The world is never “too much with us,” said Wordsworth, but not the wild glories, which he treasured, too. Natural gifts reflecting the gifts of the gods, or of Darwin’s insights and those of the plate tectonics wizards. Everything moves.
All of this and running water and birds on the wing and paths beckoning us to follow are the inspirations for great writers who, over all eras and from all cultures, have found their muse, giving us luminary writing that beckons us, too, transports, enchants. We drink it in, challenged our every sense. Wonder.
For my new anthology Wild Thoughts: Short Selections of Great Writing About Nature, Wilderness, and the People Who Protect Them I have delved deeply into this literature, catching great favorites we all know—Thoreau on walking, Muir on climbing, Terry Tempest Williams on the wonders of the Utah landscape—and others new and charming. Lawrence of Arabia, which is surely his proper name, on the spiritual winds of the desert, Florence Page Jaques on the rocks in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota (and Garrison Keillor on the rivers of that state, too), Willa Cather on vast landscapes.
This has been, like a backpacking or rafting adventure, a great joy and a great challenge. So much wonderful writing, how to select. Choices. Choices. Such sweet agony. P. D. James on islands, Robert Byron on who blue became the color of Persia and the name for Blue in that language. Where I’ve used familiar writers, I’ve sought to avoid the well-known in search of new delights.
I urge my readers to take the book along on a stiff hike, staining its pages with honest sweat, arguing with my commentaries, scribbling in the margins, dog-earing. The father of the epochal Wilderness Act of 1964 was a great book man and editor. He urged—
Who carries in his mind—or perchance in his pocket or knapsack—the expressions of great minds that have come to us through literature has with him texts that deepen the meaning and lift the exultation of the very greatest and most exquisite experiences. 1
Nothing sets my writer’s teeth grinding like quotations without citations to the sources, so I’ve tried to find everything and get it down to the page numbers. That is my obligation to you, book and Empty Mirror.
The Wilderness Act chartered our system for preserving the wildest, most natural portions of our national forests and other federal conservation lands as wilderness areas protected by statutory law. Once designated by Congress, the boundaries may only be altered, even in a small way, by another act of Congress. And as a long time lobbyist for wilderness protection, let me assure you: passing laws is not easy and won’t happen if anyone sufficiently motivated chooses to stand in the way. The fuel for our success—five percent of the land mass of all the land in the country is now protected by this law, 109,511,038 acres, with more to come—is not glib lobbyists nor the power of money, but the love of local folks who band together to press their congressional delegation to get behind the idea.2
Love. Is there any greater power. No. And you find it deep within every Wild Thought I have captured. That and love for the power of our English language, which P. D. James thought the most expressive of all, perhaps because Shakespeare gave us more than six thousand new words for pure joy. He wrote not for us but for the groundlings, and they got every allusion, ignorant of the Greek classics though they may have been, and as we may be.
Rockwell Kent was a New York artist of landscapes when, in 1918, he took his son Rockwell to live for a year in a cabin on remote Fox Island in Southeast Alaska, a gift of parent-son bonding we all can wish for. A gift, as Anne Marie Lindberg would say. Kent takes us to the island with his words and oil-on-wood sketches—
Above every other thought now is the sad realization that our days on this beloved island are nearing an end. What is it that enders it so to a man near forty and a little boy of nine? We have such widely different outlooks upon life. It may be that Alaska stands midway between us, and that I, turning backward from this crowded world that I have known and learned to fear, meet Rockwell in his forward march from nothing—to this.* * *
I know nothing in all life more beautiful than the perfect belief of Rockwell in his Paradise here. Unopposed, his romance has kindled every object on the homestead; so that now for hours he can steal about in the forest, on the beach, along the lake,—in absolute contentment, for it is wonderland itself. The “King’s road,” the “Giant’s path” where stand the gummy “ten-pound butter tree” and all the giants with whom Sir Lancelot must joust, the magpie’s grave marked with a cross, the otter’s cave, the marvelous frozen stream; those strange wild people, the Treaps, who visit these shores occasionally to hunt the white man for his skin as the white man has hunted their dear animals; rain-bears and wild-cat-eaters—appalling animals that inhabit the dark woods but are good friends to Rockwell. Every log and rotten stump, the gnarled trees, with or without “butter,” every mound and path, the rocks, the streams, each is a being in itself; and with those most living goats, and the brilliant magpies, the pretty, little, dingy sparrows, the glorious and virtuous porcupines, the black, black crows, the great and noble eagle, the rare spider and the rarer fly, and the wonderful, strong, sleek otters that leap in sport through the snow and coast down-hill, they make a world of romance that has thrilled one little boy to the very bottom of his soul. To live here, to accumulate about him more and more animals and shelter them from harm, to live forever or, if he must, grow old, and very old; here marry—not a Seward girl but one more beautiful—or an Indian!—here raise a great family—and here die. That now is the ideal of little Rockwell. And if we, his family, all of us, would count we must come here to him where with patriarchal magnificence and dignity he will care for us.3
This is fine. This is better than whitewashing. Oh! That is Mole as Ratty introduces him to the River. I know nothing better to induce in a child a love for the English language and its proper use. No grammar or style book can touch it—
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.4
Eeyore, like Mole and Ratty, is a creature more real than most, as any child can explain if you have forgotten, is an immortal. In The House at Pooh Corner, he and his pals are playing poohsticks, a game I highly recommend regardless of age. They drop sticks, or in this case, stones, on one side of a bridge and rush across to see whose comes out first. Winner!—
With a shout they rushed off the bridge, and pushed and pulled at him; and soon he was standing among them again on dry land.
Oh, Eeyore, you are wet!” said Piglet, feeling him.
Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time.5
My kids and I could not finish for our stomachs hurt to much. We were laughing here and other places through the book before we got to the punch lines. And, when we visited Britain, we came across a bridge, we invariably stopped to play poohsticks, hoping, of course, that maybe Eeyore would come floating slowly out.
In Europe, as the earliest climbers flocked to the Alps, their eyes set on the summit of Mount Blanc. Romantic poet Percy Bessye Shelley declaimed—
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, — still, snowy, and serene —
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;* * *
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be
But for such faith with nature reconciled —
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”6
We climbers test more than our stamina against the pitch and the elements; we test our resolve, our stick-to-itive-ness. Like Muir, we find a new perspective about ourselves. “Between every two pine trees,” John Muir counseled, “you will find a door to a better way of life.” And we are playing out the American drama, pioneers and mountain men pushing across the new continent, taming the wilderness but being tamed in the process. Those values are inherent in our own, however recently we may have arrived. Hollywood bought into this in a big way, and so did the novelists, poets, and artists among us.
Bob Marshall was the great advocate for preserving wilderness areas in the 1930s. He was famed for his fifty-mile hikes to new peaks in Alaska and the Rockies, recalling his childhood excursions in the wild Adirondacks and extolling the healthful, American values these adventures inculcate—
All through their formative years they read about the glorious adventures of the American frontiersmen, and often they relive in games and imagination the stirring pioneer days. Many of them grow up to long for some real adventure and become sick and tired of getting their thrills in such vicarious forms as the lurid movie, the cheap novel, or the travelogue. A depressingly large number of the more energetic of these malcontents try to appease their unfulfilled yearning in the pursuit of crime and racketeering. Others long for a declaration of war in the hope that in battle they may capture some of the rightful thrills of life. This same psychological urge lures many people to the forest. There, in less antisocial ways than crime and fighting, in the thrill of land a three pound trout from some mountain torrent, in the competence required to out-wit a wary mule deer, in the exhilaration of climbing to some unscaled pinnacle, they add a genuine dash of adventure to their existences.7
Testing ourselves, facing challenges, striving beyond on limits. Growing. This is the gift of wild adventures that we can gain from our own outings and reliving the adventures of Natty Bumpo, Lewis and Clark, and the Native peoples who preceded us by millennia, treated less as the rightful heirs of their country than an inconvenient impediment to be pushed back, confined, massacred. Tragedy. We learn from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee.
This is beauty, undefiled, glorious, singing to us in sunlight and in shadow. Florence Page Jaques discovered the pleasures of her first canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota—
Down a very zigzag path—for I was still steering—we came to our chosen island, and its long shadows looked very welcome after the sun’s bright glare and Lee’s admonitory one. Our tent is on the northern tip of the island. We look out past a great sweep of pine bough to the waters of our lake and the silent misty one beyond.
This is the moment, I think, when I’ve really given my heart to our canoe country, though I’ve been entranced with it from the first. But here its special quality of wild innocence touched me sharply and deeply.
I should very much like to live here forever. It’s sorcery. It’s not our world at all; it’s another star.8
All is Beauty, Wordsworth said, writing amid his Lake District daffodils. Plato had the idea, though his words were inspired by the beauty of Greek boys, a taste of the noble Greeks—
… this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung–that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself–until at last he comes to know what beauty is.9
The slender ladder. There to be climbed. The work is now yours, and the pleasure. Take up my anthology. Dive in as though blindly. Dog-ear. Scribble. Stain with your own honest hiking sweat. Create your own visions, your own masterpieces. You will find wilderness, flowers, birdsong, stars beyond counting. Writing that illumes and dazzles. Wild Thoughts.
1 Zahniser, Howard. “Lake Solitude Sermon,” Nature Magazine 50, no. 9, (November 1957), 452.
2 Our more than 450 wilderness areas are found in 44 states. At www.wilderness.net you can hunt for every area, choosing the state you’re interested in. A map will guide you, or just scroll down the list of name. Click and you will find a description, photos, and a boundary map. Plan a hike!
3 Kent, Rockwell. Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 166-167. Originally published in 1920. This excerpt was from the diary for February 19, 1920.
4 Graham, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an Imprint of Simon and Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, 1983), 3. Originally published in 1908.
5 Milne, A.A. The House at Pooh Corner (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1928), 100-101. Christopher Milne originally played “Poohsticks” on a footbridge across a tributary of the River Medway in Posingford Wood.
6 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni,” in Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, History of Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (London: T. Hookham, Jun. and C. and J. Ollier, 1817), xx.
7 Marshall, Robert. The People’s Forests (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), 71-72. Originally published in 1933.
8 Ibid., 26.
9 Plato. Symposium, 210a-212b, http://www.mesacc.edu/~davpy35701/text/plato-ladder.html.