“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” – John Muir, 1923
Back in college in my US Environmental History class we read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It rocked my world. With other assigned readings that included Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond and The Control Of Nature by John McPhee it solidified the class as one of my favorites during my four years at Santa Barbara. I remember being surprised that a history course, and one in the Environmental Sciences department, would assign such a prose-laden and literary piece of work. My friends and I thoroughly loved the instructor and the course.
“Wilderness. The word itself is music.” – Edward Abbey
My trip with my Mom to Sedona whet my appetite for more. More space. More wildnerness. More cold, elevated air. More hot, sweaty hikes. More ascent. More sunsets and sunrises. More foliage. More silence. Which is all the more remarkable since the desert is the epitome of minimalist. Creatures survive against reason in this land. Plants have innovated ways to store water against all odds. It’s the terrain of survivors.
“Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” – Edward Abbey
Perhaps my California upbringing makes me particularly attuned and sensitive to this phenomenon. This intricate balance that seems to be teetering on the edge.
“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” – Joan Didion
Lately, I have become acutely aware of my bias for the wilderness and the wild out West. It is not the fault of the East that it is older and wiser, that its peaks have been denuded and that its shores slope gently and slowly into the mild ocean. But I prefer the dramatic landscape, the cliffs given to hyperbole, the valleys pushing away from the sky, the ocean that roars to make its presence known and that threatens homes perched precariously above. The Wild out West is still in its geologic adolescence. It shows off, it is excessive, it can’t control itself, and it is changing.
I am beginning to believe that perhaps New England has some of this. It will of course feel different. Will it feel steeped in age and tradition, the East Egg of our landscape? Will it have the wild spirit of the West? Will it prove itself the original?
The West seems hard to beat. It is the place of dreams, the trail left behind in America’s search for its Manifest Destiny before it collided with the Pacific Ocean.
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself….A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck