"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
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.
"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.
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.
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 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
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 land.
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
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
Certainly 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, nuclear-powered, computer-directed,
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
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 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
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
the arts and the sciences.
hear the demand by
conventional economists for
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.
reason so many people are
fleeing 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 our ancient,
pre-agricultural, pre-industrial freedom.
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.
I say 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.
The 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,
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.
At least 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 return.
Hunters, fishermen, hikers, climbers,
white-water boatmen, red-rock explorers know what I mean.
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.
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 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
The freedom of the desert.
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.
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 wrong!
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.
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.
return to the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon.
Halfway back to camp and the
canyon entrance we pause to inspect a sycamore that seems to be embracing a
The trunk 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 a hundred feet above us.
Three rams, five ewes.
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
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
"The world is big but it is comprehensible," says R. Buckminster
It seems to me that the
Earth is not nearly big enough
and that any portion of its surface, left unpaved and
infinitely rich in details and relationships,
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
In American 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
found ourselves passing
through a world so beautiful it seemed and had to be
Such perfection 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.
Truth threatens power, now and always.
Edward Abbey, from Down the River with
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