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This past week, W.S. Merwin was appointed American’s 17th Poet Laureate. Deciding to write about Merwin opened a door in my memory.  I thought back to particular lines and spent an hour in the books where I knew I’d find them, each one taking me back to who and where I was when I first read them. And today, the lines still lingering with me all seem to be saying the same thing: that as a culture, we are approaching the end of something.

From One Story

When there is no more story, that will be our story.

When there is no more forest, that will be our forest.

From The Last One

Well they cut everything because why not.
Everything was theirs because they thought so.

Witness

I want to tell

what the forests

were like

I will have to speak

in a forgotten language.

I first met William Merwin at a writer’s conference in Montana. He spoke not about poetry but about his efforts to thwart plans for destructive geo-thermal development on his beloved island of Maui. I remember being surprised at the level to which this gifted artist had gone in his activism. In the years since, Merwin has inspired me to believe in whatever comes as a result of continual direct contact with nature and natural systems.  From him, I’ve learned that in the case of environmental destruction caused by greed and shortsightedness, anger and frustration are normal, but can lead to paralysis. I’ve learned to remember that we humans are no different or more important than any other species and that believing otherwise is at the deep root of our problems. Through his example, I have learned the value of listening.

Each year the Library of Congress appoints a new Poet Laureate after consulting with former appointees, the current Laureate and distinguished poetry critics. Each individual poet “serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans”.  In the past, Robert Hass created the “River of Words” program to encourage creative environmental stewardship among young people. Rita Dove brought African Culture to the forefront and Maxine Kumin created poetry workshops for women.  Consciously or not, selectors seemed to have picked the right poet for the right time.  Consciously, Merwin deserves this honor. He has dozens of books to his credit and has won every major national and international poetry award. He is 83 years old. Unconsciously, his message—as if from the future—of acceptance and responsibility for what we’ve done to this planet, must be needed on the growing list of evidence that our species is in trouble and we don’t really know what to do about it.

We visited William and his wife, Paula, at their home in Hai’Ku Hawaii, during the holidays a few years ago. They live on what was a pineapple plantation when they bought it thirty years ago, which they leveled and replanted with native vegetation and seeds from the world’s most endangered palms.  Today their perfect simple house is surrounded by island paradise with palm trees too big to wrap your arms around, ponds, birds, and even frogs.  One night we were talking in their living room and I told William how excited I was that so many young writers wanted to make a difference with their work.

“That’s nice,” he said, “but I think it’s unfortunate.”  When he saw the shock on my face he explained. “If you sit down to write with the goal of making a difference, you’re not likely to succeed,” he said.

“What would you say to them?”

“I would tell them to write the very best story they can. -That story will make a difference.”

I’ve thought about that nearly every day since.  I’ve come to believe that stories, when told as honestly, as unapologetically, and from as close as possible to that deep unconscious space where we share the entire evolutionary history with every human who ever lived,  hold the code to our survival.

From Cover Note

…I hope I make sense to

you in the shimmer of

our days while the world we

cling to in common is

burning for I have not

the ancients’ confidence

in the survival of

one track of syllables

nor in the ultimate

moment of insight that

supposedly will dawn

once and for all upon

a bright posterity

making clear only to

them what passes between

us now in silence

on this side of the flames

.

“I consider that the natural biological manner of living is constitutively aesthetic and effortless, and that we have become culturally blind to this condition. In this blindness we have made beauty a commodity, creating ugliness in all dimensions of our living, and through that ugliness, more blindness in the loss of our capacity to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, and to understand the interconnectedness of the biosphere to which we belong. We have transformed aesthetics into art, health into medicine, science into technology, human beings into the public….and in this way we have lost the poetic look that permitted us to live our daily life as an aesthetic experience. Finally, in that loss, wisdom is lost. What is the cure? The creation of the desire to live again, as a natural feature of our biosphere, the effortlessness of a multidimensional human living in a daily life of aesthetic experiences.”

–Humberto R. Maturana

We have been working with Tracy Aviary to develop the Children’s Art Park for almost three years. We are excited to partner with Tracy Aviary this summer to offer children’s art programming in the ArtPark on Saturdays. Click on the image for a link to the info on their webpage.

On Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar: The Man in the White Hat — to be published in The Progressive Magazine in June.

Click below

Williams 6.2010

A lot has happened in the week since attending the first of the San Juan County Public Lands Discussions. Especially in my own mind. We’ve begun a series of blog posts to keep our supporters advised about what we’re experiencing during this process.  As we prepare for the next meetings—May 5 and 6—I’m wondering how best to spend our allotted time.

 

Nokai Dome -- San Juan County

 

Although we’ve been asked to comment specifically on the areas we listed as priorities along with the uses and conflicts associated with those areas, we’ve focused on more general concepts.  Last week, I focused my remarks on values, specifically those mentioned in the Wilderness Act of 1964.  I talked about three values—a) primeval/primitive (about how more people lived in what is now San Juan County 800 years ago than live there now, and how for thousands of years, primitive cultures thrived there continuously, compared to the 130 years the current population has eked out a living, and perhaps we have something to learn from our early ancestors); b) Natural processes (experience in the wilderness  is being face to face with the life force, and suddenly part of a much larger and more fascinating world, and yes, according to Mormon scripture, seeing “God moving in all his majesty and power”); and c) opportunities for solitude (especially in this world of growing noise, which according to George Prochnik’s book, In Pursuit of Silence, could be responsible for everything from high blood pressure and depression to our current political polarization.)

I’m fairly comfortable with the fact that no one is attending these meetings in an effort to make up their own mind about wilderness in San Juan County and that regardless of how articulate we are about wilderness, there will be little if any metanoia (I love this word which means “a transformative change of heart, a movement of the mind”). Still, this may be as good a venue as any to introduce new ideas articulating why wilderness matters.

Listening to wilderness opponents go on and on about access—wilderness designation is nothing but the closing down of public lands to the public– has solidified for me something I’ve heard and suspected for a long time: we rarely talk publically about what we experience in the wilderness and why we care so deeply. We’ve always been clear that wilderness needs protection whether or not we ever get to actually see it.

Perhaps in the next series of meetings I’ll focus on the roads that will remain open even if the maximum amount of wilderness is designated.  I’ll talk about how important these roads are to anyone who needs access to what may actually be the “middle of nowhere”, if only to park, pull out a lawn chair, and sit watching life working at full force, filling up with perfect air and time and the most massive form of hope.

Early last month, the Utah Wilderness Coalition got a letter from Robert Bennett, one Utah’s two U.S. Senators, inviting us to be involved in process to determine the future of public lands in San Juan County. Based on the definition of “Wilderness” in the 1964 Act, there are nearly 1.5 million acres of it in this corner of Southern Utah. There are nearly infinite uninterrupted views, rivers and creeks (named and unnamed), massive darkness (at night), and deep blue skies the size of heaven (during the day). There are thousands of sites where the line drawn between now and our prehistoric past are thin and vague. There are red rock towers and buttes, smooth canyon walls, and mesas of interminable width and length. There are big horn sheep and mountain lions and hundreds of birds depending on the season. Throughout, the solitude is nearly the thickness of water. There are many roads.

Wednesday, I’ll be going to Monticello, Utah, for the first in a series of eight meetings, each one designed to address the “ecological, cultural, social, and economic values” in specific regions of the county.

To be invited to these meetings we had to submit a list of our priority areas, ranked in order of importance. At first this seemed like asking parents to rank their children.   But we got strategic.  We realized that due to the diligence on the part of many organizations dedicated to preserving wilderness on one hand, and on the other, the growing acceptance of wilderness as part of the status quo, many of the most significant areas are likely to be suggested for designation by many others involved in this process.  We prioritized our list according to areas that might not otherwise be included as part of the discussions.

The Glen Canyon Wilderness is at the top of our list. I’ve spent time in parts of this region, wandering among sandstone outcroppings, following the shadows of birds toward clouds that at first seem permanent and close. I’ve explored deep rocky canyons whose names (Cheesebox, Gravel) have deflected attention, leaving them alone and full of wildness. Last week when I returned from a weekend at the far edge of this wilderness, I told a friend that I’d been to the most remote place in America.

“Probably not as remote as part of Alaska,” he said and I agreed. And then he said that officially the most remote place in America is in the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, any point of which is “at least twelve miles from a road”.  He’s right, if that’s how a “remote” place is defined.

I mentioned that there are many roads in and around the wild areas in San Juan County. There illegal roads which off-highway vehicles (All Terrain Vehicles, 4WD vehicles, and dirt bikes) have pioneered. But there are legal roads which have been used for generations, but actually create the “opportunity for solitude” guaranteed by the Wilderness Act.  Otherwise, these places are just too far away.

When I talk about roads at Wednesday’s meeting, I’ll be talking about the threats of illegal roads on the values that Senator Bennett want us to discuss. I’ll talk about how illegal roads make it possible for professional traffickers in ancient artifacts to desecrate the graves of our ancestors. And about how  use of these roads in these times of a warming climate create dust that fouls the air and coats high mountain snowpack with dust, causing it to melt sooner. I’ll talk about how what we need are large intact areas to protect biodiversity, remind us where we come from and what is essential.  I might read my favorite Mormon scripture, which I insist is about wilderness:

The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand? Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving  in his majesty and power.  (from Doctrine and Covenants Section 88 vs. 45-47)

I won’t have much time, so I probably won’t talk about how I believe that since we evolved in wilderness we are at our best out there. Or Thoreau and how “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, and isn’t now a good time to be thinking about this?

I’ll let you know how it goes.



Most winter afternoons, Jack Turner can be found walking slowly along the frozen Moose-Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park, which is where I found him one day a few years ago. He was wearing a lofty down parka, padded pants, practical boots, and his huge mittens had turned his hands into paws. I was just back from the massive Outdoor Retailer trade show which is held in Salt Lake twice each year. 2,000 outdoor gear companies get together there to exhibit the latest in equipment designed to keep users safe and clean and comfortable while going faster and faster up and down steeper mountains and through wilder rapids and across wider and drier deserts. At least that’s how I saw it.

Jack Turner

During the past three decades, I watched the land conservation movement pass through three distinct phases. Early on, nearly everyone who climbed mountains and ran rivers and explored wild places was also a conservationist. We learned to ski and climb and backpack and mountain bike because we couldn’t get to the most amazing and beautiful—the wildest—places any other way. And once we got there, the wildness stabbed deep into us and something we couldn’t describe shifted inside and from then on, as if we had no choice, we wanted to take care of those places–guarantee that wildness. Then, for awhile—in the eighties, I think, being an “outdoor person” became cool and new gear technology made it easier for more and more people to get out in the wilds. Even if everyone didn’t act on it, anyone out there under their own power claimed to be an ‘environmentalist. And now and for the past twenty years, being active outdoors seems only randomly connected with being active in land protection. When I can I go to the Outdoor Retailer show to support the Conservation Alliance, which is a small but growing group of gear manufacturers that understands what seems so obvious—if we don’t protect the wild outdoors, no one will need outdoor gear.  This concerned me and when I’m concerned I go talk to Jack.

Jack was concerned about this, too, but for a different reason. After forty years of exploring the most beautiful and remote mountain ranges and wilderness areas in all the world, Jack is concerned that today, those young people spending every available moment moving around in the wildest places are more interested in recreation or speed or adventure or style or exercise, than they are about meaning or understanding or the existential value of pure experience. Continue Reading »