"Truth is always the enemy of power.
the enemy of Truth."
"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
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.
They are 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
What does it mean?
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.
fabulous," said Henry David Thoreau; "be it life
or death, we crave nothing but
spread below us in summer in seventeen different shades of green.
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, fishhook.
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,
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. The Earth is permeated
through and through by mystery.
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 our understanding of things.
"Knowledge is power," said
Francis Bacon, great-great-grandfather of
the nuclear age.
But power does not lead to wisdom, even less to
compassion, physical contact - touching - are better means to so fine an end. 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 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. Naturally.
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 . . .
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, 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,
and thoroughly policed.
Call it the
Anthill State, the Beehive Society,
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.
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
arts and the sciences.
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
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
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.
elemental impulse still survives in our
blood, nerves, dreams, and
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 -
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.
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 techno-warrior, the artist
arrivi, the successful politician, a few others.
the overwhelming majority, seem
condemned to the role of spectators, servitors,
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 - 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,
red-rock explorers know what I mean.
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 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 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 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
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.
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 night. For magic. Witchcraft.
Wizardry. And find it, too - all in my own head.
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
can defeat that nameless terror. Loving one another, we take the sting from
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
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
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
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,
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 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. 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 ours.
"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
alive, is infinitely rich in details and relationships,
beauty, mystery, comprehensible only in part. 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
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, perceived the
issue 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
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
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 human consciousness?
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
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
eternal. 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. The
philosophers and the
theologians have agreed, for three
thousand years, that the perfect is immutable - that which cannot alter and
cannot ever be altered. They were wrong.
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. 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
humankind call Earth.
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 today.
Truth threatens power, now and
Edward Abbey, from Down the River with
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and is responsible for the collapse of morals, the elevation of self-centered
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social mores and values have declined precipitously over the last century as
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