John Muir once wrote, “We go out into the wilderness to find ourselves.” Today I was reading an article in The New York Times about the upcoming battle in Congress over the Waxman-Markey act, which if it becomes law would sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country. According to the writer of the article, the recent hysteria over health care reform may look like a tempest in a teapot compared to this storm. That lead, in a circular way, to my thinking about John Muir and the battles he fought to protect Yosemite National Park, even before it was a National Park. I’ve been thinking that Muir’s battles were a sort of microcosm, a preview of the struggles we now face to protect not a few thousand acres of pristine land, but the entire planet that has suffered at the hands of humanities unbridled “industry”.
In Muir’s time, even after Yosemite had been declared a National Park, no one really knew what that meant or how it was going to work, but almost immediately industrious men with ideas on how to profit from the beauty and majesty of the land moved in to “improve” the park. They cut trees, built hotels, shoot wildlife for food and sport, introduced domestic animals, and generally upgraded the neighborhood. In some cases they even diverted some of the hot springs to heat their new hotels. Like I said, being industrious.
Americans have always valued our industrious natures. It is a real point of pride with a lot of Americans that you could drop an American on a desert island with nothing more than a pocket knife and a Q-Tip, go away for six months and return to discover that a shopping mall had been built in your absence. The problem is, do we need a shopping mall? Just because we can do a thing does that mean we should do it? And what’s up with this obsessive-compulsive need to improve everything on the planet?
My current working theory is that if we run around like crazy people “improving” everything we don’t have to notice we are killing off the only ecosystem we’ve got. I think we don’t go into the woods because we are afraid the “us” we will meet will be a cross between Darth Vader, Sweeney Todd, and Kali. So we stay on the hedonistic treadmill being industrious, buying things that don’t make us happy for more than microseconds, but poison the planet for eons.
Personally I think there are just some things past tinkering with. A sunset on the beach in Maui. A sunrise as it first strikes Half Dome. For me, in those moments, I would prefer to pull up a chair, grab a drink and toast Nature with a sincere “Well Done” and leave it alone.