I love the cool blue light of the morning in the summer when the world is sleepy and peaceful – or at least seemingly so. Before the dazzling sun shoots its rays over the horizon and casts everything in golden light the bluish hues make the green of my yard greener, it makes the red of the peaches bundled on the tree deeper, and the colors tug at the lid of my heart, prying open the chamber where hope is found.
A new dew-covered day awaits. Between sips of coffee I inspect the progress that the work of my hands have begun and look for pests trying to undo it. My garden harkens back to memories of my childhood where the garden was a place of wonder my mother invited us in to. The earthy smell, the deep, rich soil, and the sweet flavor of the food our hands helped grow implanted the taste of a kind of pleasure found nowhere else. The sight of small plants pushing through the soil still thrill me and I watch them grow with eager anticipation like a child on Christmas Eve.
I drag a hose across my yard; the zig-zagging pattern that takes me from the garden on one side to the grapes on the other is now set in habit. My feet count out cadence across the cool, wet grass as I inspect the lawn, the sunflowers, the fruit trees, the pumpkin and zucchini, and even the ponderosas. I scan the ground for snails, my tiny nemesis. Only one snail today but its maddening presence sends me into a tizzy. Where do they come from?
I notice, to my chagrin that the weeds are back, springing up as fast as I can pull them and my mind wrestles with the allure of using pesticides. But there is something cathartic in pulling weeds, in feeling the roots struggling to hang on to the soil slowly break free in your fingertips, and know that the precious water and minerals will surely go to the vegetables inching their way toward the sky. The pride and joy that comes from toiling in my garden is a strange thing. It is a fierce protective feeling that translates into a deep love for this little patch of earth I call my own.
My world has been reduced down to a small acre lot that takes constant care and upkeep. It is a full-time job. I think about all the money spent on plants and seeds and water, and all the hours spent watering, fertilizing, and weeding and then marvel at the nagging politicians and citizens calling for less spending on our public lands.
I think of the millions of acres managed by a small cadre of range technicians, soil conservationists, physical scientists, and law enforcement officers, among others, whose thankless job it is to do the job of an army, with the budget of a non-governmental organization. I think about the money I have spent on my one little acre and multiply it by millions and gawk at the pittance national land managers are given to manage the Nation’s gardens. The scale is hard to wrap my head around.
Wendell Berry said of the Peruvian fields tended by Andean peasants in The Gift of Good Land, “It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to see how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little, they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch – picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. The prime characteristic of the native, pre-Spanish agriculture was its concentration on each individual plant, which accounts in large part for the great varietal diversity of the native crops.”
As my mind ping-pongs between the panoramic and intimate my yard lights up with the first touch of the sun, long strands of light stretch across the yard, glowing against the parts still cast in shadow. For one sweet hour nothing existed but my labor, the words I dug out of my limited vocabulary to capture my thoughts, and the solid land under my feet.
These days I measure my life not only with coffee spoons but in cool mornings and sultry evenings with my hands in soft, warm dirt. I measure my life in handfuls. Though I wish my days were filled with travel to exotic places, mountain tops, crags, and beaches, like so many I see, the earth I work anchors me to this place. As much as I long to put my feet on our Nation’s lands and taste again the wild solitude and peace they provoke, the work I do at home translates to an appreciation for the work so needed, done by so few and with such meager resources and support on our public lands.
Wes Jackson said, “…the cause of waste is alienation from the land: where there is alienation, stewardship has no chance.” We love what we invest in, what we pour ourselves into, what we give in time, sweat, and work – whether it is a career, volunteering, parenting, gardening, tending relationships, or investment in the land. When we give in this way our love bubbles over into a fierce, protective love.
As we consider our values and haggle over the economy, we would be wise to remember the origin of the word economy which is the order of households and that economic health should be judged by the health of households, both individual and communal, both on a small scale and a large scale, both personal and national, and that we have a part to play in it. E pluribus unum; out of many, one. By being little and aware of the details of our own individual lives we begin to grasp and understand the complexities of the large-scale and see how our small yet significant place in it, working in concert with our neighbors, communities, and citizenry, intricately shapes the fabric our society.
It’s not fire season yet but it’s as busy as fire season. Preparation for seasonal firefighters coming on, for training, and for fire readiness reviews fill the days, but nothing looms larger than the budget. The fire management staff meets weekly if not more often to look at the budget and try to squeeze more proverbial drops of blood from this turnip. Can we bring someone on a pay period early? Can we afford another seasonal? Can we staff our engines with the required number of people or do we put one engine out of service?
Questions like these fill my mind. I think about budget more than I’d like and I’m always the bad news bear. Nine times out of 10 if the answer is no, it’s because of budget.
Last week I spent five days in Washington D.C. for training. I didn’t get a lot of time to sight-see but I did visit the Iwo Jima memorial at night. It was stunning. While riding the Metro to and from my training I listened to the audio book The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Coincidentally, the following week I was in Phoenix for training and left town early enough to stop at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. My mind jumped back and forth between the crisp and chiseled magnificence of the monument I stood before in D.C. and the wild mountain side I found myself on a week later. They are both memorials commemorating American heroism but Yarnell Hill lies within our borders, it happened here, not on a foreign shore and marks a decidedly western tragedy.
The mountain was covered in wildflowers so prolific it looked like they were trying to erase the remnants of the fire, but the charred trees, cactus carcasses, and black stumps are still there. The thick, hazardous fuels that burned in the fire left room for new vegetation to regenerate; the by-product fuels crews produce when there is money to do this kind of work before a fire ignites and wreaks havoc because it hasn’t been done.
A sweet honey suckle scent lilted on the air and I kept my nose up, sniffing like a dog following the scent of something fantastic. I bent to smell half a dozen flowers but never discovered the origin of the fragrance. There were so many flowers leaning into the trail and whipping my legs that I looked like a bee after it’s been in a flower, the powdery pollen making light lashes across my legs before exploding into fine particles stuck to and glowing on my black pants.
It was overcast and a cold wind blew hard from the south making the lonely landscape more subdued than it already was. It wasn’t hard to imagine that fateful day when the wind shifted and turned the fire on 19 men with nowhere to go. As I walked, my mind was like a teakettle blowing its whistle in alarm each time images of this event bubbled up and mixed with my anxiety over our anorexic land management budgets. With already strangled and anemic budgets handed down by Congress and hampered by conflicting policy within the BLM, the prospect of bigger budget cuts next fiscal year from the new Administration sends a chill through my blood; not just because there will be less money, but because we will have to do more with less and many things will fall off the table. This means that saving money will take precedence over having an adequate staff to do the job, to do it well, and to do it safely.
For people not aware of the business side of wildland fire – or public lands management, the few brief mentions of budget woes in the book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots probably wouldn’t register on the radar – but they did for me. I could relate and shared the frustration with those angry and frustrated by budget constraints when I listened to how cuts to wildland fire budgets had been off-set with prison crews because they were cheaper, and how State Forester Scott Hunt warned that the cuts would have a significant impact on public safety, namely through the devastating drop in the number and availability of personnel and resources to manage the lands and fight wildfires.
So often when tragedies occur we look to the decision makers on the ground for answers: Which policies did they break? What did they miss or ignore? Could they have made better decisions? We do this not only to assess blame or to understand, but to help ourselves believe that if something different had been decided, the tragedy would not have occurred. But rarely do we look at the pernicious root cause of so many of the decisions: budget cuts made in the chambers of Congress.
This is not to say that if we had adequate budgets no one would ever die, but to suggest that budgets do play a part in how decisions are made and how safe people are. In both the Yarnell Hill Fire and the South Canyon Fire, resources were scarce when they needed them most. Fires do not get in line to ignite, they pop off like popcorn in a popper; dozens of fires can be going at once and the resources go fast. Most Incident Commanders know to order every resource they think they might need to fight a fire because if they don’t get those resources first, they might not get them at all.
Part of the problem for the BLM in particular is the policy determining which fund pays for what. There are two main pots of money: preparedness and suppression. Policy clearly defines what both are for. In the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation book (Red Book) preparedness is defined as the state of being “ready” to provide an appropriate response to the wildland fires based on identified objectives and is the result of activities that are planned and implemented prior to fire ignitions. It states that preparedness activities should focus on developing interagency response capabilities that will result in safe, effective, and efficient fire operations aligned with risk-based fire management decisions.
Suppression is putting preparedness into action to fight the fire in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Preparedness dollars are given to the district as part of their budget on an annual basis. Suppression dollars come from a national emergency fund.
The NWCG Interagency Incident Business Management Handbook (Yellow Book) states that any time worked in support of the incident will be charged to the incident. Hours worked performing regular home unit duties will be charged to the employee’s home unit funds. In other words, when you are on a fire, your time should be charged to the fire – or suppression.
Most labor costs go to preparedness, but strangely firefighters have to charge their base eight hours to preparedness even when they are suppressing fires per policy in the BLM Standards for Fire Business Management (Orange Book). Aside from the fact that this conflicts with policy outlined in the Red and Yellow books, it basically means that preparedness dollars, those set aside to get prepared for a fire, are being used for suppression, or for fighting the fire. This is detrimental for several reasons.
First, it fixes money given to the district and locks it up, giving very little wiggle room for decision-makers to make sound decisions based on the best tactics to fight the fire or be prepared for the fire season. Second, it means that regardless of where the firefighters are working, be it out of state or in a different region, that district is paying to have the labor used elsewhere. This means they not only lose the labor, but those dollars are not going to their own district – perhaps for hazardous fuels reduction. And third, this means less hiring and thus less people to manage very chaotic and complex situations, less equipment and tools for getting the job done, and less stewardship of the land being managed for the citizens of this country.
Policy states that budget should not determine how a fire is fought and yet it was on Yarnell Hill.
As I walked on that hallowed ground, an entire hill set aside in remembrance of the firefighters who died there, I thought about the American landscape and what it holds, how our Republic was literally built upon it and that people across the centuries have put sweat, labor, toil, fought for and even burned and died on it. Our lands tell these stories, they are living memorials from coast to coast, but particularly in the West where the land is the defining factor of the people, the communities, and the culture. If land management agencies lose funding, public lands will be no more.
Walking down the deserted and lonely hill, I thought of something said in the book, “We’re the front line,” Danny said to Wade. “On September eleventh, 2001, they didn’t call the navy. They didn’t call the Marine Corps. They called the policemen and the firemen. We are the soldiers of our community.”
Our public lands are the Homeland; they tell the story of our Nation and the people who built it. If we do not adequately fund land management agencies, who will manage and be stewards of our public lands, and further, will there even be any lands left to manage?
We are told that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a line used so often it’s easy to dismiss. But with a Republican controlled congress and a Republican administration in the White House, we are beginning to see what virtually unchecked power can produce. Many important issues are under attack, one of them being our public lands and how we manage them.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced two bills aimed public lands and he is not the only one. He belongs to a large cadre of Republicans not only in Utah but across the West leading a concerted effort to dismantle open access and management of iconic American landscapes and open spaces.
House Bill 621 would direct the Secretary of the Interior to sell 3.3 million acres of land that “serves no purpose for taxpayers.” That of course begs the question: Whose purpose do they serve? (See post script)
H.R. 622, the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, first introduced last year, removes the law enforcement function from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. According to Chaffetz’s website, the bill calls for deputizing local law enforcement, combined with block grant funding, to empower existing duly elected law enforcement offices to carry out these responsibilities. Posse comitatus come to mind?
In Nevada, Representative Mark Amodei introduced H.R. 243, The Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (it is also in the Senate) to prohibit the further extension or establishment of national monuments in the State of Nevada except by express authorization of Congress.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced Senate Bill 33, the Improved National Designation Process Act. This bill provide for congressional approval of national monuments and restrictions on the use of national monuments, to establish requirements for the declaration of marine national monuments, and for other purposes.
Similar bills from across the West are being sponsored in Congress by those irked by the constraints of federal law and public lands. Like many before them, these opportunistic representatives see this moment as their time to do away, once and for all, with lands set aside for the enjoyment and use of all Americans. In Utah alone they want to undo Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, and they want to do away with the Antiquities Act.
While giving away three million acres might not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and trying to help local communities is important, it is also important to understand that public lands and the conservation and management of them carry forward the long American tradition of striving for the social democratic ideals of equality and commonwealth. Retaining the last remnants of our great heritage of land benefits us all.
The sad truth about local groups or users is that they often look only at their own needs. All people do this. It takes discipline to commit in a very real way to ideals and principles, especially when they do not produce immediate benefits. Having a perspective based solely on limited local experiences ignores the rest of the country and the Nation as a whole. Everyone struggles economically; everyone wants the benefits of the government while maintaining autonomy without constraints. But there are limits to freedom and there is no guarantee in life that you will always have a thriving economy or that your way of life will never change.
As Garrison Keiller recently said in a Washington Post op-ed, “Jobs are lost to automation, innovation, obsolescence, the moving finger of fate. The carriage industry was devastated by the automobile, and the men who made surreys and broughams and hansoms had to learn something new; the Pullman porter union was hit hard by the advent of air travel and the porters sent their sons to college; the newspaper business was hit hard by Craigslist. Too bad for us. Who doesn’t get this? The idea that the government is obligated to create a good living for you is one the Republican Party has fought since Adam was in the third grade. It’s the party of personal responsibility. But there they are, promising to make the bluebirds sing. As if.”
One of the last great bastions of equality is public space, open and accessible by all. That those lands are not owned and controlled by the few is a testament to the tenacity and forethought of people who saw not only the potential benefits of preserving them, but the potential loss of not preserving them. Martin Luther King said, “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
Changing the system is not voting for politicians who tell you what you want to hear so that you can win in Congress at the expense of others. That is the system, and to continue on that path will be to witness the tides turn and see another group gain at your expense. Changing the system is working with people you might not otherwise work with to find solutions that benefits everyone to some compromised level. Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all.
Furthermore, to suggest or believe that one group deserves special protection by a majority in Congress, not for ideals of equality or justice but to maintain a status quo, is privilege. That privilege has run its course. Not because monuments have been designated or there are restrictions on industry, but because that is how life and the economy and progress work. Nothing is static. That is not to say that rural communities do not matter or deserve the Nation’s care like all other groups, it just means that old ways give way to new.
The right way to move forward is not to go backward to the “good old days” but to accept the march of time and adapt and move with it by being creative and open-minded, by working with others to find solutions that maintain traditions but also embrace progress, and by caring for others by putting yourself in their shoes and allowing them to step into yours. Different user groups who come to the table and work together have the ability to not only address local needs, but to address local needs while ensuring that National traditions and principles form the foundation of the work.
A perspective on public lands that takes into account the entire nation, our whole country, is what’s required. The long view that includes all people, the entire economy; that seeks to balance the costs and rewards among user groups equally – to say nothing of the redemptive act of restoring a respectful relationship with Native Americans – as well as the scientific benefits, the historic preservation of artifacts, and the health of ecosystems, watersheds, and biodiversity, is the hard work many ignore and some members of Congress are shirking for short term benefits at the expense of our posterity.
Our public lands embody American ideals and principles of stewardship and responsibility, the history of a young Nation’s wild and audacious drive to expand westward, of the awakening that preservation for the benefit of current and future generations is the moral thing to do, that equal and open access for all regardless of economic class is an American birthright, and yes, the economic growth that built this nation into what it is and provides benefits and quality of life we all enjoy. But they also embody this Nation’s dedication to the ideal, the ethic, that some things have value far beyond monetary worth and that they are worth preserving and protecting as they are.
Though rural people may not feel privileged, they are fortunate in ways others are not. They have open land and the freedom to roam unhindered right outside their door, they have clean air to breath and clear vistas to see, and they wake to beauty every morning. They are not encumbered with overcrowding, traffic, or pollution.
Struggling financially is never fun, but it’s easier to handle when you can escape into paradise and forget your worries for a while – to enjoy a picnic with your children in the shade of a ponderosa pine because it’s all you can afford and be queen for an afternoon knowing it’s not the lack of money, but this that your children will remember. Open spaces soothe the soul and enable one to clear their head and face the realities of life rejuvenated and refreshed. Not everyone has this at their fingertips. It is wealth that no amount of money can compensate for and yet it’s so easy to forget when the worries of life overwhelm.
The people who live near such places know this. Many claim that the best protection is no protection; don’t put it on the map in other words. There is some truth to this idea. We have all witnessed a special, secret spot get shared on social media and then watch its exposure change it into a popular destination, to our chagrin. But we don’t own these places, no matter how much we love them; they belong to everyone, young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, and from all backgrounds, genders, cultures, religious or political viewpoints, and walks of life. And without proper protections and management they are vulnerable in un-imagined ways.
Tourists and outfitters will come with or without designations and protections, and so will the oil and mining companies – but with the help of short-sighted and opportunistic politicians, the influx will not be managed well, if at all, and the aim will be profit. Those who stand in the way of that, who aren’t profitable, will be expendable.
Political expediency is the act of using forethought only when it coincides with one’s own wishes, where the most blatantly obvious facts can be dismissed or ignored because they are simply unwelcome. It is this above all else that we should be most wary of.
U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey said in 1901, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” This was the prelude to the Antiquities Act that the Iowa congressman sponsored and put before Congress and ultimately saw enacted into law in 1906. Lacey was a Civil War veteran who had seen first-hand the destruction perpetrated by man against man, but he also lived at the heyday of man against nature, when wildlife such as bison and the passenger pigeon were being hunted to extinction and the West was not only open to expansion but to wanton greed for resources such as timber and minerals, and for ancient artifacts of American antiquity.
While these places and artifacts belonged to native tribes and peoples, they had no voice in the discussion taking place between the European-American factions discussing their fate. The landscapes that held their stories, sacred sites, histories, and surviving culture would be determined by greedy businessmen, hungry ranchers, worried anthropologists, determined educators, and warring politicians. What was happening across the Southwest, whether intentionally or not, was the white-washing or cultural cleansing of pre-settlement history as sites and artifacts were looted and sold to the highest bidder.
Regimes throughout history have sought to wipe out the memory, beliefs, and histories of opposing cultures and ethnicities through book burnings or destruction of cultural and historical sites thereby making the destruction of their opposition complete. To destroy places, writings, and texts not only destroyed the physical existence of these cultures, but also their cultural knowledge. German Nazis and the Taliban in the Middle East offer a couple of examples. It became such a problem during World War II that in 1954 the U.N. adopted the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict to protect cultural heritage. They explain that cultural heritage reflects the life of the community, its history and its identity. Its preservation helps to rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities, and link their past with their present and future.
While no one here in America is engaging in intentional cultural cleansing, our history with Native Americans is well-known and documented. Our actions have bespoken an arrogance and preference for our own history over theirs, or even worse, the seizure and ownership of their history as our own, using it for prestige or profit. Like putting a new coat of paint across a mural, we have been writing over the rich history of those who came before us, and thereby in small measure, erasing their presence and cultural identity.
Despite the reality of the spoils of conquest, where we said, “This is now mine,” we eventually embraced a more communal view of natural resources and lands with the designation of public lands for the use and enjoyment of all Americans as a National Heritage and birthright.
The designation of Bears Ears National Monument was an historic if not redemptive event, not just in terms of designating the monument, but in terms of healing broken relationships and a scattered and broken past. Allowing Native Americans to co-manage the monument and have a say in the destiny of their homeland and history not only enables them to reconnect to their past, but in a significant way, to join in the present and move into the future with the rest of Americans as equals.
With a reconvening Congress meeting under new leadership and power, the ever insidious threats to the Antiquities Act and the rich heritage public lands provide is as imperiled as ever. If Congress succeeds in disposing of public lands or undoing the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, it will not only be a slap in the face to Native Americans who have long been waiting to be recognized and treated with dignity and respect, but a slap in the face to all of us who share in the communal access public lands afford. Those landscapes now hold our shared cultural heritage and our identity as well.
Despite his valiant efforts and success at getting the Antiquities Act passed, Lacey’s game and bird law came too late to save the passenger pigeon, with the death of the last bird marking the species extinction in 1914. It was a stunning symbol of the squandering of America’s natural bounty. In a speech to the League of American Sportsmen in 1901, Lacey revealed the depth of his concerns about such waste and misuse of natural resources—about, as he put it, mankind’s “omnidestructive” ways wherein he warned that if the destruction was allowed to continue, the world would “become as useless as a sucked orange (Sellars, 2007).”
If we are not vigilant, we may live to see the extinction not only of the Antiquities Act, but the extinction of our access to public lands and the natural bounty they still hold in wildlife, recreation, solitude, beauty, healing, and history. We may also let the opportunity pass to lock arms with our Native brothers and sisters and create a shared future where their voices add to the depth and meaning of our own.
Post Script: Rep. Chaffetz has withdrawn H.R. 621
We got our tickets to see Alex Honnold a month in advance. It seemed like a cool little event worth attending, not because of Alex’s climbing ability, which is incredible, but because Alex seemed like a thoughtful person who had something to say. I was more interested in him as a person than him as a climber. Did he have something to say, and more importantly, did he have something to say worth listening to?
As the date of the event grew nigh, I realized he would be in town the day I returned from work related travel. I didn’t feel well on the drive home and started to question whether I would attend the book signing and even the presentation later in the evening – which was what I really wanted to attend.
How badly did I really want to go to this thing? I asked myself.
My climbing days were lean at best and non-existent at worse. I can’t even call myself a weekend warrior as work and kids suck up most of my time and every choice invariably requires giving up one thing for another. I had also lost touch with those in the climbing community as our lives seemed to go in different directions and I felt like a poser calling myself a part of it anymore. So with 30 minutes between getting home and the book signing started, I was still up in the air, but the family wanted to go and so I hurried over. How bad could it be, right?
When we opened the door to The Desert Rat we were greeted to a line snaking its way around the small outdoor store. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was and felt a little discombobulated as we meandered through the crowd to the end of the line. We stopped and visited with friends we had not seen in what seemed like ages and I felt a twinge of remorse for the lost time because it great to see them again.
As I stood in line I realized I didn’t know anything about Honnold’s book and wasn’t sure I wanted to buy a copy just for the hell of it. What was it about? I thought. Is it just about climbing? I finally asked a guy behind me if I could look at his copy to see what the book was about.
“In Alone on the Wall, Honnold recounts the seven most astonishing climbing achievements so far in his meteoric and still-evolving career.”
It sounded okay but along with not having time to climb, I don’t have a lot of time to read, so I choose my books carefully. I didn’t want to waste my time reading a book that just recounted climbing stories. I handed the book back to the guy.
Do I really want to spend my money on this? I thought. I honestly just wanted to hear him speak. That being said, I also didn’t want to spend an hour in line just to get up there and shake the guy’s hand – how weird would that be? So I bought a copy of the book and got my obligatory signature and photo, chatted with some more friends and then headed home for dinner.
We had time to kill after eating so we sat down to watch a TV show and again I found myself up in the air about attending the presentation. I was home, it was warm and cozy, and I was relaxed and weary. It was raining and cold outside and I didn’t want to leave again. But my curiosity won out. I wanted to hear what Alex, the guy I had seen in so many Reel Rock films, had to say, because in the films he came across as someone who could stand alone and think for himself, who lived by his own code seemingly humbly and with humor, and who was not afraid to put his opinion out there. That was who I came to see and that was who I hoped to read about in the book.
In other words, I wanted to listen to Alex because I liked him.
So I bundled up and headed out again. The auditorium was packed with excited fans and when Jason Hurst finally introduced Alex, the crowd burst into applause and anticipatory cheering.
Right off the bat I was stoked about his presentation because he told us he was going to talk about his recent trip to Kenya. He was relatable, funny, witty, humble, snarky, and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed guy I had seen in the films. It was a pleasure to walk through his adventures with him. But the best parts were those when he wandered off into the world of ethics and morality.
Honnold spoke about dying glaciers, mourning elephants, and the struggle between conservation and destruction as if in wide-eyed wonder at what he had stumbled upon. His words and emotion were a mixture of awe and dismay, of sincerity and conviction and at times he seemed to be thinking out loud – and we the audience could hear him as he formed thoughts about what he had discovered.
It was refreshingly genuine. He wasn’t regurgitating what he had heard from others and he wasn’t promoting environmental tag lines that revealed the cool club he belonged to. He spoke clearly and honestly about what he saw.
Being of like mind I thought, if there was ever an effective spokesman for the moral crises that humanity faces in regard to our disregard of the earth’s systems and life and our intimate place in them, however reluctantly he may be, he is it.
Honnold did not pitch a movie about environmentalism and then spend the whole film showcasing his climbing. He went on a climbing trip and tripped into something significant that impacted him – and then it impacted us. He did not state any absolutes or try to convince the audience of anything, he stated simply what he saw and invited us to see and experience it with him. It was compelling.
At the end of his presentation I discovered that all of the proceeds from his book are going to his foundation to give to people who need it the most. I work hard for my money and have precious little of it, so I was thrilled to find out that my hard earned $20 was going to more than shaking a man’s hand, and more importantly, going toward something I care deeply about.
Mary Oliver, in describing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism said, “All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances: a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.”
Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the higher point of view.” And I think that is what Honnold shared. He climbed, but while he did, he took in the world where it reached his soul and was transformed into something more. It was about more than climbing. It was about what climbing invites you into, what you can see, and what you become through it – if you choose. I saw Honnold using his climbing wealth to give back.
And perhaps therein lies the greatest responsibility of those who contemplate and think and are moved to act: to let the world penetrate the soul and then open one’s mouth and speak authentically about it.
While I admire Alex Honnold the climber, and I know it is that which got him the platform from which to speak in the first place, his climbing is not what moved me. He moved me. I am a fan of the man and I hope that his experiences compel him to speak more, to share more of the internal make-up of who he is, because beautiful form in a person of substance is an inspiring combination the likes of which lit up my cynical mind. And the best part? He inspired my kids. That alone was worth the price of five books- and every minute it takes to read my copy.
“I ask you to stand with me at this new turning-point of our life, that we may look before and after, and judge ourselves alike in the light of early dreams and accomplished goals. We cannot too often accept the challenge of self-examination. It will hearten, it will steady, it will moralize us to reassess our hopes, restate our ideals, and make manifest to ourselves again the principles and the purposes upon which we act. We are else without chart upon a novel voyage.”~Woodrow Wilson, The Ideals of America
I’m not sure how often we get to look back, or do look back, at the life we have built – especially when intentional decisions were made in the hope of a desired end. I have not lived an intentional life, at least not the way some do, setting goals like a road map to some desired future outcome. I mostly lived my life by desires and found creative ways to fulfill them. They were short term goals that satisfied an itch but that ultimately got me nowhere beyond the goal. The person I had become had come into being absentmindedly, as if I were merely a passenger on the ship rather than the captain. It was not until my mid-thirties that I began to know who I was and what I wanted.
When I awoke and realized that I was the captain of my ship and took the helm, I saw myself and began to understand how all of the pieces of my life shaped the internal form of who I was and I liked who I was despite how directionless I had lived. The haphazardness of my life had also shaped me. There is a certain beauty in the mystery and discovery of self but there is also the dull remorse that follows discovery, as knowledge reveals lost time and opportunity.
The eventual awakening that provides a clear view into the exhilarating array of possibilities of a self-directed life if not made early in life is short-lived and inevitably constrained by the decisions made along the way that anchor one to a certain path. Perhaps this is why people seemingly stop living. They may never have really lived before, but once that perspective is gained, the burden of reality is that much heavier to bear and then all that is left is the struggle to carry on and not succumb to routine, resignation or distraction.
Two years ago I sat on the precipice of a decision. Like Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, I knew enough to know that every decision was a one-sided door and that walking through any one of them meant not going through any of the others, and further, that once I crossed the barrier between then and now, my life would turn down the road chosen – for better or worse. This decision had the potential to set my life on a trajectory of my choosing. So sitting at a soccer tournament in Las Vegas, challenged by the book I was reading, I let the world know of my impending choice, and then I jumped.
My calculations were accurate and the door I chose brought me where I wanted to go, but ironically, not what I wanted to become. Like being granted a wish from a genie, the consequences were only visible once the wish was attained.
When we are young, we don’t understand the weight of our decisions and that’s probably good. The young do so many things that the experienced are no longer willing to risk. They build mountains and seize opportunities that bring joy later in life when security and safety are paramount. But there is a difference between wanting something and wanting to be something. Not being something as in a profession, like being a lawyer, but being in terms of who you are – what you are. The first is external, the second internal.
I didn’t know what I had at the time of making my decision – which was time. Sure, there were struggles and desire for things and opportunities I didn’t have, but there was a plenitude of time for thoughtful introspection, for the formulation and sorting of ideas, for crafting ideas into something meaningful to my life. There was time to connect – to people and place. It was a fertile land, both mentally and physically. And now, though I am on the path that I chose and wanted, I look back with longing. Is that the curse of growing older? Or is it the challenge of growing older – to fight for pockets of time that enable you to infuse the mind and soul with intangible riches? To deposit life’s capital into your internal bank account that runs dry without use?
I am impotent with busyness; my mind and body consumed with work and chores and focused learning but starved for sustenance and nourishment. There is no room to roam, to let my mind float and to see. My body lacks the soreness of labor and movement. A cold front has moved into my being and I am trapped under the inversion of my decisions. I’ve succumbed so quickly – more quickly than I’d like to admit. Routine, comfort, and mindless entertainment have unwittingly become my companions. How quickly we divest ourselves of the responsibility of living intentionally.
But like Mary Oliver said, I have seen the difference between doing nothing, doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. As we get older, the dichotomy between how things are and how we’d like them to be is stark and so it is redemption we seek – renewal and meaning and depth – that signify a life well-lived, well-worn, and hard trod – but to have fulfilled that end begs repeating the question: What do I want and how badly do I want it? Because life is not static and neither are we.
“…I don’t know exactly what prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”