Mountains Without Handrails
Reflections on the National Parks
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Chapter 3
The Ideal in Practice

An extensive and largely ignored body of literature—produced not by scholars, but by the participants themselves—captures the essence of the reflective, independent qualities Olmsted sought to describe as the ideal for recreation in the national parks. [1] With rare exceptions, these writings have been treated as popular entertainment intended for an audience of fellow sportsmen. They deserve wider and more serious attention.

Probably no recreation has produced a larger body of books and articles than fishing. [2] On first consideration, the point seems obvious enough: People go fishing in order to catch fish. Yet the single theme that dominates the fishing literature is a disavowal of precisely this proposition. Arnold Gingrich, a well-known writer on the subject, opens his book The Joys of Trout with the recollection that "if a careful count were kept, it would show that over the last five years my evenings have been just a little more often fishless than not." Yet, he adds, "since I never keep the fish I catch anyway, a realist might well ask what difference it makes." [3] That is the question to which scores of fishing books have addressed themselves.

Certainly it would be misleading to suggest that catching fish is a matter of indifference to the serious fisherman. What is clear, though, is that fishing at its best is not about catching fish. Roderick Haig-Brown, a celebrated fly-fishing writer, captured the spirit of the literature when he wrote: "I do not fish for fish to eat . . . I do fish to catch fish . . . at least that is an idea not too far from the back of my mind while I am fishing; but I have fished through fishless days that I remember happily and without regret. . ." [4] Albert Miller, who writes under the name Sparse Grey Hackle, picks up the same verbal formulation in the title to his best known book, Fishless Days, Angling Nights. Miller's book opens with the statement, "Fortunately, I learned long ago that although fish do make a difference—the difference—in angling, catching them does not"; the secret of fishing is to be "content to not-catch fish in the most skillful and refined manner . . ." [5] It is no coincidence that Miller adopts one of Olmsted's favorite nineteenth century words, refinement. Fishing is most satisfying, not when it results in accomplishment of a set task, but in refining us.

In the greatest of all fishing books, Walton and Cotton's The Compleat Angler, the narrator Piscator replies to those who pity the ardent fisherman, comparing him unfavorably to purposeful, serious men of affairs.

Men who are taken to be grave . . . money-getting men, men that spend all their time, first in getting it, and next in anxious care to keep it; . . . we Anglers pity them perfectly . . . and stand in no need to borrow their thought to think ourselves so happy. [6]

If fishing were only the getting of fish, Piscator says, it would be nothing but an outdoor version of what "these poor-rich-men" do. And when his companion notes in frustration that he has followed Piscator for two hours and not even seen a fish stir, he is told that he has not yet learned what angling is all about. "There is more pleasure in hunting the hare than in eating her. . . . As well content no prize to take / As use of taken prize to make." [7]

The subtitle of The Compleat Angler is The Contemplative Man's Recreation, and here again the verbal similarity with Olmsted's definition of the park, as a place designed to stir the contemplative faculty, is revealing. Angling is an art, and fishing is simply the raw material of that art, whereby the mind is engaged; a good angler must bring to his recreation "an inquiring, searching, observing, wit." [8] One of the most famous passages in Walton and Cotton's book compares angling to mathematics: "It can never be fully learned . . . an art worthy the knowledge and practice of a wise man." [9] In the charming autobiographical story, "A River Runs Through It," Norman MacLean says "it is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions." [10] And Roderick Haig-Brown speaks of fly-fishing as an activity calculated to evoke "the subtle and difficult things:" [11]

I can lie for hours at a time and watch the flow of a little stream . . . the secret vagaries of current are clearly revealed here. . . . A fold or break of current, a burst of bubbles or the ripple of a stone . . . releases in me a flood of satisfaction that must, I think, be akin to that which a philosopher feels as his mind is opened to a profound truth. I feel larger, and better and stronger for it in ways that have nothing to do with any common gain in practical knowledge. [12]

These descriptions raise a question to which the fishing literature gives no direct answer. Is it simply the setting, the fascinating stream or the grand scenery? Or is there something about the activity itself essential to production of the profound satisfaction he describes? Neither the setting nor the activity in itself seems to be decisive; rather, it is the presence of something capable of engaging, rather than merely occupying, the individual—a stimulus for intensity of experience, for the full involvement of the senses and the mind.

The setting may be important because of its complexity or its unfamiliarity. A trout in a trout stream is more provocative than a trout in a fishbowl; an undeveloped forest is more likely to engage our concentration than the cornfield we see every day. Of course there are no absolutes here. To a scientist, a common cornfield may be endlessly fascinating and puzzling, and to the artistic eye the most common events may be dazzling. For Proust nothing more was required than the routine of a mother's good-night kiss, the tedious salons of Paris, and the daily events of a banal seaside resort. Most of us are not so discerning; for us setting counts.

The activity counts too. Fishing for the wily trout in its natural habitat forces us to be attentive to the smallest detail in a way that driving by at a high speed, or a casual walk, may not. It's not only what we do, but what we refrain from doing. The installation of snack stands and souvenir shops at Niagara were a distraction calculated to divert the visitor from intense concentration upon anything, while the majestic grandeur of the falls has a capacity to focus our attention. The presence of concessioners offering preplanned pony or boat rides can be an impediment to intensity of experience, diverting us from coming at the experience in our own way and at our own pace.

The facilities we provide for ourselves also affect our responses. To drive through the desert in an air-conditioned car is an insulating experience. The increasingly popular recreation of backpacking offers a revealing counterexample. [13] Hiking with a pack on one's back appears superficially to be a strangely unappealing activity. The hiker, vulnerable to insects and bad weather, carries a heavy load over rough terrain, only to end up in the most primitive sort of shelter, where he or she eats basic foods prepared in the simplest fashion. Certainly there are often attractive rewards, such as a beautiful alpine lake with especially good fishing. But these are not sufficient explanations for such extraordinary exertions, for there are few places indeed that could not be easily made more accessible, and by much more comfortable means.

To the uninitiated backpacker a day in the woods can be, and often is, an experience of unrelieved misery. The pack is over-loaded; tender feet stumble and are blistered. It is alternately too hot or too cold. The backpacker has the wrong gear for the weather or has packed it in the wrong place; the tent attracts every gust of wind and rivulet of water. The fire won't start, or the stove fails just when it's needed. And the turns that seemed so clear on the map have now become utterly confusing.

Such experiences, familiar in one form or another to all beginners, are truly unforgiving; and when things go wrong, they do so in cascading fashion. Yet others camping nearby suffer no such miseries. Though their packs are lighter, they have an endless supply of exactly the things that are needed. Their tents go up quickly, they have solved the mystery of wet wood, and they sit under a deceptively simple rain shelter, eating their dinner in serene comfort. What is more, they are having a good time. The woods, for the beginner an endless succession of indistinguishable trees apparently designed to bewilder the hapless walker, conceal a patch of berries or an edible mushroom. Nearby, but unseen, are beautiful grazing deer or, overhead, a soaring eagle.

With time, patience, and effort one recognizes that these things are available to everyone; it is possible to get in control of the experience, to make it our own. The pack lightens as tricks are learned: how to substitute and how to improvise quickly, out of available materials, the things previously lugged. The more known, the less needed. Everything put in the head lessens what has to be carried on the shoulders. The sense of frustration falls away and with it the fear that things will break down. One knows how to adapt. The pleasure of adaptation is considerable in itself because it is liberating.

Nor is it merely a lifting of burdens. The backpacker, like the fisherman, discovers that the positive quality of the voyage is directly related to his or her own knowledge and resources. There is often a dramatic revelation that the woods are full of things to see—for those who know how to see them.

The kind of encounter that routinely takes place in the modern motorized vehicle, or in the managed, prepackaged resort, is calculated to diminish such intensity of experience. Nothing distinctive about us as individuals is crucial. The margin of error permitted is great enough to neutralize the importance of what we know. If we roar off in the wrong direction, we can easily roar back again, for none of our energy is expended. It isn't important to pay close attention to the weather; we are insulated from it. We need not notice a small spring; we are not at the margin where water counts. The opportunity for intensity of experience is drained away.

It is not that the motorized tourist or the visitor at a highly developed site must necessarily lose intensity, or that he is compelled to experience his surroundings at a remove, just as it is not inevitable that backpacking or fly-fishing will produce profound, individual responses. It is rather that the circumstances we impose on ourselves have the power to shape our experience.

The contrast between insulation and intensity is also demonstrated by the tools we use. Fishermen are probably more interested in equipment than are the devotees of any other leisure activity, and fishing books are full of endless discussion of flies, lines, rods, and leaders. Yet that interest is not at all directed to technological advance leading to increased efficiency in catching fish. Indeed, in one respect, it has exactly the opposite purpose: it is designed to maintain and even to increase the difficulty of success. At the same time, intricacy for its own sake is not sought. The goal is to raise to a maximum the importance of the participant's understanding, to play the game from the trout's point of view, so as to draw, as Haig-Brown puts it, upon "imagination, curiosity, bold experiment and intense observation." [14] This distinction between technology and technique is perhaps the most familiar common element in the recreational literature.

The hunting literature is very explicit in this respect though, like fishing, it at first seems wholly built around the conquest of a prey. One of the most provocative books ever written about that sport is the Meditations on Hunting of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. [15] Ortega's book was begun as a preface to another writer's conventional book about hunting, but it expanded into a full volume as he pondered the question, Why do we hunt? He was impressed by the fact that people have hunted over many centuries, and that the essence of the activity has nor changed. A principal premise of the book is that rather than using every technological advantage available to him, the hunter has self-consciously neutralized his technological advantage in favor of the opportunity to develop what Ortega called technique:

For hunting is not simply casting blows right and left in order to kill animals or to catch them. The hunt is a series of technical operations, and for an activity to become technical it has to matter that it works in one particular way and not in another. . . . It involves a complete set of ethics of the most distinguished design. [16]

To describe the hunting of animals as an ethical activity at first seems highly eccentric. Yet the recreation literature gives powerful support to Ortega's cryptic statement. The proposition that accomplishment is not of the essence is substantiated by a uniform view that the game gets better the more the player is able to intensify the experience. One practical application of this hypothesis is to disembarrass oneself of equipment whose purpose is simply to increase the ability to prevail.

The celebrated American wilderness advocate, Aldo Leopold, wrote about hunting in terms quite similar to those of the Spaniard Ortega. "There is," Leopold said, "a value in any experience that exercises those ethical restraints collectively called 'sportsmanship'. Our tools for the pursuit of wildlife improve faster than we do, and sportsmanship is a voluntary limitation in the use of those armaments." [17]

Leopold goes on to say something about hunting that is reminiscent of Olmsted's perception of recreation as a contrast to achievement. In the Yosemite report Olmsted not only spoke of accomplishment, but used the phrase "accomplishing something in the mind of another," that is, doing something because it wins the admiration of others. The fishing writers respond by observing that they are engaged in an activity that is judged only by the standard the fisherman sets for himself. And Leopold notes, "a peculiar virtue of wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact." [18]

The attitudes associated with an activity may be more important than either the activity itself or its setting. To the extent that we infuse the parks with symbolic meaning by the way in which we use them, the symbolism attached to particular uses itself becomes a critical factor in the meaning that parks have for us. Consider, for example, the controversial question of off-road motorized vehicles (ORVs). [19] While ORVs have sometimes caused great and long-lasting damage, the vehicle itself is not the crucial factor in the controversy its use has created, for it is possible to imagine the lonely cyclist exploring the backcountry in quite the same fashion as the hiker or the horseman. [20]

Yet, in fact, the ORV has associated itself in our minds with a style of use that is quite at odds with Leopold's description of the ethical hunter, Olmsted's contemplative visitor, or Walton's pensive fisherman. The ORV has become a symbol of speed, power, and spectacle. The best-known ORV event on the public lands is the Barstow-Las Vegas motorcycle race that occurs on the California desert. Pictures of as many as three thousand cycles lined up to make the 150-mile crosscountry course have been widely published, both in books and on television. [21] This mass event, infamous for its destruction of the desert ecosystem, its rowdiness, and its vandalism, has become an emblem of the ORV. Commercial advertising has reinforced this picture, as publicity for off-road vehicles demonstrates: "Just put your gang on Suzuki's DS trail bikes. And head for the boonies. . . . Peaks or valleys, it's all the same to these rugged off-road machines. Tractoring up a hillside or going flat-out on a dry lake is no sweat." [22]

The descriptive literature provides a parallel image. In Lee Gutkind's book, Bike Fever, a day's expedition is reported as follows:

The [motorcycle] bellowed as it bounced over the sage, and folded down the yellow grass on either side of the wheels. . . . He jetted off across the prairie for a while, breathing in the red dust that the wind and his wheels were kicking up. . . . He trampled the sagebrush . . . he had run into some "whoop-de-do" jumps—a series of brief hills, about 25 feet apart. He cranked on, climbed the hill, and disconnected from the ground. . . . Each time he hit the top of a hill, his wheels left the ground and his stomach ricocheted into his throat. . . . [23]

The picture here is all exhilaration and excitement—speed, danger, and domination. As a book entitled The Snowmobiler's Companion puts it,

the snowmobile has brought back some of that edge-of-danger excitement, those feelings of man-against-the-elements adventure and man-over-machinery mastery that have been lost in every other form of modern transportation. . . . Why? To win. . . . To put on a spectacle. . . . To risk a life to the unending delight of hundreds of faces jammed up against the fences, mad for action, for crashes and beer. Why? To prove that the machine is faster, the racer braver, better than the rest. To prove to whom? To Harry down the road. To yourself. To the faces at the fence. [24]

The ORV has become an extreme example of one kind of symbol, just as the motor-home recreational vehicle has of another—that of the passive visitor, unable to leave home and its comforts behind, sitting watching TV in the midst of the nation's most magnificent country. Other controversial uses—hang gliding, for example—emit a much less clear message, and to that extent engender much more ambivalent feelings. To some extent there is uneasiness because the activity seems a sort of spectacle of thrill seeking, rather like going over the falls in a barrel or riding a roller coaster. Conversely, the skills it requires, such as close attention to and understanding of complex wind patterns, make it seem rather like the activity of the hunter or fisherman who has minimized his tools and put himself as close to the margin of experience as possible.

These wide-ranging examples suggest an issue of subtlety and sophistication barely hinted at in Olmsted's writings. He asserted that activities removed from mere will to accomplishment and achievement in the eyes of others was important as a contrast to the values that so often dominate our daily lives. The fishing and hunting books clearly affirm that proposition. The cycling writings also speak to a kind of contrast—the passive twentieth century citizen getting into active control of something and mastering it. While each seems to respond to similar longings, in practice they diverge sharply. The hunting and fishing writers are drawn to activities that transcend, without denying, the raw impulsion to exhibit power, win the game, pile up a score, and exercise dominion—treating the will to prevail as something natural, but at the same time dealing with it as something to be faced and measured, rather than yielded to.

Nowhere in the literature is this insight more explicit than in the rich stock of books on mountaineering. [25] There is a special intrigue in turning to this source, for among those who have comprised the national parks constituency over the years there is probably no recreation that has been more amply represented than mountain climbing. The Sierra Club, to take but one example, was for many years, in many ways, largely a mountaineering club; and John Muir, its patron saint, was, of course, John of the mountains.

It is impossible to read the climbing books without a certain mixture of attraction and repulsion. Particularly if one comes to them in the light of Olmsted's gentility, and his aesthetic sensibility, it is slightly shocking to read the tales of dogged determination, competitive striving to be first to the top, and unattractive infighting among members of climbing parties. The literature spans a wide spectrum from individual hiking to expedition climbing of the Mount Everest type. The latter is, obviously, quite a limited genre in terms of the numbers of people involved, but it has nonetheless been a primary source of published, and widely read, books. It has set the standard of style and rules of the game for those attracted to the mountains, just as Walton and Cotton or Haig-Brown have for fishermen.

What is one to make of these extraordinary books, with their reports of multimillion dollar expeditions, multitudes of hired porters, and diplomatic negotiations to assure primacy in reaching some remote summit? Thoreau said that only daring and insolent men climb mountains, [26] and one need not read very deeply in this literature to understand what he meant. Even the titles of the books are revealing. Among recent and popular publications, two of the best known are Everest the Hard Way (with the emphasis on hard), [27] and In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods. [28] While the latter of these titles was probably sardonically chosen, the book being a rare effort to avoid the conventional glorifying style of the genre, it nonetheless conveys an accurate sense of what mountaineers think they are getting at—or getting to.

In many respects, mountain climbing books present a restatement of familiar themes. It is repeatedly observed that climbing at its best eschews the presence of an audience, and the longing is often expressed that "expeditions would go secretly and come back secretly, and no one would ever know." [29] The technique/technology distinction is sharply drawn, with much condemnation of the gadgetry that promotes success at the expense of the climber's opportunity to respond to the distinctive challenge each mountain presents. [30] There is understandable disdain for such astonishing decisions as the use of helicopters to negotiate the most difficult parts of Mount Everest, of which the famous English climber Chris Bonington said gently, it "seemed an unpleasant erosion of the climbing ethic." [31] More generally, the literature affirms the proposition that "climbing with a few classic tools that become extensions of the body is quite conducive to the sought-after feeling; using a plethora of gadgets is not. [32]

Likewise it is repeatedly observed that the essence of mountaineering is not reaching the summit, but the climb itself. "Reaching the summit of a mountain is not all it is cracked up to be," Galen Rowell says, "the summit is merely the curtain falling on a grand play." [33] Some years ago, the English alpinist Geoffrey Winthrop Young said, "in great mountaineering, the result, the reaching of a summit, is of minor importance . . . the whole merit of the climb depend[s] upon the way it was done, that is the method, behavior and mental attitude of the climbers . . ." [34]

At the same time, there is a quality in mountaineering books of drive and competition, of a will to achievement, self-testing, and supremacy. Competitive drive is a quality far removed from what Olmsted was describing and from the attitude of America's greatest mountain explorer, John Muir. The struggle that is so central to most of this literature is, with a single exception—the night on Mount Shasta, recounted with great drama in Steep Trails—wholly absent in Muir's writing. [35] One of the lovely stories told about Muir is that after reading a magazine article in which a climber described his exciting perils in the ascent of Mount Tyndal, Muir remarked that the author "must have given himself a lot of trouble. When I climbed Mount Tyndal," he said, "I ran up and back before breakfast." [36]

At the heart of most writing about mountain climbing there is something very different from the experience of attunement that Muir and most other popular nature writers describe. At one level, it is the competitive striving that Olmsted sought to put aside, the "work hard, play hard" ethic associated with the ORV by which the standards and practices of the day-to-day world are imported whole into recreational activity. To this extent the climbing literature seems anomalous.

But there is another, and fascinating, element in these books. It is a picture of mountaineering as attractive to those who are strongly inclined to competition and striving, but serving as a means to come to terms with those intuitions in an activity whose traditions and style are calculated to transcend them. Galen Rowell's book, In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, contains numerous passages directed to just this point:

All of us by now were aware that the approach march was turning into a contest and that we were being judged in part by our pack weights and hiking times. . . . [M]y pack was frequently hefted by [others]. One would say, "Wow, that's light." . . . I'd like to be able to say that I wasn't bothered by these taunts. . . . Other things were more important to me. Or were they? One part of me longed to prove myself. . . . I, whether I admitted it to myself or not, was definitely competing when I matched my pace to that of the front-runners. [37]

In an entry in his diary, Rowell returned to this theme:

Most Western people, like dogs chasing their tails, devote their lives to a conscious pursuit of happiness. . . . Those of us hoping to climb K-2 have widened the circle of the chase. We are after a tangible goal—the summit of a mountain—which will function in our lives exactly as a material possession would, except that it will be nontransferable, theft-proof, and inflation-proof. Our society will register the achievement on an equal level with other, less abstract rewards of Western living. "I'd like you to meet Mr. Jones, the president of our local bank. And this is Mr. Dunham; he climbed the second highest mountain in the world." [38]

This, of course, is the same author who says that getting to the top is not the important thing, and that climbing is best when climbing alone or with a few quiet companions, not trying to follow someone else's standards for a climb. The impressive feature of Rowell's book is its rare openness, not only about the brutality of expedition climbing at its worst, but about the difficulty of achieving the sublime pleasures of a self-defining experience to which most such books are almost exclusively devoted.

The climbing experience at its best—"enjoyed purely for itself," [39] as Rowell puts it, adopting almost the identical words Olmsted used in the Yosemite report—requires a detachment from the pressure of conventional expectations that is extremely difficult to achieve. The interest of climbing is not simply that it tends to attract those who feel these external pressures sharply, but that it induces the participant to confront this inner conflict rather than conceal it. Mountain climbing is a particularly interesting model because it draws together elements of skill development, tension between achievement and contemplation, independence, physical setting, and an established ethic. In an article entitled "Games Climbers Play," [40] Lito Tejada-Flores notes that informal rules have evolved for various kinds of climbing experiences, set out as a series of negative injunctions: Don't use fixed ropes, belays, pitons, etc. The purpose of these rules is to build an ethical structure for the climbing game. "[T]hey are designed to conserve the climber's feeling of personal (moral) accomplishment against the meaninglessness of a success which represents merely technological victory." [41] Moreover, based on one's own level of skill and ability, each individual can select a kind of climbing game that is challenging for him. The idea is not that some games are better, harder, or more worthwhile in themselves than others, Tejada-Flores notes. Indeed, the very purpose of the game's structure is "to equalize such value connotations from game to game so that the climber who plays any of these games by its proper set of rules should have at least a similar feeling of personal accomplishment." [42]

At the same rime, the climb is not simply a physical challenge or a series of dangerous moments. Its setting and pace provide an opportunity and incentive for intensity of experience beyond the physical. It is, the climber Doug Robinson suggests, "seeing the objects and actions of ordinary experience with greater intensity, penetrating them further, seeing their marvels and mysteries, their forms, moods, and motions . . . it amounts to bringing a fresh vision to the familiar things of the world." [43] A concentrated immersion in the natural scene, growing out of the pace of the climb and its demand for intense concentration, produces a special kind of observation. Here, for example is a description of a climb in Yosemite by Yvon Chouinard:

Each individual crystal in the granite stood out in bold relief. The varied shape of the clouds. . . . For the first time we noticed tiny bugs that were all over the walls, so tiny they were barely noticeable. While belaying, I stared at one for 15 minutes, watching him move and admiring his brilliant red color. [44]

To be sure, not every climbing experience, or every climber, ascends either to such physical or mental peaks. Recent reports of a commercial enterprise devoted to getting beginners to the top of Mount Rainier, even if they have to be pulled up, make clear that no activity in itself has magic. [45] But mountaineering seems a particularly vivid example of the ideals and struggles with inner conflict that have fueled the recreational symbolism of the national parks.

The interlocking themes of the climbing literature—domination mediated by self-conscious restraint—are also powerfully reflected in the American literary tradition. Nowhere are they more fully realized than in Faulkner's "The Bear," the mythic hunting story of a yearly rendezvous with the great bear—symbol of the wilderness—"which they did not even intend to kill," not because it could not be vanquished but because the mere act of conquest would be merely an act of destruction. [46] The wilderness could be conquered, was being conquered, not by true hunters but by destroyers, "men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another," for whom wilderness had never "loomed and towered" in their dreams. The hunter's appointment with the bear is an inner rendezvous, a test of "the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive," [47] of men not yet tamed and not needful of taming the world around them.

A parallel theme runs through Hemingway's writing, even in the early "Big Two-Hearted River." [48] Everything in the previously described fishing literature is present there—the gentle day, the timelessness, the deep pleasures of getting intensely into the flow of the river, the unimportance to the fishing trip of catching fish. But the story obtains its power from the clearly felt but unstated fact that Nick Adams is not just whiling away a day on the river. He is exorcising a demon deep inside him.

The feeling of being at home and in harmony with things, the satisfying fatigue after a hard day of self-imposed labor, the pleasures of elemental truths intensely felt, the movement of the trout, the color of the grasshopper, the form of the landscape, the smell of food, are fully realized. But all this is overlain with an ominous sense of the pressures and perils in the world to which he will soon return. "He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. . . . Nothing could touch him." [49] But these are not statements, they are questions. Sandwiched in the collection of stories entitled In Our Time, between two vivid descriptions of man's inhumanity to man, the final impression is of Nick's inevitable return to the conventional, and brutal, world outside. This is the literature of struggle. [50]

In Hemingway's late story, The Old Man and the Sea, the question of the hunt is posed in its starkest form. [51] Man strives for mastery and yet finds triumph only when he recognizes that he is not master. The desire to prevail is treated as natural: Santiago was born to be a fisherman just as the fish was born to be a fish. [52] But just as surely we know that victory alone is hollow; indeed, as has often been remarked in noting images of the crucifixion in the book, there can be victory in defeat where success is something other than conquest. The old man is beyond sentiment, as he is beyond proving himself to anyone, and this is what rescues the venture from meaningless sacrifice or wanton slaughter. It is the fisherman's ability to accept the inevitability of the struggle, without sentiment and without moralizing, that invests the venture with nobility. "Fish," he said, "I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends." [53]

From Olmsted to Faulkner and Hemingway by way of mountain climbers seems a tortuous route, but it is not nearly so indirect as first appearances suggest. The first step is detachment from conventional expectations and imposed obligation, for which the natural setting is a stimulus and a context. The sense of detachment that engagement with nature stimulates brings to the surface atavistic longings, while the "ethical" structure of activities like fishing and mountaineering constrains that atavism from becoming a mere will to conquer. The strong attraction of nature for denizens of modern industrial society draws its power from these elements. Engagement with nature provides an opportunity for detachment from the submissiveness, conformity, and mass behavior that dog us in our daily lives; it offers a chance to express distinctiveness and to explore our deeper longings. At the same time, the setting—by exposing us to the awesomeness of the natural world in the context of "ethical" recreation—moderates the urge to prevail without destroying the vitality that gives rise to it: to face what is wild in us and yet not revert to savagery.

From this perspective, what distinguishes a national park idea from a merely generalized interest in nature may be the special role that the nature park plays as an institution within a developed and industrialized society, in contrast to those traditions in which nature is offered as an alternative to society. The setting of the national park provides an opportunity for respite, contrast contemplation, and affirmation of values for those who live most of their lives in the workaday world.

Unlike the pure pastoral tradition, the park does not proffer a utopian community of escape to a life of perfect harmony, forever free of conflict and besetting human passions. [54] Neither does it resemble what Henry Nash Smith, in his fine book Virgin Land, calls the myth of the West, an image of life beyond the frontier of civilization. [55] The failed western hero in American literature as Smith makes clear, was an anarchic figure, a symbol of freedom beyond law and beyond constraint, modeled on an antithesis between nature and civilization. Conversely, the preservationist tradition in the national parks movement proposes no permanent escape from society to a utopian wilderness. Olmsted certainly was a civilized man, and much of his professional work was devoted to the design of urban parks for urban people. "We want," he said, "a ground to which people may easily go after their day's work is done . . . the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town. . . . We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town. . . " [56] The same is true of the American nature writers. John Muir sought to build no communities in the mountains he tramped. [57] Just as Hemingway's fictional Nick Adams must come back from his idyllic fishing trip, so, characteristically, the modern wilderness pioneer, Bob Marshall, says in his Alaska journal: "In a week [I shall be back] in Seattle and the great thumping world. I should be living once more among the accumulated accomplishments of man. The world . . . cannot live on wilderness, except incidentally and sporadically." [58]

Engagement with nature as a prescription for man in society, rather than as a rejection of society, is nowhere more evident than in the work of Henry David Thoreau. Tameness and wildness are the terms Thoreau uses to express the tension between submissiveness and dominance that has emerged as a central motif in the preceding pages.

"Once or twice," Thoreau says in Walden, "while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me. The wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar." [59]

There is something primitive and frightening in these feelings, and yet something even more frightening in repressing them. When civilized attitudes tame us to the point that the instinct to prevail no longer weighs upon us, when we only think of animals as sides of beef to be eaten, we may do something worse than killing animals; we obliterate the problem of the kill from our consciousness. The hunter recognizes the problem because he is in touch with it; the ethical dilemma is still real for him because he knows the objects of his hunt face to face. [60] It is therefore not surprising to find Thoreau, though he himself ultimately abstained from hunting and fishing, saying that "perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society." [61] When Thoreau speaks of leaving the gun and fish pole behind, it is with a hope that we will, having struggled with the deepest forces in us, ultimately resolve the savage longing. He recognizes that the satisfaction of fishless days is not something easily or obviously come by, but is the product—at best—of a lifetime of reaching out for understanding. Those who came to fish at Walden during his residence, he says, commonly did not think they were lucky or well paid for their time unless they got a string of fish,

though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond all the while. They might go there a thousand times before the sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose pure; but no doubt such a clarifying process would be going on all the while. [62]

Thoreau's favorite word is wildness, and perhaps his most famous phrase "in wildness is the preservation of the world." [63] But plainly wildness does not mean the unthinking savage to Thoreau, as his revulsion at the primitivism he encountered in The Maine Woods, [64] or his uneasiness about the wholly uncultivated woodchopper he describes in Walden, [65] makes clear. Nor does it mean a world of untrammeled wilderness, as his attraction to agricultural pursuits demonstrates. Thoreau never left Concord society behind him, for he was always—both before and after Walden—a Concord man. He rather escaped the social values and conventions that dominated the town. He saw the people of Concord bored and boring, because they have been tamed. [66] And he sees in the woods around him a world which is characterized by nothing so much as its resistance to taming.

To be tamed is to be what someone else wants you to be, to be managed by their expectation of your behavior, to accept their agenda, to submit to their will, and to be dependent on their knowledge or largess. Dominance and submissiveness are only two versions of the same instinct. In "Walking," Thoreau is at his most explicit in setting our the philosophical thesis that underlies what he says elsewhere:

I love even to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights—any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor; as when my neighbor's cow breaks our of her pasture. . . . I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men. [67]

Thoreau, unlike the "nature writers" with whom he is usually associated, conceives his response to nature in a form that is distinctively applicable to the situation of civilized society. We are at our best when we have not been tamed into the passivity of stock responses, of dependency, of insulation from intensity of experience. [68] To be willing to fish or climb without an audience; to be able to draw satisfaction from a walk in the woods, without calling on others for entertainment; to be content with a fishless day, demanding no string of fish to be counted and displayed: These are the characteristics of an individual who has "refined" wildness without taming it into the personality of the mass man. What the fisherman feels lying at the side of the brook watching the bubbles, or the mountain climber experiences as "purity of consciousness," are each versions of what psychologists describe in terms of personality as a "wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others." [69] Thoreau's writings—directed to his neighbors, living lives of "quiet desperation"—reveal the experience of one who pursues his own style, unencumbered by the preconceptions or expectations of others, finding the world, even in its most mundane elements, endlessly interesting because he approaches it intensely and searchingly.

The fundamental claim for what may be called reflective or contemplative recreation, then, is as an experimental test of an ethical proposition. Such recreation tests the will to dominate and the inclination to submissiveness, and repays their transcendence with profound gratification. Plainly such activities are not limited by any specific forms. They range from the purely contemplative wanderer in the woods who, like Thoreau or John Muir, has the capacity to detach himself from social convention and structured activity, to the agile climber arduously working his way to the meaning of the summit. Nor is the setting of nature an indispensable precondition. There is, for example, a strong commonality between the writings examined here and that of the Zen approach to sports. That literature too emphasizes intensity, skill development as an intermediate end, introspection, and—most significantly—a focus on the battle within. The classic work on the subject is Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, and it parallels the nature literature quite closely. [70] Herrigel's work is devoted to the compelling proposition that "the art of archery means a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself." [71] The author describes the culmination of his training as that moment when he finally understood the artless art of feeling "so secure in ourselves" that neither the score, not the spectators, not any external element remained important to him. [72]

While nature is not a uniquely suitable setting, it seems to have a peculiar power to stimulate us to reflectiveness by its awesomeness and grandeur, its complexity, the unfamiliarity of untrammeled ecosystems to urban residents, and the absence of distractions. The special additional claim for nature as a setting is that it not only promotes self-understanding, but also an understanding of the world in which we live. Our initial response to nature is often awe and wonderment: trees that have survived for millennia; a profusion of flowers in the seeming sterility of the desert; predator and prey living in equilibrium. These marvels are intriguing, but their appeal is not merely aesthetic. Nature is also a successful model of many things that human communities seek: continuity, stability and sustenance, adaptation, sustained productivity, diversity, and evolutionary change. The frequent observations that natural systems renew themselves without exhaustion of resources, that they thrive on tolerance for diversity, and they resist the arrogance of the conqueror all seem to give confirmation to the intuitions of the contemplative recreationist.


Mountains Without Handrails
©1980, The University of Michigan
Published by The University of Michigan Press

sax/chap3.htm — 22-Jan-2003