I didn’t want to confine myself with wilderness.”
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Potlatch Pulp Mill, Lewiston, Idaho
“I always tried to envision getting good people to make democracy work…
I didn’t want to confine myself with wilderness.”
I didn’t want to confine myself with wilderness.”
Stewart M. Brandborg
Executive Director, Wilderness Society, 1964-1976
"To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing."
Guy M. Brandborg (Stewart’s father)
Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor, 1935-1955
There’s a sickness passing through the Land, and it will consume us if we don’t identify it and take the necessary steps. The sickness is plainly evident everywhere, in everything we touch and do and our current times are dismal because of it. It has to do with our alienation to the Land, our psychotic relationship to it, but that’s as much as I can say I know for a fact. I can’t precisely put my finger it any more than anyone else can, but because it’s so central to what we’ve touched and done for at least the last few generations I feel that any effort to write or say anything about the Land without confronting the sickness would be just another useless jabbering on top of the pile of nature writing that’d put Jesus to sleep. Yes, I think this disease has been around a long time, so long that too many of us don’t even notice how it has devours us little by little, our loved ones, our schools, our privacy, and above all else, the Land, because what’s bigger than the Land? No, nothing we touch or do anymore is immune nor can it be otherwise. It will consume us if we don’t fight. But fight what?
I have allowed myself to become convinced that within the political template created by our early progressives to get people to see the value of Wilderness are the same nuggets that’ll save the Land--and possibly us--from our accumulated foolishness. I’m talking about the original Wilderness movement, not the hollow shell of the current one, the one the old-time conservationists such as the Brandborgs knew, the one led by those who literally grew up organically out of our remaining intact landscapes, and who successfully convinced millions of Americans that they simply could not live without those last wild places from which they themselves sprang, which is true. More important to us now is that in applying their tree-based philosophy of “making Democracy work” to politics, they stumbled on a recipe to do just that, which will in fact save us if we so choose.
Mere Americans were too narrow of an audience even by old-time definitions, but it was a start, and I’ll readily admit I may be on the classic fool’s errand of opining to a planet of fools that I’m right. But in fact, I think I am, and at the very least I think it’s as good a recipe fighting despair—always the Enemy--as the next one, and maybe better than most. It’s grounded, and it doesn’t put Jesus to sleep, which is what your typical nature writer seems to have been trying to do since the wrecking ball years of the Reagan era, and long before that. I know that seems cruelly unfair, and I can’t defend myself to those who would say so to my face, other than to posit the query that after all this time, why do we still let the bastards define us? The wrecking ball didn’t miss its mark. Why should we? Jesus was a good guy, after all. Why should we bore him?
Consider. In America right now, we have a nominal majority of citizens who no longer need to take Wilderness 101. In reality, there are very few Americans who’ve actually experienced relatively intact ecosystems, wilderness if you will. Few enough to know what has been lost and what there is still to lose. But for now, let’s split the difference and say that the majority of us Americans get it, but so what? So what if our Forest Service or our land trusts save us our little postage stamps of landscapes while the whole rest of the envelope burns up around us?
Right now there are vertebrate species, particularly the wet-skinned amphibian type, who are becoming endangered and going extinct within protected wilderness areas, and I hope this comes as no surprise. Environmental degradation and its resultant resource conflicts know no bounds set by Congress or bought with foundation money, and just because it’s easy for those of us lucky enough to experience wilderness firsthand to understand the difference between silence and obnoxiousness, that doesn’t mean anything of lasting value if the planet and, by definition, we are not saved. We need Democracy, and Democracy needs vast swaths of relatively intact ecosystems to survive, and Democracy is what is lacking in the Land.
Stewart M. Brandborg and his father, Guy M. Brandborg, are two of the most unsung icons of the old-time environmental movement and this is ironic beyond measure. After all, Guy Brandborg was the last standing forester of Gifford Pinchot’s era to hold a position of authority in the Forest Service. Stewart Brandborg, for his part, was the last of the old-time conservationists chipped from John Muir’s mold to lead the now-gutted Wilderness Society. But maybe the greatest irony is that within the clumsy, unsuccessful attempts at felling these two giants were the early indications of the Sickness as it now persists into our times, the one that modern environmental organizations as well as the Forest Service have been doubled up over the toilet bowl with ever since. Both Brandborgs were targeted, and had their careers willfully cut short by the nominally-democratic organizations to which they gave so much of their lives to, for what both organizations cited almost verbatim as their main transgression: their family’s long-running penchant for regarding the trees and mountainscapes that their lives were so rooted in as the fundamental tools for “making Democracy work”.
Trees and Democracy? It’s not such a new idea. In 1907, Gifford Pinchot came to the Bitterroot foothills to inspect the huge Lick Creek sale along the Bitterroot faces his newly created Forest Service offered to the Anaconda Copper Company, who wanted the thousands of acres of ancient yellow pine that fringed the valley for railroad ties and mine timbers. The sale was set to be the largest in Northern Region and Pinchot’s foresters did the best they could with the available knowledge they had. Pinchot made some on-site modifications to the sale and then the Company got the wood with some new restrictions they weren’t accustomed to and which they resented. After that, the site became a de facto test for the long term effects on the health of the Land with Pinchot’s revolutionary “scientific forestry” applied. Photography, for instance, was just coming into its own as a tool of study, and by 1937 the Bitterroot Forest Supervisor, Guy Brandborg, had set up permanent stations matching the older photo stations Pinchot had originally used so that future foresters could make decisions based on factual data. This was all still new in 1937 and so, when Gifford Pinchot came through the area again in 1937, he stopped by the Lick Creek sale area and was led around it on a rough and tumble inspection tour by Guy in the wet summer rain.
It happened that Guy had moved his family to a comfortable house on South Third Street in Hamilton two years earlier from their former place in Grangeville, Idaho, where Guy had been Assistant Supervisor of the Nez Perce Forest and the family spent summers with him riding the ranges and mountains of the Salmon River and Hell’s Canyon Country. Hamilton was idyllic back then and still remains if you happen to be one of those folks who can ignore obsessive summertime lawn mowing. There weren’t many power mowers in 1937 and this was where Guy brought Pinchot and his regional supervisor, the legendary “Major” Evan Kelly, to dry out after their day’s long jaunt in the woods and to dine with his wife, Edna, and his twelve-year-old boy, Stewart. After dinner, Pinchot backed himself up to the family hearth to warm his pants and told his cloistered audience that that Democracy could survive only through the maintenance of a productive resource base. He also charged Guy that if he wanted to be a good forester he’d better defend sound practices like Lick Creek.
“Goddamit Brandy”, Major Kelly added, “you’d better do it!” And so for the next two decades, he did. Years later, his son Stewart recalls another man giving his father some stiff advice. An “Anaconda man” had come into his supervisor’s office in Hamilton, during a period when Guy was talking very publicly of ethical land use and of bringing citizens together, of “social forestry” that favored small operators over big monopolies such as the Anaconda Company, the very thing Pinchot admonished his subordinates to do when he issued his famous “Use Book” to his rangers in 1907.
“Wood is so very essential in everyday life that it seems unwise to let it be monopolized by individuals or corporations,” Pinchot’s Use Book declared. “Actual results show that when public timber lands pass out of the Government's hands they eventually, and often very quickly, fall into the hands of big concerns, which rarely show the slightest tendency to handle them for the greatest good of the people in the long run….on a National Forest the present and future local demand is always considered first.” There could be nothing clearer than that in Guy Brandborg’s mind.
But times, The Anaconda man wanted Brandborg to know, had changed and he wanted Guy to get on with the program of letting the Company cut as many trees off of the federal lands in his jurisdiction as fit their mood. “You better lay off of this thing of involving the public,” Stewart recalls the Anaconda man telling his dad. “You better tone that down.”
“He told the guy to go to Hell” Stewart said, but twelve years after Pinchot dried his pants in front of Edna and Guy’s fire, and not long after the Anaconda man had entered his office, Guy was anonymously accused of being a communist. His thirty year career with an agency whose mission of land stewardship he deeply believed in was on the line, but in answering the charge he characteristically didn’t pull any punches with the “Loyalty Board” who blithely sent him his accusation by mail.
“It appears,” he wrote back, “that we are experiencing a stage in our development where anyone striving to strengthen Democracy becomes branded as an enemy.” These were not idle words coming from a man who had been consistently accused by the timber and land speculators of favoring small, local logging and milling operations, as Pinchot instructed, rather than them.
On June 3rd, 1949, Guy was hauled down to Missoula for a hearing before the “loyalty board” in an impersonal lawyer’s office, where, due to his popularity amongst the New Deal crowd that still inhabited Montana’s intellectual circles, he turned the tables on them. He invited, and was vigorously defended by, three state Supreme Court justices, the president of the University of Montana, ranchers, co-workers and several prominent writers among others. Their message to the Loyalty Board was one of their own loyalty--to Guy--and outrage at those who accused him of disloyalty. Their thoughts that day could be distilled down to the tenets that land use planning isn’t unpatriotic, trying to make Democracy work isn’t a suspicious activity and which mining company, livestock interest or timber baron, by the way, put the “Loyalty Board” up to this debacle in the first place? They beat back the beast for Guy, and he was exonerated, but three years later, when no one was looking, the Missoula Regional Office downgraded his performance marks for not letting the timber barons have enough logs off the Bitterroot National Forest. He quit three years later and became a citizen activist, marshaling forces to push through the National Forest Management Act, to save vast swaths of Idaho backcountry from being roaded and logged, among other accomplishments most folks spend lifetimes accomplishing mere pieces of.
“I came from a family of fighters,” Guy explained in his twilight years, “and it was not for ourselves. The earth is not a resting place for any Brandborg.”
The problem with the local timber barons, with the “Loyalty Board” and finally with the Forest Service he owned more squatter’s rights to than anyone living by that time, was that Guy Brandborg believed in “wildland management”, not treefarming, and that, in a nutshell, was the difference between Democracy and McCarthyism in those days, and if you just take the merest glance at the idiotic teabaggery going on in the Bitterroot, in Montana and in the Nation today, things haven’t changed much since.
Did I say “idiotic teabaggery”? I did, and I meant it, which brings us to Stewart Brandborg.
To Be Continued
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
If I were to define myself with a six-syllable outrage to English I would not choose the handle invented forty years ago by some well-meaning activists who knew nothing about poetry or the fact that people are story-based critters who hate to be bored with silly words. This modern noun “Environmentalist” has been so misused and abused that there is nothing left of it anymore except for the warm and fuzzy Earth Day banner it has become, whipping north and south like a wet noodle, right and left, whichever way the foundation-money winds happen to be blowing that day.
If I were to choose a ten second phrase to define my concern for the Land, I’d choose the handle that Montana writer Rick Bass’ gave himself. I’d call myself a “human fuckin’ being”.
Thursday, April 3, 2014
When someone to the left of Atilla uses the term "politically correct" they are declaring solidarity with, or at least demonstrating the internalization of a philosophy that a man who proudly proclaimed his first-name status with the Salvadorean Death Squad leader Roberto D'aubuisson and other first-rate murderers of his era would thank you for perpetrating.
Therefore, in the face of the Ubiquity of Stupidity (I just made that up--you're welcome to steal it!) in an era when we should be trying to elevate our level of discussion on the critical issues of our time one has to ask: Are we doomed, then, to repeating vicious banalities invented by monsters?
At the very least, don't use that goddam phrase on me or mine. Think, please.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
East Fork of the Bitterroot River, August 2000
June 2001, Magruder Guard Station, Idaho
Gatepost can be stubborn, but I’ve learned a useful thing working in the wilderness with impossibly heavy objects. Nothing’s impossible, including gateposts, and the way you do it is this. You unbolt the gate from its broken post and then you lay the whole huge thing down on the ground with the new gatepost. Bolt the gate onto the new gatepost. Then you lift the whole impossibly heavy thing up by your own buff self so the bottom end of the post slips into the two-foot hole you just dug the old gatepost out of. Then you fiddle around with it until you can latch the gate shut to the opposite post. Find a couple of bracing sticks to temporarily hold the gate still until you pour your cement. Mount your permanent bracing poles back onto the new gatepost and go do something else until the cement dries. After a day or so you come back to see if anybody’s messed with it. If they haven’t, you knock the temporary sticks off and the gate will now swing and latch for you admirably, or at least as though it were built that way. Ask any engineer. Working backwards is a reasonable way of dealing with intractable problems and is also a serviceable way of looking at the world in general. God was not an engineer. She merely created them, and only God, as any honest engineer will tell you, is perfect.
Two bags of cement have been lying in the barn since last season’s fire crew was sent over the hill to fix this very post. The outfitter had been using the pasture without permission for a while, which was okay as long as he was respectful. But then he’d backed his horse trailer into the gatepost, broke it off at the ground and didn’t fix it. After that everyone was letting their stock in, including the sport riders, leaving nothing but dirt and horseshit for the Forest Service string that actually had work to do down here.
These mountains tried to burn themselves up last year in an unprecedented fire season the news dubbed “Firestorm 2000”, and isn’t the news is a funny critter? It’s about stories to put us to sleep with false lullabies or to keep us awake with nightmares. No in-between narratives need apply. It’s about selling product, and the three biggest products in 2000 were that the Northern Rockies had burnt up with “Firestorm 2000” and it was all the environmentalists’ fault, that Global Warming was actually a mental disorder that could be traced to chemicals placed in our water supplies by communists and that George Bush really hadn’t stolen the election. You have to admit that the news is consistent, if nothing else.
Well, hundreds of thousand acres actually were profoundly affected by fire, in the populated Bitterroot Valley as well as down here in the wilderness, and a lot of it did burn hot. But what actually occurred can be explained more accurately in abstract concepts like ecology, which teaches us that while any given fire’s perimeter is measured in acres on the map (and in the news) by the sum total of its outer boundaries, the land within that perimeter is never completely charred. Lots of the land has either been burnt only in its understory—which actually cleans the place up—or is left untouched. Global Warming notwithstanding, this is called a mosaic pattern in the forest vernacular, and that’s how it looks. Almost like a giant jigsaw puzzle if you’re up at the lookout on top of Salmon Mountain, or in an airplane. Old fire scars merge into new ones, multi-aged canopy colors mingle like genetic codes, and it’s actually the most healthy thing for forests, and the most economical for taxpayers when you consider how expensive it would be to manually clean up the mess we’ve made of our mountains over the last century.
But never mind, says your television. Abstract concepts are not newsworthy and besides, it’s much more spectacular to believe that the whole place burnt up and so it was that the environmentalists may as well have burnt down Disneyland for all the bad press they got last year.
True to form, the fire crew said “never mind”, too, and panic-stashed their cement bags in the barn when all hell broke loose in the Bitterroot, racing back over the hill for their share of the overtime and hazard pay the Forest Service bribes its help with to put their life and lungs on the fireline. Chump change, really, when you think that you can make more money working full-time at McDonald’s. But don’t think about it, because fire’s exciting and adventure’s your real pay. That and winter beer money. So the fire crew didn’t think about it, and in their excitement they failed to pick a dry spot for the bags to stay put for the winter, which is how long they knew those bags were going to stay put. With fires breaking out all over, the Forest Service wasn’t going to send anyone over here any time soon to fix a gatepost when the whole fence might burn up. Fire crews are predictable that way, and so it’s not surprising when I find the bags in a wet corner of the barn with their sides hardened and just enough good cement left in the middle of the bags to do a good enough job. We’re only trying to keep the outfitter’s stock out of the guard station’s pasture this season, and it’ll be good enough when I’m finished. I was sent over here to fix a gatepost, not to lay the foundation for a new tomorrow, which I’d prefer.
Speaking of opinions, you’ve noticed that I have them. That’s because I’ve worked sporadically in the backcountry for the Forest Service for many seasons between treeplanting and unemployment, and opinions are a natural outcome of backbreaking drudgery combined with silence. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, and to the occasional armed and angry hunter I’d run into on a lonely trail who would wonder aloud how I could stomach working for the same repressive government that framed Randy Weaver, I’d say, “Hell, I’m worth ten bucks an hour just for my opinions and I work my butt off besides. So can you please just pick up your cigarette butts anyways?” Actually I only said that once, but it sure felt good and left a durable memory. I wish I’d said it more often.
I’m just ripping open the first bag of cement with the tip of my fire shovel when the bass riff from his sub-woofers rolls down the mountain, pounding the solitude out of a wide square mile of silence. I feel its sassy bottom beating against my skin, jabbing at my heart and rattling my brain until I toss my shovel hard against the post, causing it to sway slightly out of its hard-fought kilter, and let’s admit right here that there can be no account written about wilderness, or at least the fight to get enough people to see the value of it, that would not be an understatement. It was all very hard and heartbreaking. Too hard, too heartbreaking, and the upper Selway country is no different. The Elk City road, the one this guy’s driving down, is a case in point. It’s a little more than a hundred miles long and is really nothing but a long stretch of single-track dirt and gravel ribbon rolling through the mountains from western Montana and over into the South Fork of the Clearwater in Idaho seventy miles to the west. It’s just a common logging road by today’s standards, but it rolls through the largest wild area left in the lower forty-eight states where today’s standards shouldn’t apply. The Elk City road is an artifact, left over from the time when the Wilderness Law stared the Timber Beast[i] down in ’64. It scared them. The road had been scratched out by a CCC crew in the thirties, but the hopeful loggers wanted to turn it into their haul road for getting the cut out before the whole place was declared off-limits to them, which it finally was after years of heartbreak. Compromise, I suppose, is the way of politics, but it’s a dirty word when it comes to what’s left of the Quiet World because the Elk City road is now grandfathered into the Wilderness Law, and where are the New York bass player who knows anything about congressionally-mandated boundaries?
That’s what I’m talking about. I work for short pay back here and I count on doing that work in silence while I take my half an hour or however long it takes to get my gatepost to its right kilter. Silence is my real pay, and don’t you think you should be able to count on silence any time you can get it these days? But now I’m going to be a victim to some guy’s obnoxious mating behavior usually associated with overcrowded cities. Damn.
“Center Of The Universe approaching,” I mutter through clenched teeth in time to the bass riff. “Make way, make way.” These guys might as well be riding elephants. How on Earth, I would like to know, can some people be so clueless?
I should always be careful what I wish for when I invoke something with as warped a sense of humor as the Earth, because I’m about to find out.
The woofer gets louder as it closes in, slows its progress just a bit at the intersection of the guard station with the Elk City Road about a quarter-mile uphill as his car turns into the long driveway. “Thump-thump-ba-bum-bum-thump!” Louder still as it passes the old ranger house that used to really be a ranger house through the Depression and up into the seventies when rustic appearances were more in line with reality, but are now rented online to tourists by DisneyCorp. Damn.
An eighties-something Camaro appears around the bend, bangs its red tail against an ancient rock in the dirt driveway and pulls into the turnaround next to the pasture entrance. A young man is inside, mid-twenties, sunglasses and no smile, turns off his engine. Suddenly the woods scream back into their former silence. Pine tops around the pasture sway imperceptibly in what passes for confusion among their kind, and then relief if you can see it, which I can, because once again I hear the Selway River gurgling fifty yards away and I remind myself for the thousandth time that although a tree’s innocence is always slightly damaged by this kind of nonsense, it’s never irreparable. That’s what I like about the mountains. They make you feel like you still have a chance.
I’m squatting next to the fencepost in an effort to avoid eye contact, fiddling with my level like I’m trying to true the post again before I pour the cement. This is honest enough because it’s exactly what I’m trying to do other than ignore this guy. Honesty’s important, I think, but it’s no use. The guy slowly unfolds himself out of his Camaro and walks stiff-legged over to me with what I take to be the fatalistic gait of someone who couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting into when he turned off the highway in Darby a couple hours back. With a car like that, how could he have? His running shoes squeak in a new-bought way as he squats opposite to the fencepost and without introduction asks in deeply accented English, “You know where is Horse Heaven?”
I’m stunned. I couldn’t have said it better myself. “Where you comin’ from, man?” I ask, not quite knowing how to buff this intrusion back to what I consider real, or at least real enough.
“Portland,” he admits. “My family there. My family here, too, pickin’ mushroom. They call. Tell me plenty of mushroom. They say come. They say camp at Horse Heaven.”
I’ve seen their camp, laid out about fifteen miles up the Elk City Road from the guard station, off the river and past Salmon Mountain. There’s a large group of Hmong folks with a school bus and eight to ten older compact cars and pickups on any given day. It lies about fifty miles into this wilderness along the ribbon of dirt, where you can car camp since the road is grandfathered in. Lots of garbage accumulates along the Elk City road, which would be okay with me if the garbage stayed within its congressionally mandated bounds. But I’ve seen their plastic buckets, their bungied backpack frames, their coolers stacked up and around the shady side of their school bus, and that’s the thing. Their camp is legal enough, but their activity isn’t. They’re picking morel mushrooms for money back in the roadless area, which is forbidden by the Law of Good Intent, which is where all good wilderness laws come from. I want to tell him that right away, or to simply tell him where the camp is and get him out of my sphere of annoyance. But I wrestle with my familiar, self-inflicted conundrum instead, that if I wanted easier work for more money, I wouldn’t be down here planting gateposts all by myself, would I? So I dutifully hold my tongue and let this guy squat in glorious silence a minute more while I think up a good response.
As everyone knows, rules are made for good reasons and for bad, and rules for wilderness follow this same trajectory. Good wilderness rules, however, are mostly made with little precedent and the best intentions to protect these last places from those who, for instance, make bad rules. There are, of course, such things as bad wilderness rules, but the good wilderness rules are, by definition, very good rules indeed, and so it is that there are some very, very good reasons for prohibiting commercial mushroom picking in wilderness areas.
One of which is this guy! Who does he think he is, coming down here clueless, from Portland of all places (another planet!!) disturbing my peace with his thumping pheromones and then further insulting my sanctuary by asking me how he can further degrade it? But I digress.
Anyone who’s inadvertently stumbled into a secluded marijuana patch understands how some people tend to get proprietary and downright testy when someone steps into what they consider “their” economic space. Whether or not it’s on your public lands matters not at all as long as they think they can get away with it. Unregulated greed is ugly when it comes to the land. Ask any mountaintop that’s been removed, and that’s usually legal! So it follows that if you allow roving bands of commercial pickers into hard-to-access mountainous public lands, you get a Wild West show complete with shouting matches and occasional gunplay, activities that are not compatible with what most folks expect within wilderness boundaries.
But never mind, says the mainstream news, because this whole place was crispy-creamed last year because of the environmentalists and now there’s nothing left down here but zombie elk walking the river bottoms looking for hapless hunters to gore…
..and morel mushrooms (!) the hordes of pickers infer and then flock every Spring to the burnt-up public lands they heard about the summer before on the news, there to practice their peculiar brand of post-modern paganism, which in their case rests upon the twin pillars of morel mushroom ecology and economics. Here’s how it works.
Morels are not an aphrodisiac, as some folks—mostly men-- really, really want them to be. They don’t come from Heaven either, as their cost would suggest. They’re just mushrooms, and their niche is a hot mid-to-high elevation Rocky Mountain forest fire that creates their preferred burnt bed for their fruiting body—the mushroom—to sprout and cast its spores. These mushrooms do have some peculiar qualities, not the least of which is their going price. But they’re tasty, too, and trendy and after a fire a local can collect enough to fill the space in her freezer where the elk she shot last fall used to be, which is their big plus. They come in thick after a fire. They’re also easily identifiable because they’re the only mushroom that looks like your brain, and on the strength of that alone it’s hard to mistake them for something poisonous. You can pick them as fast as you find them and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the thick of them you can make twenty to thirty dollars an hour stooping over all day long cutting mushrooms off at the stump, stashing them in your five-gallon buckets you have bungy-corded onto your pack frame and hauling them out to your camp, where you dust them off and sell them by the pound to the buyers who who makes the real money off your labor. To repeat, you may as well be working at McDonalds, but never mind.
You can do all this and more, only if you’re willing to put up with the hordes that show up every Spring after a big burn on forested public lands in the Rockies, sometimes as thick as the mushrooms they seek, from all parts of the country with all issues and attitudes represented. Most of them, I’ll admit, are only looking for an excuse to hang out in the woods, like myself. But like all hordes, there’s more than the occasional desperado who can’t find regular work, who packs heat instead of spores, and who has all those issues people who don’t have steady work are dealing with and maybe want you to deal with too if you bump into them out in a burn in what they consider ‘their” economic territory. Also, like the sum total of all human hordes, they feel free leaving their garbage wherever they figure God intended it to be left. Grrrr! Poetry and politics usually don’t mix, but Howard Zahniser pulled it off when he got Congress to agree to his definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man (sic), where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Where, I would ask, is this kind of drama in that poem?
A randy kinglet has been kissing out his mating call above us constantly, and other than the wishing of the river nearby that’s the only sound passing between us as I ponder the Universe, which reminds me of when I became intimate with the kinglet’s call. I did it by following it around a stand of bull pine shading the Buckhorn Cabins and RV Park in Zortman, Montana during a blizzard for over two hours with a pair of cheap binoculars. The honest way, in other words. I was trying to match the bird with the call, and I could have done it the easy way instead. I knew what a kinglet was, and I knew its kissing call well. Both are ubiquitous in western forests. But I hadn’t made the personal connection between the two yet. More importantly, my choices for killing time in Zortman were limited. We were there to plant trees at the Pegasus gold mine in the Little Rockies when a spring storm laid us up for three days. The storm dumped two feet of snow on the rubble of what used to be Spirit Mountain, formerly one of the most prominent peaks in Eastern Montana. In fact, before its demise it was one of the only peaks in Eastern Montana. We’d been hired with a straight face by Pegasus Gold to “reclaim” the mountain’s corpse so that the giant gold company could get its reclamation bond back from the state. Anyone who’s planted trees knows that it’s often impossible to see the ground well enough to pick a suitable spot for your little seedlings to survive with two inches of snow on the ground, let alone two feet on top of soccer ball sized cobble. We couldn’t go home because home was four hundred miles to the west, in the Bitterroot Valley. This was in the late eighties and I remember the discussion of the crew revolving around climate change even back then, the consensus being that a few trees growing on the rubble that Spring would be better than none at all, and so our only professional option was to wait the storm out until the weather warmed and we could finish the job. Poor Spirit Mountain, but we stayed and waited to do the best we could, even though staying meant either entering into the comatose trance induced by endless cycles of HBO movies in those tiny cubicles known as motel rooms, feeding quarters into the poker machine at the bar or catching up on your birding. I chose numb fingers over a numb mind, which says something about how I find myself in this current situation.
The guy is waiting patiently, which is a good sign, but I don’t feel as though he’s remarked the sacredness he’s interrupted. As he squats silently across from me I have no idea, really, what he’s thinking because I don’t ask. I look at his face instead for clues, but his face is hidden behind wraparound sunglasses so there are no clues. What I think I see are two kids in an inner-city fourplex with a young wife waiting for a money order in the downstairs mailbox. Refugee camps, maybe. War in tropical places for all I know, with handguns in the glovebox, yikes! How can I know without asking.
I use my imagination instead, because after all, I really have a tiny brain with a large imagination, just like everyone else. I hate my peace disturbed in general, more so down here in my sanctuary where I also find myself more prone to impatience and the other curses of humankind, things we must fight against every day if we want to evolve our species out of the hole we’ve created for its offspring. Given the setting and context, his cheap sunglasses are boring. So I go for honesty, which is important.
“You know it’s illegal to pick mushrooms down here in the wilderness,” I tell him. “In. The. Wilderness.” I repeat. It’s not a question.
He takes his sunglasses off at this. Embarrassed, I look down into my posthole. He looks down also to see what I’m looking at and, seeing nothing but a hole, looks back up at me. “Tell me,” he asks, implacably urgent now. “What is this ‘wilderness’?”
Here’s something you may not know. When you work in the woods, your guard is down when the big city shows up. You have irrational urges, to lock a door or at least to shut down any explanations for something as profound and dear to you as your wilderness. There’s not just a little bit of misanthropy involved. Why not? People, in general, piss me off. That’s why I’m down here getting bit up by mosquitoes and no-see-ums and planting a fencepost for short pay. I’d really like to know. Is there any common sense or simple sense of irony left in this obnoxious world we seem to prefer anymore? I tend to think not.` That’s why I think you almost have to will yourself to live and work down here, because it’d be almost self-destructive to surround yourself with wilderness otherwise. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always been this way. “What’s wilderness?” I think incredulously. Tell it to the marines, dude.
But here’s something you probably do know. Urban areas are where all environmental policies, all policies in fact, are ultimately made or broken. It can’t be otherwise in a true democracy, or even in an imploding one like ours. Cities are where the people are, the votes, and no matter what cultural perspective that vote comes from, a vote’s a vote and here’s one waiting patiently for my answer. In my wilderness!
The moment glows as rare as a gold nugget in a creek you stoop over to sip from twenty miles back, an opportunity as rare as anything else that never happens. This guy really, really doesn’t know, and he really wants to. I give him high marks for coming up with great one-liners, and it’s all I can do to keep from high-fiving him now. The only reason I don’t is because we’re strangers, and I don’t want to give him the wrong impression in case I’m the one who has to drive up to Horse Heaven and give his crew the news.
And with that hesitation I let my opportunity slip away. “That’s a good one, man,” I say instead with a grin. He grins back and the connection is made, which is what l like about down here. Connections are easy when you have to make them. There are fewer distractions.
The kinglet above us continues his high song. Spirit Mountain is dead, he tells me, which I know it is for a fact. It got a flat top from Pegasus Gold, who split the country when the price of gold dipped below the price of honesty for Canadian mining companies. In place of Spirit Mountain they left a gigantic, stepped pyramid of blasted cliff and cobble that looks to all the world like a sacrificial alter to a god with a very sick sense of humor. This god can be best defined by one of its high priests, the road engineer who was tasked by the company with showing our hippy crew around the planting sites for the first time one Fall. When we came to the pyramid, we let out a collective gasp, which, to his credit, he noticed. He was in the middle of explaining the importance of knowing where the blind spot was for the dinosaur-sized haul trucks whose tires were bigger than our crummy. He gave us exactly one moment of respectful silence.
“Well,” he finally said matter-of-factly. “It was an old mountain, anyway,” and without skipping another beat he went on to explain how it was company policy to wear our hardhats at all times on their premises in case a dinosaur-sized truck crushed our crummy. He lived in the little highline town of Malta where good jobs with benefits were as rare as the buffalo in Malta are now who were the only ones who ever made a real living there. He was probably making twenty dollars an hour at the time, with benefits, which was pretty good wages for back then. But now his job’s long gone and the cost of the toxic pit where a mountain used to be has boomeranged back to the People, where the mining company knew that it would. But the kinglet still sings there in the scrubby bull pine, where we planted them long ago in the rubble of what was Spirit Mountain. That kinglet has been trying to tell us all this time, that the earth will definitely abide, no matter what you wise-guys (Homo sapiens) decide to do or not to do with the mess you made. It’s just you wise guys who might not.
I may have let my opportunity pass, but I’m not ready to give up. “Wilderness,” I begin, puffing my explanation up as large as possible and then… Alas! the cliché ambushes me despite my best precautions against it. “…is a state of mind.” The hot air steams out of my mouth before I can cork it. We just can’t seem to help ourselves, can we?
“You mean,” his brow furrowing, clearly trying to do his part to keep his end of the conversation up until he gets the information he wants. “Like Idaho? Montana? Which state Horse Heaven?”
So much for cultural relativism or thirty years of coffee table nature writing that’d put Jesus to sleep. “It’s where you can’t pick mushrooms for money,” I clarify, my explanation deflated back down to mere misanthropy. “It’s illegal. And you can’t throw your trash around either, y’know.”
I could fit this whole wilderness thing into the simplest quip if I wanted to, the one that the gutted Wilderness Society lawyers stole and still use today, “In wildness,” I could quote Thoreau, “is the salvation of the world.” That recipe has lost none of its power in spite of decades of misuse, which speaks volumes about its durability. Good old Thoreau, and I’ll admit his is just one of many recipes for saving our planet. But I think it’s still as good as the next one, and maybe better than most. Can I ever hope to convince this guy that my wilderness is holy because it’s been declared so by an unholy political system, which is the definition of a miracle? Maybe I don’t have to. What’s it matter who calls what what, as long as you understand how rare chances are these days, and how a relatively unspoiled country can make you feel like you still have one. I give it one more tepid, yet honest, try.
“If we let you guys make the big mushroom money down here…in the wilderness…we might as well let the logging trucks roll over the mountain, too, and then where would we be?”
“I think Idaho,” he answers politely. “Def’nitely Idaho, I think. But maybe Montana?” His palms turn up, he rocks back on his heels and squints at the treetops as though reaching into the depths of his own cultural memory, which is not mine yet. “What logging trucks?” he asks.
“The ones you don’t see down here!” I snap before I realize that’s not what he meant and that my cynicism is not only misplaced but worse, misunderstood and unappreciated.
“Look,” I say, settling my tack to address the common worker bee within us both. “Whether you guys get away with picking mushrooms up there or not, you’re not gonna make it to Horse Heaven in that rig.” I wave my gloved hand toward his red Camaro with the racing stripe across the top and the fin on the trunk for keeping the rear-end from sliding when you’re going a hundred miles an hour around a racetrack or a freeway. “The road gets worse as you get up toward Salmon Mountain. A lot worse, real steep and rocky with lots of ruts. And then you gotta go a good ways past Salmon Mountain. You’ll bottom out and punch a hole in your gas tank or something. Especially the way you’re driving.” This, I think, is a gentle warning, a closure of sorts, because I’d really rather get back to thinking about simple things like my gatepost. “And I’ll bet you put Premium in that car , too. You’re in the wilderness, man, is what I’m sayin’. That means you won’t make enough money picking mushrooms or doing anything in here to pay for the damage you do. Nobody does. That’s what wilderness means.”
I’m suddenly quite surprised and satisfied with this explanation. But he lifts his eyes up over the treetops again and off to the west, where all he can possibly see are more tall trees because nothing else is visible from the guard station pasture. “So,” he says, his brow furrowed again, his smile gone. “You drive up Mountain called Salmon. You say. Go way more. You in Horse Heaven then.” It’s not a question.
“That’s right,” I say, finally enlightened. “You’ll be in the wilderness, in Horse Heaven, where you guys’ll find boatloads of mushrooms and make bucket loads of money because you’re not supposed to be back there doing that.”
His smile returns. I’ll bet he used a GPS to get down here, and that he hasn’t looked at so much as a map. He has no idea where he is other than on adventure and he’s not having any of my warnings. He’s right, of course. I can’t stop him, and I ought to know. If anyone can recognize that glow of boomtown mentality from a mile away, it’s me. I’ve suffered from the same disorder all my life. Look at American frontier history for clues. It’s always the same, just like every time we set up a treeplanting camp on top of what was left of a mountain or some other ecological disaster. We didn’t always know exactly where we were, but we always knew that we were part of epic doings in an epic country, and so we fooled ourselves into our backbreaking work with the same high expectations of spangly financial success while at the same time reverting as fast as we could back to the campfire cultures of our ancestors, which is the real point of going to all the trouble in the first place. Priests, for example, get paid a little for their trouble, and just like priests, busting your ass in the woods for chump change is really more of a vocation than a job. All you really end up with is a deep personal satisfaction combined with a worldly dread when you look back at where you’ve been, that all hell’s about to break loose and you’re ready for it, which I believe is a good, honest perspective to have if you want to do anything about it other than to just put Jesus to sleep.
His cheap shoes squeak as he rises and walks back to his Camaro. The outfitter hasn’t had his stock in this year, and it’s too early for the sport riders, so there’s a flush of green starting to show as I look across the pasture toward the river. We’re just shy of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, which goes until ten at night at this latitude, and so the five o-clock sun has that magic summer angle to it that sets the new growth off into the exact hue of contemplative emerald that people go to all that trouble having lawns for, just the kind of afternoon you set your sights on in the hopes of hitting as many of them as possible. I feel forgiving, and I consider this guy’s question with misanthropy’s twin, magnanimity, because there are only a few choices down here.
“Make sure you tell your buddies what I said,” I call after him. He gives me the finger-thumb grunge salute and grins wide this time.
“I sure to tell them,” he says as he stoops into his rig. “What you say.” The rhythm starts almost immediately upon entry, and off he goes, the fin-crowned tail end dutifully banging on the ancient rock once more for perfect cadence. This time I notice that, along with a carful of camping gear, he has a cast-iron frying pan set on the back shelf which bangs against his racy curved rear window. It’ll cost him about three hundred bucks to replace that window, I figure, but he’ll make it up to Horse Heaven come hell or high water, and he’ll be successful in his purpose, which is my purpose, too.
There’s nothing simple about a gatepost.