When Mountains Speak, Wise Men Listen
An illustrated reflection on William Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter“1
Wallace Stegner’s letter, written four years earlier to David Pesonen, a member of the commission assessing the potential uses of the nation’s wilderness, speaks feelingly of the need—the essential, absolute, inarguable need—to preserve our nation’s wild places. Not only as physical destinations or as aesthetic geographies, but as symbols and sources of something intangible and necessary. We need, Stegner argues, “the wilderness idea,” because it is the anvil against which our identity as a people, as a nation and, I would argue, as individuals is formed.
That which we call the American Dream, that “strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness” that promises that all will be well if we work hard enough, that sense of possibility is the purview of the wilderness. The wild demands a worthy conversation partner, someone who will pitch himself or herself against the mountaintops, down into the canyon-lands and through the deep forests and glory in what Sherwood Anderson calls, “a sense of bigness outside ourselves.” “When mountains speak,” we are reminded by John Muir, “wise men listen.”2
The summer after I graduated from college, I spent three months—three miraculous and glorious months—living and working in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Eight miles off the road and more than 10,000 feet above sea level, my summer home of Vogelsang High Sierra Camp was nestled in the shadow of two mountains and surrounded by the stark beauty of granite slabs. You could imagine you saw the bones of the world, peaking up through the dark soil and underbrush. I would hike the eight miles in from the road on a stair-step sort of trail that climbed first through the forest, meandered its way through the meadow and then climbed once more along the face of the mountain until at last, peaking over the last little hill, I could see the white tops of the camp’s tent cabins and hear the ring of the dinner bell.
I find myself enormously grateful for letters like Stegner’s, and for the decades of advocacy and argument that eventually led to 1964’s Wilderness Act and to a wilderness preservation system that is the envy of the world. That other sacred places, like the Yosemite high country, still remain for me to explore because are saved from human exploitation is comforting. The evenings I spent watching the sun set behind Half Dome and the afternoons I spent napping against the warm rocks under the sheer face of Vogelsang Peak were balm to body and soul.
The words of Stegner are particularly pertinent today, when conversations about global warming and climate change and other dangers to the environment are filling the front pages of our newspapers and the halls of Congress. I believe there is a general consensus that we need to make changes (in behavior and policy) on an individual and global level if we are to have the natural resources we need. Protecting those resources for our future common good is necessary, but where Stegner makes his point is that the value of the wilderness is more than the sum of the number of trees or the tons of CO2 converted to oxygen. The real, more sustaining value is in the wilderness as a idea. The intangibility of this value makes it vulnerable—how do we quantify the spiritual value of a resource?
One day, not far from now, there will no longer be glaciers on mountains. National Geographic recently reported that the glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park will have entirely disappeared by 2020.3 Mt. Hood, which can be seen from the downtown of Portland, OR, will no longer be covered by snow. Our children and our children’s children will no longer know what it means to gaze upon a snow-covered peak. We will explain to them about precipitation and temperature and describe the color of the snow and how people would ski and sled down its slopes. And will not care. Perhaps a few of them will be nostalgic for something they never knew, but even they will not—cannot—understand the poetry and significance to the soul that that snow-covered mountain represents to us now. It is a challenge from the natural world, daring us to test our mettle against its enormity. It is a call to be quiet, to meditate, to watch the drift of flakes accumulate against the tree trunks.
At the beginning of the season, the trail to Vogelsang was verdant and lush and oh-so-green with patches of snow still lingering alongside the trail. As the weeks passed, the young grass turned gold and the streams and creeks dried up until there were only wide paths of round stones and polished boulders to mark where the water had once flowed. The first time I hiked into camp, I did it in two and half hours, my excitement and anticipation spurring me onwards and upwards. Later in the season, I moved more slowly, knowing there was no hurry to get anywhere fast. The only high country clock is the sun and it seemed only natural to rise with the sun and sleep with the stars. I was nine hours and three hundred and ten miles away from my Bay Area apartment, and five hours away from cell phone service, and I felt more consistently competent, strong, and beautiful than I have ever felt in my entire life.
Almost sixty years before Stegner drafted that letter to David Pesonen, Robert Service articulated the same themes in his ballad, "The Call of the Wild."4
“Have you gazed on naked grandeur,” Service asks, “when there’s nothing else to gaze on,"
Set pieces and curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?”
His poem, meant, I believe, to be recited around a campfire, is organized around a series of questions: “Have you known the Great White Silence?” “Have you seen God in His splendors?” and “Have you strung your soul to silence?” In an explicit way, Service is exhorting his readers and listeners to listen to the Wild, to hearken to its call and, “for God’s sake, [to] go and do it.” But for the majority of those listeners, it is an impossibility to steal away to the Yukon as Service himself did. Instead, this poem, and others like, stands as a surrogate. It’s lyricism paints a verbal picture of the grandness of the West into which readers can project themselves. The verbs alone teach us what the wilderness has to offer: swept, heaved, wandered, roamed, chummed up to, dared, hearken, triumphed, starved, probe and journey. For Americans, the West has represented, in the words of Stegner, “a geography of hope” in which we are evaluated as competent, upright human beings and returned to our
It is worth pointing out, however, that the wilderness does not necessarily mean the West. One can find woods and hills and quiet groves in the East, lakes and frozen fields in the North and serpentine swamps in the South. Poets like Robert Frost, who lived in Vermont, recognize the significance of wild places in his poem, "Birches":5
When I see birches bend to left and right
across the lines of straighter, darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging on them,
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Those stands of birches gifted to that fictional boy, who grew up "too far from town to learn baseball," all the wild gifts that Service found in the Yukon and Stegner found in the golden hills of Northern California.
“They have,” Service confides:
cradled [us] in custom, they have primed [us] with their preaching,
They have soaked [us] in convention through and through.
Today, more than ever, we need to reread the works of Stegner and Service, and of Muir and Frost and Powell and Thoreau. There are millions of people on every continent who feel the need of what Stegner quotes Sherwood Anderson to describe: that "sense of bigness outside ourselves, [something to] take the shrillness out of us.”
If we do not preserve our wilderness spaces and continue to care for those wild lands that have already been set aside, we risk the possibility, as Stegner points out, that “never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of our environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.” We need to preserve the invaluable intangibility of idea of these places to confirm that we are children of and welcome in this world.
Minard, A. "No More Glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020?" National Geographic News. March 2, 2009. Accessed May 12, 2010. ↩