Wild America

Now also at www.urbanwildland.org

Peering over time's fence, into the deeply shadowed back yard that is the twentieth century, where still linger the remnants of some fifty years of my phenomenological experience (some lived directly and some absorbed, in my youth from, for instance, a close reading of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia), I would venture that from a viridic (or ‘Green’) point of view, the two most significant events of that particular time (which, with good reason, is called the American century) were this country's establishment of the National Park system and the landing of a man on the moon.

Both events profoundly impact the way we understand our place in the world, particularly in this country (although the branding of Wild America is a global phenomenon) while, at the same time, both remain firmly rooted in the traditions of two millennia of anthropocentric imperialism predicated on our Christian, God-given dominion over the Planet. But the carving out of vast tracts of land in North America as partly manicured, but still plausible wilderness, and the perspective afforded by Armstrong's moon-walk are now key elements in a shift that is beginning to re-wire Humanity's relationship within the enveloping physical, biological and spiritual ecologies that support life on Earth.

Having gotten these two declarative paragraphs out of the way (but to the theme of which I will return) I turn now to the existential matter at hand. The condition of my Life. Right. Now.

I am entirely clad in polyester: perhaps for the very first time. I have long been a fabric snob - certainly since I was dressed as a child in sample clothes that my aunt liberated from Harrods' where she was the buyer for their children's department. Petit Bateau and Grenfell were my brands, although I longed for the more plebeian, provincial togs of my mates, sourced from dubious 'outfitters' in the nearby town or a barrow at the Saturday market. One particular item I craved, affected by the local nine year old toughs, was a spearmint green, rubberized wind-cheater with an elasticized waist and a jaunty flair of fabric over the hips, redolent of a sleeved doublet. I had to make do with a stinking poofter jacket made of the finely woven cotton cloth that had been standard equipment (as my father encouragingly told me) on the Everest expeditions of 1936, 1938 and 1952.

Now, in a strange turn of events, cotton is considered to be fatally conducive, if allowed to get wet, to hypothermia, and the prospective mountaineer, trekker or back-packer in the High Sierras is advised to don synthetic fabrics. As a prospective member of that third class of intrepid adventurers, I am done up in a plastic khaki shirt and grey, oil-derivative pants, branded as Mountain Hard Wear and manufactured in Vietnam - perhaps by child labor.

Driving from Ojai, up the 33, we three - friends Will, Victoria and I - journeyed over the magnificent Santa Ynez range and into the strange confluence of oil and agriculture, of carrots and crude, that supports Ventucopa and Cuyama. Then arrives Maricopa: a disappointed town awash in poverty porn and the grim nostalgia of failure squeezed between the Carrizo Plain and the huge Midway-Sunset oil field, where only a kitty litter factory on Golden Cat Road in the near-desert scrublands, offers any hope of local employment. Skirting oil-rich Taft, we motored on to the 99, heading into a vast pall of dust and diesel smoke that hung over the Central Valley, blotting out the Sierras beyond; across the 5, past egregiously exogenous fields of cotton and rice, onwards to Bakersfield, the storied destination of Dust Bowl migrants but now a boom town targeted by California’s incipient bullet train. Then, Visalia, gateway to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, beckoned.

After a night at the Atwell Mill campground we arrived next morning, kitted out in our polyester, at the Mineral King Ranger station - the National Forest Service guard-post at the wilderness frontier. Once cleared to proceed on our five day hike we began down the glacial valley and within twenty minutes, like some ambassador of the Wild Kingdom, there appeared a black bear squarely on the trail showing no inclination to move. Once assured, perhaps, that we fully acknowledged that we had entered its ursine world, the bear moved away, lumbering up the meadow.

Although both Sierran National Parks were founded in 1890, some eighteen years after Yellowstone, it was not until the establishment of the National Park Service, under Woodrow Wilson in 1916, that these repositories of wilderness began to assume their contemporary form. They had been founded, more or less, as pleasure grounds, a familiar nineteenth typology, but the new administrative structure was mandated "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”.

Thus it was that the development of the picturesque qualities that had been the guiding aesthetic principal in the nineteenth century was replaced with notions of conservation – the explicit preservation of Wild America within borders patrolled by the quasi-military styled Park Service. Wilderness was henceforth to be sequestered in secure reservations and on full view, in perpetuity, to curious visitors from an increasingly urban and suburban America. The porosity of the frontier, where wilderness leaked into and around the infrastructure of civilization was banished in this organized attempt to corral the unruly (and usually economically marginal) and frame the scenic majesty of Wild America both as a backdrop to Imperial ambition and as a freely available instrument of commercial branding. Nevertheless, we three somehow believed we could transcend these socio-political realities and bask, for a while, in an unfettered natural world.

We walked over colls and passes, along creeks, through pine and redwood forests, across hanging valleys and the bleak geology above the tree line where glacial cirques supported lakes of unknowable depth. We swam in the late afternoons and at night, slept intermittently under bright stars and a waning gibbous moon.

Begun over fifty years ago, the mission to put a man on the moon was a product of American hubris, lingering national shame over the successful launching of the USSR's Sputnick, and the notion of extending the Imperial frontier into Space; it was enabled by an infrastructure established by the military industrial complex (initiated in WWII and expanded during the Cold War), rocket scientists looted from the ashes of the Third Reich, (personified by Wernher Von Braun who headed up the Atlas and Saturn rocket programs) and the inspiring, nationalist rhetoric of a young and supremely charismatic president.

The mission’s success had unexpected consequences: rather than heralding the dawn of America's Space Age (so long anticipated), it was Bill Ander’s iconic photo, dubbed Earthrise, shot from Apollo 8’s first manned lunar orbit and showing the moon in the foreground, that instead turned many Earthlings inward, towards a new appreciation of the fate of their own planet and their obligation to work for the survival of its ecosystems.

1969 was marked by both the first lunar landing (and Armstrong’s NASA scripted “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”) and a massive blow-out at a Union 76 oil well, off-shore of Santa Barbara. The following year, prompted by this environmental calamity, the first Earth Day was observed across the United States marking the formal beginning of the ‘Green’ movement.

Was it necessary for man to step foot on the moon? Was it necessary that I spend five days trudging past fractured granitic cliff walls and metamorphic spires, across scree, up talus slopes and down treacherous moraine drifts in Sequoia National Park?

To have vicariously trod on the moon and seen the Earth from Space, means nothing. To have back-packed in the Sierras, variously dressed in the Wild America, adventure branded, synthetic fabrics of REI, Patagonia and Mountain Hard Wear, means even less. But to be a part of the great up-welling of environmental awareness that began with the founding of the National Parks and that has acquired a new urgency in the last half century – as a tiny neuronic particle vibrating from deep within the ululating harmony of the collective human consciousness, as it is begins to give voice to a new, post-Carbon song of the world - is something.

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