From today’s New York Times, whose lead headline is the largest in my lifetime that I remember, yet (with apologies to all those affected by the cause of those headlines) I find this editorial more urgent and hope Mr. Egan will not mind my sharing it here:
Not long ago, I went to the top of Crater Mountain searching for a trace of the last living Beat poet, Gary Snyder. His fire lookout at 8,128 feet, where he scanned the summits of the North Cascades for the Forest Service in 1952, is long gone. But I later found his work — his words enlivening new generations at a camp below — and the man himself, kinetic in California.
Turns out, he’s not the last of the group of writers who included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as he scolded me for implying. The poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, age 97, and Michael McClure, 83, are still stirring up trouble with verse and attitude. Snyder himself is a mischievous 86, a lifetime student of Zen and the art of coupling the perfect phrase to nature’s complexity.
They were known as literary subversives, rebel voices in the era of Silent Generation conformity. But among their other contributions to American life are words that some of the Beats marshaled on behalf of wild places. Kerouac, inspired by Snyder’s rapture about a summer spent in the clouds, followed him as a lookout to an area that eventually became North Cascades National Park in Washington State.
Sadly, the parks rarely get much attention on the national stage unless some knucklehead displaces a cute little baby bison or tries to feed a grizzly bear. But in this year when the Park Service is celebrating its centennial with all sorts of hand-wringing about the future, it’s instructive to remember how language can save landscape. Powerful prose has been put to good use in the cause of America’s Best Idea.
The peril to the parks in the 100th birthday year comes from three forces. One is climate change, which is killing forests, drying up waterfalls and leading to catastrophic wildfires. The glaciers of Glacier National Park may be completely gone within four years, as President Obama noted during a trip to Yosemite last weekend. The second concern is about the nature deficit disorder of young people, who spend almost eight hours a day on average in the digital world. Swiping a screen is no way to build an engaged constituency for the future. The third threat is a domestic one: a certain political party intent on throwing out a century of consensus on how to manage this extraordinary legacy.
What can a poet do? Snyder is famous for his spare style, in books like “Turtle Island,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. But he knows how to throw a literary punch as well. “Remember, these are public lands we’re talking about, no matter what else you call them — owned by every one of us,” he said at a forum last year in Nevada, not far from the public land site where the rogue rancher Cliven Bundy staged one of his threat-fests in cowboy costume.
Snyder’s fellow warrior with well-chosen words, the essayist Terry Tempest Williams, has devised one of the best lines ever written about parks — apt to the terror of rising global temperatures. National parks are “the breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath,” she wrote in a new book, “The Hour of Land,” which explores the spiritual dimension of 12 parks.
Williams recalls that a mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner, curated a series of essays in 1955 to save a magical place in the Southwest from the idiocy of a federal government plan to flood it behind a massive dam. The dam was never built. In its place we have Dinosaur National Monument, protected under the Park Service umbrella.
The national park idea itself owes its foundation to storytellers with pen, ink and silver oxide. The Hayden Expedition, sent by Congress in 1871 to explore the rumors of Yellowstone, returned with pictures, photos and wondrous descriptions from a geologist who could write.
That tradition continues today, in a fight against nature despoilers in Congress. Over the last three years, Republicans have filed more than 40 bills or amendments to remove or greatly diminish protections for parks and public lands. The latest is a plan, led by Representative Rob Bishop, Republican of Utah, to determine the fate of 18 million acres. At the center is Bears Ears, a special place to native people who have long connections to that land, and more recent arrivals who value the “breathing space” that Williams spoke of.
“Bears Ears will always be a significant healing place for young Navajos like me, who live in the concrete jungle of New York City,” wrote Alastair Lee Bitsoi, a graduate student, whose essay appears in a new collection, “Red Rock Testimony,” a call for protection for the area.
Obama, summoning the writer inside him, took a stab at the rhapsodic during his most recent visit to the wild. After recalling childhood memories of seeing a moose, a bear and an elk for the first time, he simply let out an appreciative sigh, after a long week of sorrow: “Nothing like trees to make you feel better.”