Thursday, May 26, 2005

Not your usual defense of wilderness

Sierra Club idealizers of wilderness (don't get me wrong, I am a member of the Sierra Club) tend to expound the virtues of wilderness with motives that ultimately trace to Lake Poet nature mysticism. I would not belittle the Lake Poets, nor nature mysticism. But the wilderness in America is harder, more dangerous, and has more voltage. I love it for that, even the vacant lots left over at the ruined edges of cities.

Forty five miles from downtown El Paso is a relict Ponderosa Pine forest--almost unimaginable, if you are familiar with El Paso, but nevertheless true. One October night many years ago my wife Kay and had I camped there, at Aguirre Springs in New Mexico, under the Organ Needle, a 9000 foot rock-climbers' spire. To our west was the Rabbit Ears, a colossal pair of bare igneous liths also much mountain-climbed. You saw them sometimes, the climbers, tiny on the grim cliffs they clung to, visible mainly because you heard them first discussing routes and problems and then you could see their bright colored clothes, and in binoculars you saw they were strung to colorful ropes, immobile, chattering, scheming against the dumb stone.

The sun was going down, the sunset outriggered by long rays of shadow thrown by the mountains. Kay stood by the big, loud-popping white man's fire, puffed out in my old down jacket, which was all patches by then, with a red bandanna on her head and looking for some reason, like Geronimo. You could see the Sacramento Mountains through a sea of remote distance, across 75 miles of sandy floor of the desert. All around us were patches of a buckwheat of some kind, a haze of thin leafless gray-wired stems bearing hundreds of very small reddish flowers. No matter how hard your eyes tried to focus on the plant it remained hazy, so "hazebush" I resolved to call it. I think I mentioned in another blog entry that in El Paso I had gotten to be considered a minor local expert on plants, but I did not tell people that I invented names for some of them, mostly for those which have no common name. Most plants don't. It was my ambition to find in a botanical manual someday "Eriogonum Wrightii--the common hazebush." I considered names of things to be talismans, charms for good luck. Better yet, the Geronimo Hazebush.

I had the memory of this pleasant outing in mind when I went again some months later up to the Organ Mountains alone, camped out at Aguirre Springs, at the place of the pines and the flower-nodding meadows, but by the time I had gotten around to it the flowers were dead and gone, and the place looked like winter, chapped and cold. Not a soul was there, not an animal stirred, not a bird. I walked up the trail to where I laid out my sleeping bag and built a fire. Nature seemed to have retreated into its thoughts. The sun went down and it was very silent. A night full of glitter, crystalline lights; the only movement was the twinkling of the stars. I could see the great Nebula in Andromeda as it was a million and a half years ago; I even imagined I could see the tilt of its oval shape, which my binoculars verified, and I was suddenly chilled by an overwhelming desolation and struck cold all the way through. I lay there in my cocoon in a cold sweat, feeling, not thinking, wrapped in some great sense of loss, that came out of nowhere.

When you go up onto the mountains, and go out into the desert, you sometimes get more than you bargained for. I thought of the psalm, "Hear my prayer, O Lord, I am a stranger with thee and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more." Eventually the chill passed on--I do not know why--leaving me in a strange world, mind given a body by chance and imprisoning sifted memories and empty shells of riven days and a name. Jacob wrestled till dawn to find out his name. I struggled for a while in the night for fear of losing mine.

But I did not wrestle till dawn, and though my hip too was stiff, it was from sleeping on the hard ground. I dreamed of an airliner at some great height and speed exploding into a mist of blood, a pink cloud that floated serenely as fiery bolides of wreckage arced to the ground, and headless trunks spilling gouts of blood.

The sun in my face was a shock. Long streams of yellow leaves from the ashes and cottonwoods higher up the mountains drifted down, high overhead in the west wind. I puttered around in the warmth and light all morning, drinking coffee and listening to the birds, juncos, twitter. I felt like a man who has had a close call of some kind.

The wilderness is full of experiences like this. And you never know when. Some people go on vision quests all their lives, and some people get knocked down by it ten feet from their cars.

I thought, for no obvious reason, of a story that I had read of the death of Aeschylus, who had been told by a fortune teller that he would be killed on a certain day by the fall of a house. So on that day he was staying outside away from all houses. In the eastern Mediterranean eagles supposedly eat turtles, or did so in the Golden Age of Greek Literature, and to do this they dropped the turtles from a great altitude to crack them open. So, an eagle mistook Aeschylus' bald head for an adequate rock, and let loose a turtle, and the poet died from the concussion.

It was the Greeks who discovered the wilderness. I think their word for it was panic.

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