adds not much to our understanding of
"Knowledge is power,"
said Francis Bacon,
great-great-grandfather of the nuclear age.
Power does not lead to
wisdom, even less to
physical contact -
touching - are better means to so fine
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 heaven,
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.
this bright afternoon, in a field of flowers, Alaska seems to me a cold and
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 . . .
My theory is that a vigorous, free, outdoors life
is good for humans.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 Caucasus Mountains,
Certainly not the
inhabitants of Dr. Lewis Thomas's Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York
We emerge from one nightmare only to find another threatening
to engulf us: the technological
superstate, densely populated, centrally controlled,
firmly and thoroughly policed.
Call it the Anthill State, the Beehive
Society, a technocratic despotism -
perhaps benevolent, perhaps not, but in either case the enemy of
family independence, and
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 uniformity.
That which today calls
itself science gives us more and more information, an indigestible glut of
information, and less and less understanding.
Thoreau knew of this tendency and foresaw its
A frantic busyness ("business") 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 religion,
the arts and the sciences.
We hear the
demand by conventional
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 itself.
The chief reason so many humans are fleeing the
cities at every opportunity to go tramping, canoeing, skiing into the wilds is
that wilderness offers a
adventure, a chance for the
our ancient, pre-agricultural,
Forest and desert,
mountain and this world, when ventured
upon in primitive terms, allow us a sort of Proustian recapture, however
superficial and brief, of the rich sensations of our former existence, our
basic heritage of a million years of hunting, gathering, wandering.
This elemental impulse still survives in our blood, nerves,
desires, suppressed but not destroyed
by the mere five thousand years of agricultural serfdom, a mere two hundred
years of industrial peonage, which culture has attempted to impose on what
evolution designed as a feeling, thinking,
freedom loving animal.
culture, not civilization;
civilization remains the
ideal, an integrated realization of
our intellectual, emotional, and physical gifts which humankind as a whole
has nowhere yet attained.
modern urban-industrial world -
like the feudal world - offers adventure and freedom to
a certain elite,
the aristocracy of our time: to the
rich, the star athlete,
the superstar entertainer, the
artist arrivi, the successful politician, a few others.
Most, the overwhelming
majority, seem condemned to the role of spectators, servitors,
One exception remains to the iron rule of oligarchy.
in America one relic of our ancient and rightful
And that is - a walk into
the woods; a journey on foot into the
uninhabited interior; a voyage down the river of no return.
fishermen, hikers, climbers, white-water
boatmen, red-rock explorers know what I
In America at least this
category of experience remains open and available to all, democratic.
It is my fear that if we allow the freedom of the hills and the last of
the wilderness to be taken from us, then
the very idea of freedom may die with it.
We see a white egret. Another
Beaver, buzzards, and bullfrogs.
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 feet above.
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.
Looking at 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 mutants.
"Bill," I say, "what are you so
"Nothing in particular," he says. "Everything in
I know exactly what he means. The magic of a boat. The
splendor of a flowing river.
The freedom of
course a happy man's true paradise is his own good nature.
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.
In a few thousand more years, perhaps, John's
Canyon may erode its way down to river level.
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, listening for coyote,
horned owls, whippoorwills, things that 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
Caring for one another,
we take the sting from death.
Caring for our
mysterious blue planet, we
resolve riddles and dissolve all enigmas in contingent
On 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 water and
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.
of Aravaipa Canyon bristle with spiky rock gardens of formidable desert
Most prominent is the giant saguaro cactus, growing five to
fifty feet tall out of crevices in the stone you might think could barely lodge
The 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.
prospect at streamside is conventionally sylvan, restful to desert-weary eyes.
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. other trees 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 nearly
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.
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 a hundred
feet above us.
Three rams, five ewes.
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.
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.
It seems to me that
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, in
mystery, comprehensible only in
The very existence of existence is itself suggestive of the
unknown - not a problem but a mystery.
We will never get to
the end of it, never plumb the bottom of it, never know the whole of even so
small and trivial and useless and precious a place as Aravaipa Canyon.
Therein lies our redemption.
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, as usual,
perceived the issue clearly: "They go to dig where they never planted," he said
of the California Forty-Niners, "to reap where they never
"The treasure which you think not worth taking
trouble and pains to find, this one alone is the real treasure you are longing
for all your life.
The glittering treasure you are hunting for
day and night lies buried on
"the other side of that hill yonder." - B. Traven, The Treasure of the
Maybe we should all stay home for a
season, give our little Western wilderness
some relief from Vibram soles, rubber boats, hang gliders, deer rifles, and fly
But where is home?
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 many, for more and more of us, the out-of-doors is our true
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, warriors and tamers of horses.
How can we pluck that deep
root of feeling from
literature Henry David Thoreau becomes more
significant with each passing decade.
deeper America sinks into industrialism,
militarism - with the rest of
the world doing its best to emulate America - the more poignant, strong, and
appealing becomes Henry's demand for the right
of every man, every woman, every child, every dog, every
tree, 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
passing through a world so beautiful it seemed and had to be
of being, we thought - these glens of sandstone, these winding corridors of
mystery, leading each to its
solitary revelation could not possibly be changed.
philosophers and the
theologians have agreed, for three thousand years, that the perfect is
immutable - that which cannot alter and cannot ever be altered.
We were wrong.
Glen Canyon was destroyed.
Everything changes, and nothing is
more vulnerable than the beautiful.
There will always be one more
river, not to cross but to follow.
journey goes on forever, and we are
fellow voyagers on
our little living ship of stone and
soil and water and vapor, this
delicate planet circling round the sun, which humankind call Earth.
Our job is to record, each in his own way, this
Earth of light and shadow and
a time that will never
come again exactly as it is today.
power, now and always.
Edward Abbey, from Down the River with
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