Epilogue: Something of Value

October 30, 2009

So far, in my life, I have seen but a few of the works fashioned by the hand of God.
   Your name, or mine, for the creator of all things is irrelevant; I suspect that magnificent deity that caused this rare and wonderful old earth to exist cares little for the monikers we assign to the things which surpass us. Our religions, our writings and our wars and persecutions can only muddy waters that otherwise run clear and crystalline.
   In my life, I have paddled through green-black swamps in the Atchafalaya River Basin so thick and rich and saturated with life the entire estuary emerges as one great, living entity. It’s easy to believe that all life could have been forged here, the building materials and tools wielded by the maker of the world. For most of my life, these were my wonderlands, and my cradle, my schoolhouse and my chapel.
   Oh, the joys and mysteries I found there. In every grand avoille lily, flowering; in every wild persimmon, massive cypress, feisty bluegill and hooting owl. This is where God lives, my grandfather told me.
   In my life, I have traveled across the Going to the Sun Road that climbs up, over and back down the Rocky Mountains of Montana, which the Blackfoot called “the backbone of the world.” Soaring, craggy and windswept peaks dotted with glaciers, incredible vistas where I thought I could see far enough to witness some great movement of heaven and earth, if only I stared long enough. I stood knee deep in Cutbank Creek, meandering through a meadow of prairie grasses, and the rustling of their leaves and stalks and seed heads were like songbirds. I waded upstream at Otatsa Creek, five thousand feet above sea level, and in the distance Chief Mountain stood sentinel, broad-shouldered, cleft forehead, angular, a great monarch benevolent over a world nearly as it was when humans first arrived on this continent. The trout there were as wild and pure as any in the world, and my first experience with them was paradigm-changing.
   In my life I have kicked through hot sand along a dried-up riverbed deep in the desert of Arizona, and rode up the side of a mesa to the village of Oraibi, six thousand feet skyward, in Hopi country. Late that night, everyone gathered under a sky with an impossible quantity of stars and, from the darkness, rattles and bells and drums grew to a crescendo and Kachinas danced, ethereal, half-real, and I wondered if I was still in 1980, or somewhere – somewhen long ago before the Great Sadness that began on this land five centuries ago.
   And in my life, I have wound my way through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the mountains’ wizened old shoulders cloaked in mist, and found utter luxuriance in the firs. At the Roaring Fork, I half expected to never find my way back to the car, transported into some primitive past, or some fanciful realm. Somewhere deep inside, I ached for just that.
   I have waded streams, casting flies for spotted bass and listening for whispers in the flow of the creeks. Climbed its red hills and white bluffs,.
   Each day, I flee this little town, which many have likened to Mayberry, but it is far too concrete and steel for me. Each day, I return to a home where my family has lived for 160 years, on land occupied by them for eight thousand years, and spend a few hours outside, so my eyes can remember sunlight, my lungs pure air and my feet the forgiving touch of the soil. My sycamore trees rustle their leaves together in a voice, but in a language I cannot comprehend. I think they are speaking of promises broken.
   If a man does away with his traditional way of living and throws away his good customs, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them. – Robert Ruark, quoting a Basuto proverb in Something of Value.
There are, somewhere between the antics of Greenpeace and PETA and the industrial complex that cuts mountains apart, people like me. We, who realize that we can coexist with wildness, if we would but just sacrifice the anthropic principle, the belief that human beings are the ultimate measure of all things. Between the snail darter and the strip mining, then, is a compromise that progress is inevitable, destruction of wildness is unconscionable.
   Just because Joe Blow doesn’t value wild places does not mean they have no value to others. Joe Blow and his ilk do not have the moral or divine right to desecrate the earth, leaving none of it for me to sit in forests, wade in clear, cold water or watch fawns grow up.
   “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive them.” – Edward Abbey
   Nearly we destroyed the wolf, the mountain lion, the buffalo. To what end? To subdue the wilderness. Look at the basin here at home: Once a single, large river-fed lake more than a hundred miles long and up to thirty miles wide, it has become a shadow of its former self. We have subdued it. Have we made anything better? Anything of value?
   In The Earth Is Enough, Harry Middleton describes how a state agricultural agent visited Trail’s End, the hardscrabble farm his grandfather and great-uncle owned in the Ozarks. The old men cared nothing for modern agricultural methods which they felt sacrificed the land.
   “Men your age, too,” Will Durham said. “You ought to be ashamed. What’s wrong with modernization and advancement? It’s the American way, and it’s coming here whether you like it or not. You’d better get on the winning team while you can, fellas, and get this place in shape. That’s today’s agricultural formula for reaping big bucks.”
   Albert leaned over the table, close to Durham’s plump, cherry-red face and said, “Care to go fishing? I know a good spot, where a big trout hangs out near a rotten stump. Hits a dry fly at dusk like a runaway train. Of course, Wayne, if you hook him, we expect you to do the decent thing and let him go. If a man is careful and lucky, some of life’s thrills can be experienced more than once.”
   Before Albert had flung out the last of his invitation, Durham was heading briskly for the front door. You could hear his truck slinging dirt and gravel all the way down the drive.

   I was sitting in the car the other day at the drive-through of a food joint. Here, in south Louisiana, I was waiting beside a little area behind the building near the speaker where you make your order for processed, hormone-laden, steroid-saturated beef, homogenized bread and tasteless tomatoes. I rarely eat such fare, I was there for a chocolate shake. But there beside the car was a landscape area of smooth loose gravel and slabs of slate. And I wondered what mountain was eviscerated, what stream dredged, to provide that fifty square feet of landscaping behind a plastic and neon fast food business in south Louisiana. Driving through Arkansas, we saw many, many dealers in stone, some covering many acres, with stone stacked high in neat rows, ready to become walls, or fences, or garden decorations, fireplaces, porches, stepping stones, you name it.
   It breaks the heart. What other satisfying things might we do with our money besides purchasing the bones of a vivisected mountain a thousand miles away, a mountain that stood for millions of years? To decorate our fast food restaurants and driveways?
   The brook would lose its song if we removed the rocks. – Wallace Stegner
   There has to be compromise. Some reasonable truce between the extremes of rock farms and eco-terrorism. For the love of all things outside the city limits, I pray that there is.
   My time in the Ozarks – and the Rockies, and the Smokies – have broadened me; the expansive, primordial world of the Atchafalaya basin organized and sorted the rapidly dividing cells in my brain as I grew into a man. From the moment my father put me into his little bateau and we headed for the lake, wildness has been coded into my programming. He did not hunt, and he did not like sports. Our world was one of water, and wood.
   That early curriculum may be blessing or curse, depending on what you want out of life. To paraphrase an old adage, you can give a man a fish or a quail and feed him for a day, but give him a fly rod, a shotgun and a bird dog, he won’t amount to a damn.
   There’s a decided sarcasm in that saying, a sideways grin and wink of an eye. It hints at the cynic’s eye cast upon crazy old coots who are happier in hiking boots, fishing overalls and sleeping under stars than climbing corporate ladders. Certainly, the sarcasm implies, such pursuits as visiting mountains, fishing cold streams, walking golden prairies and drifting through cypress swamps profits a man nothing.
   Sermon over. Amen. Thanks for listening, for sharing my ramblings, my words and my road.