I’m finally going to Yosemite next week! In this last of five preparatory columns I try to recap some themes and tie together some wilderness heroes. Just as Muir, Zahniser, Adams, Obata and Snyder (whom I have written of in the past weeks) were inspired by the place, so was I this week by another mountaintop story about more brave wilderness artists. See you in a few weeks when I return from the mountains….
What do Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Muir have in common? Would the 20th century African -American eastern urban civil rights leader/ Christian preacher have anything to say to 19th century Scottish-American western wilderness lover and son of a preacher (who preached hate and fear rather than liberation)?
And Henry David Thoreau.
MLK famously had been to the mountaintop and seen his God. Muir also experienced deeply spiritual transformation atop Sierra peaks: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Muir was also a disciple and imitator of Henry David Thoreau, the New England philosopher and nature lover, whose Journals he read and reread and annotated.
King also drew inspiration from Thoreau, but of a slightly more political nature:
During my students days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement, whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters or a freedom ride into Mississippi.
How great that two of America’s best leaders (King and Muir) and two of our best ideas (wilderness preservation and civil rights) share a common heritage – Thoreau!
And how great that just this past month a dramatic act of civil disobedience, directly inspired by Thoreau, took place high (13,000 ft.) in the Sierras! Indeed, Thoreau’s spirit and writings and name were the center of this radical lawless act.
(Actually there’s quite a bit of near-anarchy in the American environmental movement, from Earth First bombings to Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.)
This month’s radicals were science fiction writers, poets, and printmakers who are also all serious mountain climbers. One of them, Kim Stanley Robinson, well known for his Mars trilogy, knows well the almost Martian desolate landscape of the John Muir Wilderness just south of Yosemite, and climbs it often. Last winter on a snowshoeing trip he notice Mt. Emerson, above the Piute Valley, but wondered why no Mt. Thoreau? Back in his library he researched any geographic tributes to the nature mystic of Concord and Walden Pond. He discovered that nowhere in the whole nation does Thoreau’s name appear on a topographical map, except one little spring on the slopes of a mountain in Maine where Thoreau had had a profound experience.
So what was Robinson’s civil disobedience? Government policy expressly forbids the assignment of human names to natural formations in wilderness areas. It’s actually not all that bad policy, as we recall from my column on the Wilderness Act; “untrammeled” means untrammeled. No tarting up wilderness with lots of names. The Act’s landmark definition of wilderness insisted that people would visit but not remain there, not even their names.
But there’s been a tradition of “peak bagging,” informal naming of peaks, since the days of Muir. So Robinson gathered like-minded artists, including Zen nature poet Gary Snyder (whose poem inspired by the Piute/Pate Valley we looked at last week) and proposed their radical act.
Not exactly a sit-in and jail, like King, or tax resistance and jail, like Thoreau.
But a publicity climb to proclaim the as yet un-named peak, “Mount Thoreau.” A NY Times correspondent went as far as the trailhead, as did the 84-year old Snyder. Atop the peak they held a ceremony declaring the peak “Mount Thoreau.” They read from his Journals and left a metal box with a register signed by the climbers, starting with Snyder, often called a 20th century Thoreau.
Thoreau wrote in “Walking,” “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least – and commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
In the 1850’s he advocated a national park system, saying “Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority, have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be civilized off the face of the earth?”
Muir and Thoreau and even King found true freedom on mountaintops. In the minds and hearts of many, if not on official maps, “Mount Thoreau” now symbolizes that freedom.
Copyright 2014 Deborah Streeter