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Blowin' in the Wind: An American View

by Deborah Streeter


Blowin' in the Wind celebrates and critiques America; our culture, politics, people, history, religions and landscape. We also link to our friend Ed Kilgore's daily blog 
Political Animal, for an insider's look at our political process. Both of us try to keep it brave and free, like our nation, with some humor and progressive hope thrown in.

 

Sunday
Dec142014

Just Say Know: When Should Kids be Allowed to Drink and Drug?

Here at Blowin’ in the Wind, we’re spending December looking at American behavior and attitudes toward drinking and drugging.  First we looked at Prohibition, and then last week, the very American history of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Today, our attitudes and actions on teenage drinking and drugging, and some comparisons to other countries. 

If you want to drink legally in America, you have to be 21 years old.  Same age for folks who want to smoke marijuana in the three states who have legalized pot.

How many other nations have a legal drinking age of 21, besides the US?   Only three: Palau, Indonesia, and Mongolia.  Every other country in the world allows either 16 or 18 year olds to drink alcohol.  (And presumably smoking pot, where legal.)

I did not know this.  I knew the drinking age was younger than 21 in the UK and France – is there even a drinking age at all in France?  Probably also Germany.  (Turns out 14 year old Germans can drink in public with their parents, and in the UK parents can give their kids drinks at home as long as they are over five. No ale for you, little four year old.)

But I guess I thought America had decided on age 21 because all our great American scientists and educators and legal experts had settled on that age as the best balance of adolescent development (surely we want our kids to be healthy) with personal freedoms (we do have a sort of frontier pattern of allowing all kinds of crazy behavior) and public safety (we’re pretty good on auto safety laws and say we want to reduce auto accidents.)

But every other nation is 18 or younger?  Are they just reckless sots and bad parents?

And how’s that age 21 legal age working out for us?  Are our young people happy to stay sober so their adolescent brains can develop drug free?  Are they staying out of trouble so much that our law enforcement agencies are freed up to put resources into other illegal activities?  Are we wiser and more obedient than other nations? 

Or we still hanging on to some of our moralizing and misguided attitudes from Prohibition? 

An interesting group of Americans has recently come out in favor of lowering the drinking age.  No, it’s not college students.  It’s college presidents.  135 of them signed a statement supporting a nationwide conversation about young adult drinking and a reconsideration of the drinking age.  Why?  Because of the epidemic of binge drinking.  Half of all US college students who drink report that they engaged in binge drinking in the previous two weeks.  Campus binge drinking is a major factor in another campus epidemic: sexual assaults.  These university presidents point out that in European countries teenage drinkers tend to be introduced to alcohol by their parents and that only one in ten drinking episodes results in inebriation.  In the US, on the other hand, young people learn to drink away from home and in half of every drinking session the young drinkers get loaded. 

The organizer of this effort is a former Middlebury College history professor.  He knows his US history: Prohibition, he reminds his colleagues, had more unintended negative consequences than success.  Folks actually drank more and faster when it was prohibited.  That’s what binge drinking is now.  Crime and illegal supplying of booze skyrocketed in the 20’s and today there is still a huge subculture of illegal and criminal supplying to minors.  He points out that drunk automobile accidents started going down in the 60’s, when the drinking age was 18, and has stayed down, despite the change in drinking age in the 1980’s, and can be credited to air bags, seat belt laws, lower blood alcohol level and designated drivers.  Not to this new Prohibition.

Oh, and speaking of blood alcohol levels, a rough survey of the laws for that in different countries suggests that most places bust you for fewer drinks than in the US, even for commercial drivers (most places it’s zero for truck drivers etc, but in the US it’s .04, half of what regular drivers can get busted for.)

So other countries seem to do a better job setting up a learning process with their kids and being more realistic about what kids are up to.  And holding them, and commercial drivers, more accountable when they do drink.  (Or am I just indulging in grass is greener, anything is better than US envy?  Easy to do.)

As I’ve said it the two previous columns, we’re so ambivalent in the US about having fun in general – we are puritans and libertines at the same time.  And we seem to give our kids that very mixed message with a dollop of denial. When it comes to drinking, and sex for that matter, we say, “It’s fun, great, our basic hoped for activity at the end of every day.  So don’t do it.”  Especially as we relate to our kids.  Our default approach to difficult issues seems to be Nancy Regan’s favorite: Just say no.  Like having your only sex ed curriculum be abstinence.  It just doesn’t work.  Instead of parents discussing with their kids how to make decisions on important issues like drinking or sex, we just say, don’t do it!  Til you’re out of the house. 

As part of the newly legalized marijuana in Colorado the state health department is trying to convince teenagers to obey the law (age 21) by citing studies that heavy dope smoking in young teenagers affects IQ and increases risk of schizophrenia.  One of their campaign slogans is “Just Say Know.”  (More on legaliztion of marijuana next week.)

I like to think that knowledge is better than denial, that “know” is a better approach to education than “no.”   But, then, I’m an American, ambivalent and in denial.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Dec072014

“Every Man Needs to Acquire Habits of Self-Help”

Week Two of our series on Americans and liquor, our actions and attitudes. 

When we left off last week our President has just marked the end of Prohibition, 1933, by saying our nation needed “a good strong drink.”  For once, we obeyed our President, and hit the bottle.  Women in particular joined in the fun; having been barred from saloons before Prohibition, they had discovered the delights of drinking with other men and women in speakeasies.  Among Prohibition’s many unintended consequences, as we said last week, was a sharp rise in the volume of liquor and the number Americans putting it away each year.

Bill WilsonBy 1935, only two years later, two serious drunks, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous, “to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” (It should be noted that AA does not take a stand on temperance or any other outside issues; it only focuses on helping alcoholics achieve sobriety.  It is not anti alcohol, just pro recovery for those powerless over alcohol.) 

Today AA claims US membership of over a million, worldwide 2 million members in 100,000 groups, and has spawned countless other programs using the 12 step approach.  Filmmaker Ken Burns called us “A Nation of Drunkards,” (not as high per capita consumption as, say, Russia, or the UK, but up there.)  But our nation also leads the pack in recovery movements.  As we said last week, we Americans are committed to both self-indulgence and self-improvement, often simultaneously, or at least serially!

The self-help movement, that very American approach to solving one’s problems by forming support groups of people similarly afflicted, was really perfected by AA.  But you can go back farther and find advocates for self improvement like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and even to Ben Franklin’s quaint and crazy self actualizing schemes.  And my title quote is from that most unlikely hero of the self-help movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

It’s hard to picture Emerson at an AA meeting; he was such an advocate for self-reliance and individualism, working out one’s own problems, in one’s own way.  But in fact, self reliance supports the egalitarian spirit of self help groups like AA, and fosters its style of suspicion toward experts or authorities.  Such groups are remarkably democratic and lay led, with local autonomy and low overhead. Keep it simple and local, use volunteers; sounds pretty American to me.

Dr. Bob SmithI won’t recount the whole 75 years of AA or quote a lot of statistics – the facts and data are all pretty easily found. But since this is a column about America, let me reflect on a few people in AA history who embody some very typical American styles and attitudes.

Bill Wilson, co-founder, was a failed Wall Street broker who kept drinking away his jobs, relationships, trust, and self esteem.  He finally got sober in NY with the help of an unorthodox doctor who thought alcoholism was a disease, not a moral failing, a Christian group, the Oxford Movement, and by reading in the new field of psychology, especially William James. With the zeal of a convert he used his salesman skills at first just to help one alcoholic at a time, but for the next four decades he applied his sales experience and organization ideas into forming a movement.  There have been movies and plays about Bill and cofounder Dr. Bob; while Bill is of course a historical person, he seems in real life to be almost like a character in a drama, as American a salesman as Willie Loman is Death of a Salesman

Bill met Dr. Bob in Akron Ohio in 1935.  (Last week I noted that both the Temperance Movement and AA started in Ohio – more Americana, heartland Midwest.)  Newly sober but tempted to drink while away from his NY home on a sales trip, Bill phoned an unknown clergyman from the hotel lobby asking for the name of another drunk to talk with, and was referred to a notorious drunk who was also a local doctor.  They met at the home of a well to do woman, Henrietta Sieberling, a member of the Oxford Movement.  They talked all night, helped each other stay sober, and AA was born.

Dr. Bob’s part of the AA story adds more Americana to the tale, at least the mid 20th century brand.   For all its anti-professionalism and determination to be lay led, AA would never have lasted without considerable help from professionals, like clergy and physicians, who would refer clients to their groups and lend credibility to the new idea that alcoholism was not a moral failure of the lower classes but a disease that affects every class and race (and gender and occupation.)  And despite AA’s remarkable and crucial insistence that it be self supporting by members and decline outside contributions, the progrm needed and got all kinds of advocacy and support from non-alcoholic people of power and influence and money. Mrs. Sieberling and countless other women hosts and patrons, provided support besides money – coffee, encouragement, referrals, credibility.  Lois Wilson, Bill’s wife, founded Al-Anon for the spouses and families.  The Rockefellers and other industry leaders, as they had supported temperance 30 years earlier to improve worker efficiency, now advocated for companies to treat rather than fire workers in recovery.

Marty MannOne more less known AA figure who adds to the Americana is Marty Mann, one of the first women members of AA and one of the first to carve out a profession in the field of recovery education and advocacy.  Founder in 1944 of the National Council on Alcoholism, she took the message of recovery to academia, legislatures, public media, and popular culture.  Born into wealth in Chicago at the turn of the century she drank heavily into the 30’s, when she met Bill Wilson, and became his first woman sponsee.  Like Bill and Bob, she brought her vocational skills, in her case, media and public relations, into her convert’s zeal.  She was fearless and bold in proclaiming her three convictions, which were all radical ideas in the 40’s:

-Alcoholism is a disease and the alcoholic a sick person.

-The alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping.

-Alcoholism is a public health problem and therefore a public responsibility.

Mann worked tirelessly with state and federal representatives and agencies to enact laws that set aside public health money, medical insurance and public institutions for alcohol treatment (as opposed to the then norm of jail and drunk tanks.)  Through savvy public media, she created a climate and hosted events where many famous public figures came out about their alcoholism.  She helped to found Yale University’s School of Alcohol Studies and brought academic credibility to the progressive view of alcoholism as a public health problem.  In the late 50’s Edward R. Murrow included her in his list of the 10 greatest living Americans.

Alcoholics Anonymous is now active in 170 countries, but its birthplace and its heartland values are as American as – apple pie?  How about hard apple cider?

Copyright © 2104 Deborah Streeter

Tuesday
Dec022014

“What American Needs is a Good Strong Drink”

That’s what President Franklin Roosevelt said 81 years ago this week, Dec. 5, 1933, on the day Prohibition was repealed and Americans could drink again legally.  After a 13-year failed attempt at improving America’s moral character by outlawing booze, the nation returned to drinking, and per capita alcohol consumption has risen every year since.

I’m going to write my next three or four columns on Americans and alcohol, and maybe drugs too.  So many very American themes:

- how we are a nation both puritanical and decadent,

- how our very varied religious landscape tries to effect a national morality, but often makes things worse, and how very much American Protestantism has changed (hint: there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court.)

- how we keep trying to improving ourselves and others, from social reform to self help, with mixed results and unintended consequences.

- the interesting role of women in the temperance movement, the place of temperance in the first wave of the women’s movement, and the role of women in the burgeoning self help movements like AA and NA, all the way up to Oprah,

- the weird and scary interplay of organized crime, smuggling, violence, drug wars, police corruption, a hundred years ago, and today,

- the weird and scary interplay of drugs and alcohol and our economy; we make so much policy based on drug and alcohol money, licit and illicit.

- Bonus question: Why did so many anti-alcohol movements start in Ohio?

I took a class once in seminary about bread as a mirror or lens on all of society – its history, variety, symbolism, economics, labor, nutrition, etc.   One could use booze as a similar mirror or lens on America.  Put another way, let’s look at America the way author David James Duncan looked at his own life in his great book, My Story as Told By Water.  

So for the next few weeks I’ll offer some thoughts and themes on “Our America as Told by Alcohol.”

So for today, a little about Prohibition and how familiar it sounds today.

Filmmaker Ken Burns did a good series on Prohibition, which aired on public TV last year.  (One could also use Ken Burns films as an American mirror or lens: Civil War, baseball, jazz, the miscarriage of justice in the Central Park Rapist case, the Roosevelts, and now Prohibition.)

He called the three episodes: A Nation of Drunkards, a Nation of Scofflaws, a Nation of Hypocrites.  That pretty much sums it up: we’ve always drunk a lot, we ignore laws intended to improve society (civil rights, the speed limit) and we say one thing and do another.

The temperance movement began as early as the 1840’s, one of many 19th century social reform movements. Women were getting organized and advocating publicly for a variety of social issues – child labor laws, the vote, property rights, education.  And temperance, in an effort to reduce domestic violence (a nice way of saying “drunken attacks”) against women and children.  At the same time, the growing industrial complex supported temperance as a way to improve workplace efficiency.  Not only abused women but also robber barons like Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie wanted the guys out of the saloons and back to work.

The century’s reform efforts came in waves, with women’s rights having to, or choosing to, take a back seat to abolition, in the first half of the century.  Then the temperance movement stalled because revenue taxes from alcohol sales were required to finance the Civil War. But Evangelical Protestants kept at it, preaching that the nation needed to improve its morality.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, in Oberlin, Ohio, gave women a less threatening issue to organize around than suffrage, but women went public and radical pretty fast; they did their own version of Occupy protests at saloons and whisky distilleries. 

It was actually another group, the Anti Saloon League, that eventually became the more effective temperance lobbying organization; it virtually invented pressure politics and single issue lobbying.  Like today’s gun lobby, ASL and WCTU were able to intimidate and shame legislators, who hurriedly voted for a constitutional amendment in 1920 that outlawed the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol.  And just as hurriedly voted to repeal 13 years later.

One commentator writes, “It is no mistake that President Hoover’s 1928 description of Prohibition as “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose” entered the poplar lexicon as “the noble experiment.”  It was unfortunate for the entire nation that the experiment failed as miserably as it did….The ultimate lesson is two-fold.  Watch out for solutions that end up worse than the problems they set out to solve, and remember that the Constitution is no place for experiments.”

So many of these issues linger today, like a bad hangover.  What did we learn from this failed experiment?  Sadly I am as conflicted as the next person about any lessons learned.

-Should we solve problems by amending the Constitution?  I don’t think so, when it comes to issues like a Constitutional amendment defining life as beginning at conception, or naming English as the official US language.  But I do like the idea of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United; let’s say only people are people, not corporations. 

-In general I am suspicious of people who practice single-issue politics, be it temperance or gun rights or Benghazi.  Life is more complicated than that.  But I would never ever  vote for someone who didn’t support abortion rights, even if they were good on everything else.

-Protestants – don’t be so high and mighty about your morality.  It’s easy to make fun of the Protestant temperance clergy who condemned sacramental wine, tried to write wine out of the Bible, and made racist slurs about Irish and Italian immigrants.  But I hear echoes of that today in conservative evangelical slurs about large Hispanic families and teenage mothers.  But what about little Protestant me - I disapprove of San Francisco’s Catholic Cardinal taking Mormon money to oppose gay marriage.  Keep your religion out of the bedroom.

-Attorney General Eric Holder has been trying to make it so blacks and whites aren’t sentenced so disparately for drug offenses, but I still hear white conservatives assuming all drug dealers and users are black or Hispanic, as the prohibitionists assumed about immigrants.  It’s the white suburban kids buying the drugs that go free, and go to work on Wall Street. But even in the so-called “War on Drugs” (like the “War on Cancer,” bad metaphor), a simplistic prohibition attitude (just say no) ignores the deep complexity of issues around addiction and treatment and economics.

-Prohibition actually made people drink more, rather than less.  Just saying no, any parent can tell you, makes the product or behavior more appealing.  People in the 1920’s drank more, and drank illicitly and dangerously.  Women especially started drinking a lot more because they were allowed into speak-easies as they hadn’t been into saloons.  We see that pattern in binge drinking today, especially in college.  Like sex – abstinence teaching does not work.   Teach responsible drinking.

-Don’t pass laws and then fail to enforce them or enforce them fairly.  A generation of Americans broke the law in speak-easies or their own bathtub breweries.  That scofflaw and hypocritical attitude of Americans toward the law hasn’t gone away.   Likewise our suspicion about the sincerity and truthfulness of the police has only gotten worse, and it’s not all their fault.

-Figure out a better way to pay for government than so-called “sin taxes.”  Government  hurriedly passed Prohibition but didn’t realize that in some states, like New York, 75% of revenue came from liquor taxes.  The federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue during the 1920’s and had no money to enforce the laws.  Today we continue to fund a lot of programs with these “sin taxes” on cigarettes and booze.  Our citizen taxpayer rate actually has gone down for the past few decades, we are less willing to pay our fair share.  What does that teach about citizenship?

Ok, enough rant about our sad nation and its sadder government.  Don’t read this and drown your sorrows in drink!  Pick a designated driver and get home safe.  Cheers!

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Nov232014

Yosemite Wonderers and Wanderers

I saw some old friends in Yosemite last week.  And made a few new ones.

I hadn’t really expected so much human contact.  Sure, I knew there would be bus after bus of Asian tourists, day and night.  Probably lots of avid hikers and climbers, clomping around the cafeteria with their big boots and ropes, and racing past me on the trail.  And the happy noisy groups of school kids studying native Americans and geology and counting fish in the Merced River – didn’t bother me much.

My intention had been to get away from people.  Which really wasn’t that hard.  Sure, 4 million people visit this national park each year, but it’s a big place and a steep place.  On several popular trails I walked for miles without passing another soul. My plan was for silent communing with massive cliffs and meditative hiking to distant waterfalls, and my hopes were met.  One day we drove up to the remote high country and over the 10,000 ft. Tioga Pass, open only half the year.  Ours was one of the few cars on the road.

John Muir often called Yosemite a temple, a cathedral, a holy place.  Indeed one huge arched rock formation opposite Half Dome is called Cathedral Arch.  Yosemite Valley can feel like a giant cathedral, sacred and solemn, high soaring stone, another world, a place to leave behind mundane concerns and stand in awe. 

And like many cathedrals these days, it can seem empty.  Or so big that even a congregation or a tour group only fills part of its vast space.

But it’s never completely empty of human presence or history.  In Yosemite, as in many an ancient cathedral, one can feel the spirits of past residents and guardians of the place, those who in centuries past have wandered and wondered and just plain worked in this temple.

One group of old friends I met again were those past guardians I have written of in here for the past five weeks. I surely saw the old tramp John Muir on the trail, one of many grizzled hikers whom I imagine spend much of their lives there.   I actually did see the spot where he camped with president Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 and together they “talked forest good.” 

When we drove up to Tuolome Meadows near the Pate Valley I could imagine there the young Gary Snyder, working on a summer road crew to build the Tioga Pass Road.  There he felt the spirits of the ancient Ahwahnechee and their original trails, built with no need for blasting dynamite, and he wrote the poem, “Pate Valley.” 

I had read how Ansel Adams tried to stop the government from opening up access to this wilderness, from paving this high country paradise, but I had to admit I appreciated the ease now of driving to 10,000 ft.  But the wilderness is still in charge.  Thanks, Ansel,  old friend, for your fierce advocacy for wilderness.  And for your creative eye and camera.  Your descendents were there in full force, photographers and painters, at dawn, at sunset, alone and in classes sponsored by your gallery, quietly trying to create more sacred icons of this temple.

Two old friends I hadn’t expected to see in Yosemite were Mark Liebenow and Phil Frank.  Mark should be familiar to Back Road Café readers; he is an old friend of Dale’s, and an acquaintance of mine from graduate school days.  I had sort of looked at his writings here at the Café, but obviously not too closely.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have been surprised to find his fantastic book, Mountains of Light, in a prominent place in the Yosemite bookstore.  It’s an award winning account of his many visits, many months at Yosemite in all seasons, deep reflections on nature and grief and surprise. 

I had been secretly praising myself after hiking the 8 mile Panorama Trail from Granite Point down past three waterfalls to the Valley.  Then I stood there in the bookstore transfixed by Mark’s account of hiking that same trail in winter.  And going up the waterfall trails, not down.  And how he had planned to do a big loop, but got lost in the snow and had to backtrack and turn back in the freezing dark.  That tale was worth the purchase of the book.  Better writing than anything I’ve done here about Yosemite, or much else.  Thanks, Mark.

And in the same bookstore I re-met another old friend, Phil Frank, the late San Francisco Chronicle comic strip artist whose pointed and political and hilarious strip “Farley” featured acculturated bears Hilda and Alphonse who summer in Yosemite feeding off tourist cars and hotel dumpsters and winter in San Francisco.  Also  urban camper Velma Melmak who daily vacuums and bug sprays her campsite.  And a host of other odd characters.  I bought his collection “Fur and Loathing in Yosemite” and it took me right back to the 70’s and 80’s, a simpler time when California was more free spirited and less corporate, and when a younger me looked forward every day to that strip.  Hello again, old friend.

I could go on about old friends and new.  Faithful readers of this column know I love cemeteries.  On all my previous trips I had never discovered the pilgrim cemetery at Yosemite, but one day I spent a quiet hour there.  The rough graves of Indians, the marker for a young waitress who drowned in the Merced River in 1901, the Polish immigrant who came looking for gold and lived out his days there building trails, the beloved ranger who raised his family there and his son is now a ranger – these and many more new friends.

Ok, one last set of new friends.  Two hikers on the Panorama Trail, one of the very few I saw, a very fit young couple with good equipment.  We met at a trail intersection, contemplating the sign; they were speaking French.  From Montreal it turned out, their second fall in a row spent hiking here, way back and way high.  I tried my bad French with them, we shared tales of Yosemite.  They said they were leaving that day, but had three open days til returning to Canada.  Did I recommend Monterey, where they had never been there?  Of course I did, and offered to show them free around the Aquarium where I am a volunteer guide.  We parted on the trail, and then later in the day I ran into them again at the top of Nevada Falls.  As they walked toward me out of the woods I threw out my arms and shouted, 

“Mes amis!”

I liked seeing my old friends the rocks and falls, but my old and new human friends were a treat also.  Thanks, Yosemite.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter

Monday
Oct132014

I Have Been to the Mountaintop

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….

Martin Luther KingJohn MuirWhat 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)?

Mountaintop experiences.

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. 

New York Times, October 6, 2014. Th view from the summit of "Mount Thoreau" looking south toward the Palisades and the Northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park. Credit Christopher WoodcockBut 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