Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Report from the road


"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

—Albert Einstein

We dined one night last week in Wilson, Wyo., with my good friend Jack Turner, among my favorite writers, raconteurs and people. He never fails to inspire the sort of contemplation and reflection that enriches life, makes the natural world more meaningful and raises awareness of why the natural world, on which all life depends, is in such peril. Jack's books, "The Abstract Wild," "Teewinot" and "Travels in the Greater Yellowstone" are recommended reading to anyone interested in clear thinking, the natural world and, of course, experiencing the mysterious. Jack is a friend I treasure, but he is a treasure on his own.

During dinner he told us about his visit for the first time in 40 years to one of America's premier national parks. He was appalled at the changes he saw—the crowding, the pollution, the traffic, the urbanization of the natural world and the cheapening and predictability of the national park experience. Jack is a riveting and in-demand lecturer, and was there to speak to the park staff—the people who make the park work (or not), keep traffic moving, collect the fees, make sure there are enough toilets and accommodate the concessionaires who are in the business of selling the campsites, beds, meals, food, gas, booze, souvenirs, postcards, photos, books, posters and DVDs describing the glories of nature in the park. During his talk, Turner took a quick poll of the attendees (national park pros) to determine how many hours a week they spend contemplating nature, walking alone in the woods, sketching a flower, watching a stream, observing wild animals or listening in solitude to the wind in the trees. That was in comparison to the hours a week they spend immersed in spreadsheets, writing reports for the bureaucracy, collecting fees, directing traffic, looking at computer screens, TV screens and iPods, sending Twitter notes and texting. The results were depressing. The economics of virtual reality dominates (eliminates?) nature in the battle for the attention of even the pros, not to mention the amateurs who make up the general public. There is nothing mysterious about virtual reality, which appeals to those moving too fast to wonder and stand rapt in awe.

As Turner writes in "The Abstract Wild," "Many conservation and preservation groups now disdain moral persuasion, and many have simply given up on government regulation. ... They defend endangered species and rain forests on economic grounds. Instead of seeing modern economics as the problem, they see it as the solution. ... The new economic conservationists think they are being rational; I think they treat Mother Nature like a whorehouse." As mentioned, Jack's thinking is clear, though his political/economic/social correctness of the day is not, and it seems to me that the whorehouse metaphor has a much wider application in our culture than just economic conservationists. Think Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Jack Abramoff—fill in the blank.

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The next day a group of us (without Turner) took a seven-hour hike from Teton Pass to the top of the tram above Teton Village. We passed through several zones of elevation, geology, flora, forest and terrain. Vistas were spectacular. The weather held. Because of this year's wet summer and spring, none of us had ever seen Western alpine flora so lush, deep and spectacular. The wildflowers were abundant and varied. We were blown away and, truly, in awe.

Two of our group are wildflower aficionados and stopped often to point out the English and Latin names of lovely flowers that the more ignorant among us could appreciate without naming. I learned that saxifrage means stone breaker, something I should have known years before. We saw one deer and many birds and one stunning tree that had been recently stripped of its bark and clawed by a bear in beautiful, straight grooves that resembled abstract art. We lacked the expertise to determine if the clawing had been done by black or grizzly bear, which was probably best.

We saw no other people until we were within half an hour of the top of the tram, and the closer we got the more people there were, all of them appearing to enjoy the scenery. After a long day's hike, we were fatigued in the good way and very satisfied. We rode the packed tram down to Teton Village with great gratitude at not having to end our efforts with a more than 4,000-vertical-foot descent on foot.

The following day we drove north from Teton National Park through Yellowstone National Park on the way to Bozeman. Even with an early start, traffic was fierce and made worse by road construction between the parks. Mine was one of thousands of bumper-to-bumper cars, vans, RVs, trucks, packs of motorcyclists, some of them reckless, all of them roaring, and a few brave bicyclists, one of them foolishly (in my view) with a baby carriage and baby attached.

It took an hour and a half to move 23 miles to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park. When we got there, park personnel (the pros) were waving people through and handing out packets of information about the park's concessions and amenities. In the interests of efficiency (and a lot of meltdowns), they were not collecting the usual fees ($20 a car) and, in my view, they were correct to do so, even though the parks, the government, the economy and the world is in the midst of a financial crisis and the park could sorely use the thousands of dollars lost that day.

It was a long, slow drive through the park, and for the first time ever I saw no wild animals until the park was miles behind when a cub bear crossed the road in Gallatin Canyon. One of Turner's lines keeps coming to mind: "If you don't want nature reduced to economics, then refuse to use its language."

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