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On the Natural World
Part: The Tower
In the beginning, one man saw it. In a sudden fit of anger, Ned Ludd destroyed several of the early industrial machines in England. He developed followers and a name — King Ludd — but people were hanged, and that was the end of that.
As Lord Byron once said, “Down with all kings but King Ludd.”
Unlike most of them, he actually did some good during his reign, albeit too little, too late. So now, we are having to create laws and impose fines just to keep people from paying so much attention to the latest thoughts of their five hundred Twitter “followers” that they end up totaling their cars. Now we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
I often wonder what God thinks when he looks at the human race. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a Christian, and it doesn’t matter if you even believe in religion. That’s not the point. Whether it’s your favorite deity or your favorite evolutionist, I think it would be rather difficult for any half-intelligent being to look at this world and not conclude that Homo sapiens sapiens has done a pretty good job of screwing it up, particularly here in these United States of America.
It started with technology. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in England, spreading throughout every developed country by the twentieth century (while most of the rest of them squander along in cycles of famine and revolution), and continuing through today’s society of smartphones and GPS, the world’s technology has steadily “progressed,” while people have become increasingly attached to it and increasingly ignorant. As the sheer volume of technology increases, the general human trend is to depend more upon it, thus knowing less about everything else. As a result, many people are gradually forgetting the Earth God made and destroying it, oftentimes without even realizing it.
Our industrialization led to technology which led to more technology. By now, the next new thing is coming seemingly every week, and the latest version of everything is always a little bit faster and a little bit better. The ubiquity of technology means that people come to expect the speed it gives them, and gradually to expect it in every aspect of their lives where it shouldn’t even be.
It influences the mind as well. The popularity of certain games on certain devices has already begun to cause addiction that is very similar to drug addiction. There is also the internet, which is overwhelmingly the chief source of people’s information because millions can access it for free with a single click. The problem is, all of those people can just as easily put their own version of information on display. The internet is anything but reliable, yet it tends to not be treated that way, so the lack of accurate knowledge grows. Generally speaking, technology is now used so much that people are commonly unaware of issues happening around them, and when they use technology to learn about these issues, the message is often too distorted or politically influenced to tell the facts how they are.
There are over seven billion of us on the planet, a number that adds up to result in an irrefutably large human impact. With so many people, the human race can be said to carry the Earth on its head, so when it shoots itself, the world must soon come crashing down as well. Because of technology, the human race is in fact shooting itself. The speed effect technology creates now means that doing what is easiest and fastest is a constant course of action, yet it is one with devastating consequences. So many people are wasteful. They hardly ever recycle, especially if a trash can is closer, and if a trash can isn’t close either, it goes on the ground. They do it because it is easy and fast, and they are used to easy and fast. But when that wrapper ends up strangling a brown pelican in the Gulf of Mexico — one of those lucky enough to survive the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster — we are just one step closer to another species’ extinction. Not that too many people realize, though, because there is a lack of accurate knowledge. Everyone is trying to keep up with everyone else and what everyone else thinks in a technological society, and in the process, they end up forgetting about and hurting the planet that sustains them.
The world of Ray Bradbury’s eye-opening Fahrenheit 451 is coming true, a world with cars moving so fast that the outside world is a blur of color and presidents who are elected depending dominantly on physical appearance, all because of technology. Today, most historians and political analysts agree that Abraham Lincoln could never be elected president because he would be found as too unattractive to the human mind, and today’s speed technology would display every detail of his life for anyone with computer access to see. As Bradbury says in his novel, “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” People today are hardly ever bothered by anything like that, and that’s a shame because the list of what needs looked at just keeps on getting longer; instead, the likes of celebrity scandals, insulting tweets, et cetera are fueled by technology and continue to become ever more important concerns that routinely block out the true problems.
Metaphorically, this is best summarized by Robert Frost. Frost is my favorite poet, primarily because of his familiar but unique poem entitled “The Road not Taken,” in which he states that where “two roads diverged in a wood,” he “took the one less traveled by, and that [made] all the difference.” The road Frost took, the better one, has become less and less traveled over time, while the other becomes increasingly crowded (seven billion and going nearly straight up, according to the population graphs). I think Rachel Carson, one of the few among the likes of Ned Ludd and Edward Abbey, puts it best in her impactful 1962 book Silent Spring: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
We need change, and quickly. Too much harm has already been done. Just ask the coral reefs. The ozone layer. The glaciers. The polar bears. Irreversible change for the worse has and will continue to occur unless there is a switch to the road without disaster at the end.
Of course, someone will call all of this out. Someone will go so far as to ridicule a writing as controversial as Silent Spring. In the 1960s, a chemical industry spokesman by the name of Robert White-Stevens declared the following: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages.” Says the chemical industry spokesman (her book focused on pesticide use).
This is an extreme exaggeration with a degree of correctness. One must, however, ask how bad a decline of environmentally harmful technology would really be. Would there be effects? Sure. But would it be worse than what waits at the end of the overcrowded road from Frost’s poem? Would it be worse than the dystopian world of Bradbury’s satire? Whether you’ve read the novel or not, I think the question begins to answer itself. Unless, of course, you don’t know the meaning of dystopian.
The point is that the alternative is bad. To what extent? Let me say this: we are like an asteroid. As Al Gore once stated, the technology and ignorance of today “is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid. This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc: it is us.” We are shooting ourselves in the foot. Extinction, pollution, destruction: it is all related, and the results of each one are the same, while the culprit of each one is us.
Part: The Princess
You may have noticed the name Edward Abbey previously mentioned. It will soon be mentioned many times more. Now here is some background information: [monkey wrench: (noun) 1. a wrench having an adjustable jaw permitting it to grasp nuts or the like of different sizes 2. something that interferes with functioning; an obstacle] (dictionary.com). Let us focus on the second definition.
In 1975, Edward Paul Abbey published a novel entitled The Monkey Wrench Gang. This satirical work depicts civil disobedience in the American Southwest and is oft considered a catalyst of the environmental activism movement. As “one of the country’s foremost defenders of the natural environment,” Abbey held views quite similar to each of the book’s four main characters, who more or less travel around vandalizing construction sites and blowing up railroads. It is one of the best books I have ever read.
If it is not obvious enough from the previous description, I will say that Edward Abbey was a unique person from birth who thought what he thought and didn’t given an expletive whether anyone else agreed. To describe what he thought, it only needs to be said that he was watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for multiple years as part of a possible terrorist watch list. Fortunately, he was smart enough to convey these thoughts into controversial writing, where they could influence the minds of readers everywhere, as opposed to controversial actions, which would probably just make people mad. There is also the fact that this establishment is one with the right of free speech but not so much one with the right to free explosions and infrastructure inhibitions — he couldn’t be put in jail. He did, however, once say that although he was not organizing any civil disobedience, “if someone else wanted to do it, [he’d] be there holding a flashlight.” Through the latter half of the twentieth century, Edward Abbey went to extremes greater than any other writer to protect the American West.
Most people don’t feel this strongly about environmental preservation and the limiting of technological “progress.” For the record, most people don’t feel that strongly about anything. Except maybe politics, depending on the day. Abbey, though, is different because he saw it all and saw what was happening to it. As a teenager, he hitchhiked his way across America, from Pennsylvania to Seattle to Arizona. He was stunned by the natural beauty of what he saw and was thus inspired to write about it for most of the rest of his life because he also was stunned by how quickly it was being taken over.
Eventually, over the years of attacking the industrial, technological mega-machine that was attacking his world, Abbey wrote numerous works that tell me three things. The first involves the unique qualities of the driest of deserts, those qualities that may not even seem to exist: “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, ensuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be” (cases in point: Las Vegas and Los Angeles). No matter how desolate or inhospitable an environment might appear, everything is the way it is for a reason, and there is beauty if you look in the right places. There is no need to change it (cases in point: Lake Powell and Lake Mead).
The second thing is that “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” That just happens to be precisely what ours is doing, despite the fact that we need it so.
The natural world is an incredible place that few souls truly see a lot of. In particular, America has a rather astonishing array of features, arguably a greater variety than any other country on Earth. From the coastal swamps of Florida to the rugged rocks of the Maine coast to the glaciers of Alaska and the sculpted stone of Utah that so captivated Abbey, there are endless vistas for the eye to find. And like Edward Abbey, those who see these wonders become the few who realize their importance in maintaining the sanity and understanding of society and of the individual, things that have not been maintained as of late and are the causes of the current situation. And Mr. Abbey, I should say, is not the only one.
There is Ms. Carson. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
There is Mr. Bradbury. “Stuff your eyes with wonder . . . live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
There is me. I am lucky. I have seen some of the places that could go on a list of this nation’s best natural wonders. And it is true. Living in a world subject to accumulated technological abuse and ignorance takes a toll on the body and mind as well as the Earth. Visiting a world without those things heals, whether it be the finest of the national parks or the trees in fall colors a mile from my house. “We can have wilderness without [a functioning society]. We can have wilderness without human life at all, but we cannot have [a functioning society] without wilderness.” And I truly believe that.
There is a problem. It has been coming on for centuries, and it will be hard to fix, but the Earth has too much to offer for us to simply get rid of it. Besides, if we do, we will not survive in the long-term.
Part: The Ladder
Once said a man named Eldridge Cleaver, “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” Many technological “innovations” fall into the latter part of this quotation. But there is an exception. Photography.
The small girl runs around the aquarium, a trip that counts as a birthday gift from her parents. Her hand holds a Kodak disposable camera, taking pictures left and right of every fish in every school. The camera is filled up in ten minutes, and most of its pictures merely show dark blurs. Not this type of photography.
The Nikon D610 is stashed carefully in a side pocket of the backpack. A long day on the trail, some good sleep, an early rise. The sun soon does the same. A spur of the moment, quick shot, followed by a surge of joy. A great shot, but carry on now — miles to go before I sleep. This type of photography.
This type of photography. The kind that stuns. The kind that demands a second look, and then a third and a fourth, and each time you look at it you notice something new. The kind that shows people something they were unaware of. The kind that changes minds, and that which is unique, like Peter Lik’s. If you haven’t seen his stuff, you should. I am blown away by it, as I hope everyone is. If you aren’t, there is likely something wrong with you, and it is probably best for the sake of mankind that you jump straight into Fahrenheit 451 (whenever they get around to inventing a time machine, that is).
Photography is amazing in that it is able to snatch a single instant out of the hands of time and preserve it for much longer. In a way, it is its own time machine, a characteristic that enables it to be part of the solution. For instance, a big question of today is this: “Can the modern world sustain beauty it hasn’t created itself?” Photography can help answer that question. In Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, two photographs are displayed from the exact same angle showing a Patagonian ice field. One is from the 1920s, one from the 2000s. First, there is the ice field, with tons of ice and some snowy peaks in the background, and then there is a barren valley — with no ice at all. Acres upon cubic acres of it simply vanished in a few decades. It is heartbreaking, but just like that, there is preserved evidence and an answer to an important question. Photography can do that.
National Geographic is a famous magazine that is renowned for its photography. A recent issue was its 125th anniversary, The Photo Issue. In particular, one article does an incredible job of explaining photography’s importance. In it, Robert Draper says, “[This] magazine’s latter-day explorers are often tasked with photographing places and creatures that a generation later may live only in these pages. How do you walk away from that?” Answer: we can’t. We need to record it all now because at the rate things are going, much of it will soon be gone forever. Pictures can keep these objects in memory, and they will be amazing pictures forever.
And an equally, if not more important, part of photography is recording what is already being messed up so that the masses might realize that there is a problem. Also from The Photo Issue is this quotation from Brent Stirton. He says that “photography is a weapon against what’s wrong out there. It’s bearing witness to the truth.” That is true. An example is the Patagonian ice field. Here is another.
Ivan Macfadyen is one of those men who enjoys the risk and freedom of crossing oceans in small boats. He made a trip across the Pacific ten years ago, and he made one recently. What he saw this time around scared him. An abundance of life was replaced by an abundance of garbage of all shapes and sizes. “In a lot of places, [the men] couldn't start [the] motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable,” an image that is simply sad. There also was an encounter with men from a ship that had been fishing at (killing) a nearby reef. They gave Macfadyen five huge bags of fish, saying that “[it] was just a small fraction of one day's catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing.”
Macfadyen’s conclusion is that “the ocean is broken,” and he is right. It, among other ecosystems, is in fact broken, sometimes seemingly beyond repair. Yet photography is powerful enough to potentially show this truth to the world and create change. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
This seems good. Photography can record what is still right in this world while it still exists and also record what is wrong so that people may realize that something is wrong. Okay.
There is still a problem though.
Let me start by telling the astute reader that I am indeed able to count. Yes, this is the third thing that the works of Edward Abbey tell me. It is this: “A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, and enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” Verbal descriptions and even photography should not and cannot be the only ways in which one visits the natural world. Why? As the explorer John Wesley Powell once said, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.” This applies not just to the Grand Canyon but to everywhere. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if that is true, then an experience must be worth a million pictures. We all must experience the Earth to know it and experience it to want to save it.
So on that note, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, and dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” As the great Henry David Thoreau once said, it is “now. Or never.” I place my ballot with now, because I want to switch roads. Do you? If so, action is a necessity.
And finally, I will end with an image. I am at an observation point in Grand Canyon National Park (beyond the technical end of the path, since that is, of course, where the real park begins). I go down and across and up, in front of a boulder, beside a tree. Then it happens. The chatter of the stereotypical tourists with flip flops and without water fades completely away. It is replaced by utter silence, except the call of some bird maneuvering skillfully over the abyss. I can see forever in every direction, miles and miles of brown and orange toned rocks with perhaps a glimpse of river a mile below, and I feel like I am the only human left on the Earth and that this is how we were meant to live. And it is beautiful.
God bless America. Let’s save some of it.