"Truth is always
the enemy of power.
power the enemy of
"Liberty cannot be guaranteed by
Nor by any thing else except the
of free citizens to defend their
"If you refuse to pay unjust taxes, your property
will be confiscated.
If you attempt to defend your property, you will be
If you resist arrest, you will be clubbed.
If you defend
yourself against clubbing, you will be shot dead."
November 6, 1980
as usual sometime before the dawn, frost on
my beard and sleeping bag,
see four powerful lights
standing in a vertical row on the eastern sky.
They are Saturn, Jupiter,
Mars, and, pale crescent on a
darkened disc, the old
The three great
planets appear to be rising from the cusps of
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?
I have seen a portent in the
sky this must be it.
Spirit both forms and informs the
universe, thought the
New England transcendentalists,
Henry David Thoreau was one; all
Nature, they believed, is but
symbolic of a greater
reality beyond. And
planets, I stumble about last
night's campfire, breaking twigs, filling the coffeepot.
water buckets in the
river; the water chills my hands.
I stare long at the
lights in the sky
but can find there no meaning other than
the lights' intrinsic beauty.
"Reality is fabulous," said
Henry David Thoreau; "be it
life or death, we
crave nothing but
reality, Henry David
Thoreau implies; or so it appears to me.
I begin to think he outgrew
transcendentalism rather early in his career, at
about the same time that he was overcoming the
influence of his onetime mentor
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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,
and several species of cactus -
prickly pear, pincushion,
fishhook. Far down in the
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,
Einstein thought that the most
mysterious aspect of the
universe is what he called its
To me the most mysterious thing about the
universe is not its comprehensibility
but the fact that it exists. And the same
mystery attaches to every thing
it. The Earth is permeated through and through by
Modern science and
technology have given us
engineering techniques to measure, analyze, and take apart
the immediate neighborhood, including the neighbors. But this
knowledge adds not much to
understanding of things.
power," said Francis Bacon, great-great-grandfather of the
power does not lead to
wisdom, even less to
Sympathy, love, physical contact -
touching - are better means to so
fine an end. I believe in nothing that I
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 it?
And there must be trees too, of course.
And mountains. And 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. 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 . . . banal.
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 air. Clean
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,
Afghanistan. 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,
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
family independence, and community sovereignty,
shutting off for a long time to come the
freedom to choose among alternate
nature made possible by misapplied
science leads to
the domination of humans; to
a dreary and totalitarian uniformity.
today calls itself
science gives us more and more
information, an indigestible glut of information, and less and less
Henry David Thoreau was well
aware of this tendency and foresaw
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 considered.
We are belabored by the insistence on the part of our
politicians, businessmen and
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
chance for the
rediscovery of our ancient,
Forest and desert, mountain
and river, 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.
impulse still survives in our
dreams, and 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
thinking, freedom - loving animal.
I say culture, not
civilization remains the ideal, an
integrated realization of our intellectual,
emotional, and physical gifts which
humankind as a
whole has nowhere yet
The modern urban-industrial world - like the feudal world - offers adventure and
freedom to a certain
aristocracy of our
time: to the rich, the star
athlete, the superstar entertainer,
the artist arrivi, the successful
politician, a few others.
majority, seem condemned to the role
of spectators, servitors, dependent consumers.
remains to the iron rule of oligarchy. At
least in America one relic of our ancient and rightful
survived. And that is - a walk into the
woods; a journey on foot into the uninhabited
interior; a voyage down the river of no return.
hikers, climbers, white-water boatmen,
know what I mean.
at least this category of
experience remains open and available to
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
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 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
"Bill," I say, "what are you
so happy about?"
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
desert. But 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 Major
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 trickle.
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
Wizardry. And find it, too - all in
my own head.
we drift on together, not a team but a family, a human family bound by human
love, 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
(is there another?) only a theater of suffering. He was right! He was
another, We take the sting from
death. Loving our mysterious blue
planet, We resolve riddles and dissolve
all enigmas in contingent bliss. 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.
The walls of
Aravaipa Canyon bristle with spiky rock
gardens of formidable desert vegetation. 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 a flower. 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.
The prospect at streamside is
conventionally sylvan, restful to desert-weary eyes. Great
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
Aravaipa Canyon. Halfway back to camp and
the canyon entrance we pause to inspect a
sycamore that seems to be
embracing a boulder. The trunk
of the tree has grown around the
rock. Feeling the
tree for better
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 -
holly, bursage, and
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.
have earned enough memories, stored enough
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
senses are alive can make a world of any natural place,
however limited it might seem, on this subtle planet of ours.
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
wonder, beauty, mystery, comprehensible only in part. The very
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
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, as usual,
clearly: "They go to dig where
they never planted," he said of the California Forty-Niners, "to reap where
they never sowed."
"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 Sierra MadreMaybe 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 rods. But where is
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 many, 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,
life of hunters and gatherers,
warriors and tamers of horses. How can
we pluck that deep root of
feeling from the racial
American literature Henry David Thoreau becomes more significant with each
The deeper America sinks into
militarism - with the rest of
the world doing its best to emulate America - the
more poignant, strong, and appealing becomes Henry David
Thoreau's demand for the right of every man, every woman, every
child, every dog, every tree, every snail
darter, every lousewort, every
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
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
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. The
philosophers and the
theologians have agreed, for
three thousand years, that the
immutable - that which cannot
alter and cannot ever be altered. They were wrong. We were
wrong. Glen Canyon was destroyed.
changes, and nothing is more vulnerable than the
There will always be one
more river, not to cross but to follow. The
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
Our job is
to record, each in his own way, this
Earth of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is
Edward Abbey, from Down the River (with
back to stacks
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