Below is one in a series of letters to an ecosaboteur, declared by our government an “ecoterrorist,” who is serving 96 months in federal prison. In his most recent email, this individual, who I will call Saboteur, wrote: “Anatole France came close to the theme that Sartre was later to exploit: the tragic solitude of the thinker in a hostile community……….. Prison is the most hostile of all communities…” The subject line of his email was “alone.” He had written previously that he felt now, at the tail end of his sentence, that he was losing his mind.
His inspiration to act – he destroyed fossil fuel infrastructure – was love of the natural world, wild places, wild flora and fauna. My reply to Saboteur, who turned 62 this year, was an attempt to cheer him up:
I’m sorry I missed your last few calls. I was out taking my 10-yr-old daughter backpacking. And since she asks questions about you often enough (as I talk about you so often), I told her that you spent a good part (the best part?) of your 40s and 50s taking nieces and nephews into the wild with backpack, on foot and free and easy. To assuage your loneliness, forthwith some random notes on my trip with Josie up Plateau Mountain in the Catskill range.
Now the Catskills, mind you, is not a range at all, not orogenic, formed by tectonic folding of the earth’s crust, but is in fact an eroded plateau, an uplift dissected into pieces much like the Colorado Plateau has been dissected. Except this violent erosive process was made gentle with the help of glaciers, the most significant of which was the Wisconsonan Glacier, which lasted 75,000 to roughly 11,000 years ago. This last glaciation rounded the edges of the high points of the plateau, carved rolling valleys and cirques, created shallow river corridors with fast run-off, and, where there might have been impossibly walled canyons in a plateau of the American West, fashioned instead narrow notches where the cols of the “peaks” gloomily come together. The major peaks of the Catskills plateau ascend to a relatively uniform height, between 3500 and 4000 feet, and at a distance they have the table aspect of mesas. What distinguishes them most clearly from the plateau country of the West is the rich rushing green: the deciduous oaks, beeches, birches, and the evergreen conifers, the Eastern white pine, balsam fir, spruce.
Plateau Mountain, as its name suggests, is the most canyon-country-like of these peaks. The climb to the top of Plateau is from a v-shaped col called Stony Clove Notch, also called the Devil’s Notch. The trail from Stony Clove Notch rises nearly 2000 feet in the space of 1.3 miles. A difficult climb — especially for a ten-year-old girl shouldering a 15-pound pack.
It is of course as green as the ancient English mythic forests where the Green Man lives, he who peaks behind ferns in the woods, who might kill you, but is mostly loving. A few years back, when she was six or maybe seven, Josie and I were planting seeds, building our vegetable garden, and I told her bedtime stories about the Green Man who leapt from the forest and could eat a fallen man, woman, or child who it saw as flesh to rejuvenate. Human beings as compost. Which we are.
There has been terrific heat over the last month in the lowlands around the Catskills: ninety degree highs, day after day of unbroken sun and blue sky, rarely seen here, probably a new weather regime of climate warming. But in the higher reaches of the mountains this heat softens, takes on a delightful aspect, libertine and easeful, with silken zephyrs, and bringing, most importantly, the chance to travel in the backcountry with barely any weight. A normal Catskills in summer is sunny for a minute, then rainy, foggy, dismal, doomy, blowing a gale, or still as death and full of bugs and humidity — and all these strange troubled faces of the mountains can show in the space of days. Which means preparation and a lot of equipment.
Now that a hot calm clear-blue-eyed weather had stabilized, Josie and I traveled light on our ascent of Plateau Mountain, starting the climb late in the day, around 6 pm, with sunset not two and half hours away, and the long tail of twilight until 9:30 pm or a little later.
The trail was very steep. We toiled and sweated. Josie complained not one bit. She rallied me to her side when I slowed. The air was still. The insects were quiet. No brooks or streams or rills ran off the peak; we’ve had little rain lately, and the land is in the early stages of drought. I worried about our water. I had brought a gallon for the both of us, taken from the tap at home, and a water filter in case we found something running. A few springs burble in wet years on the high Catskill peaks, but for the most part these are dry places. We got thirsty. Husbanded the water. Lots of sweat and groans, the good and happy kind, as everywhere along the trail there were ledges and boulders and cobbles and minor difficulties galore. I worried about the water, and I worried about the time — it was dusk now and we were hardly nearer the rim of the mountain, as Plateau is one of those “peaks” in the Catskills that really does form a mesa rim.
At about 3,000 feet of elevation, relief: a breeze picked up, the satiny zephyrs of which I spoke. We were both of us soaked in sweat, wet to the skin, wet down to our wool socks (for even in summer on the trail I’ve taught Josie to wear only wool socks). The stirring air drove through our soaked clothes, acted with the effect of evaporative cooling, the same action of what they call a swamp cooler in the aridlands.
Still we climbed. The trail faced west and now there was a sunset of marvelous red-pink-purple immensity that we caught sight of through the rustling leaves of the silver birches and the paper birches. Soon, the full dark, moonless, time for headlamps. Josie was afraid. Bears, she said. I had a pistol strapped to me, and showed her the gun to allay her fears, clearing the chamber and handing it to her. “Looks like a blaster!” she said, being a Star Wars fan. She held and weighed it without judgment, as one might any other tool.
For the most part you don’t need a gun out here, not for bears or anyone else. Subjective risk and objective risk are two explicitly competing worlds – often comically at odds – and the subjective risk, Josie’s perception of it, was allayed a bit (meaninglessly) with the knowledge that ol’ backpacker dad carried a gun to deal with an almost non-existent objective risk. I told her the greatest risk on this wondrous mountain was that we might happen on another Homo sapiens playing music on a portable IJoy Beachbomb sound system. Blind and deaf hominids as they hike deep in wilderness need to get terribly lost and never be able to recharge their Beachbombs.
We climbed and climbed, the trail narrowed now to the cone of light from our headlamps, the breeze blew stronger and warmer, all the living world on the steep mountainside shook and danced and hushed. With our lamps we groped up the final stretch along a series of ledges, and at the top, where the wind blew fiercest, we looked for a place to lay our sleeping bags, found one in the duff of high country firs and pines, and hugged. We hugged! And did a little dance, celebration of finding a place to sleep that was so endearing, so lovely. The perfume of the balsam fir filled the air. Here was the revealed edge of the world, here was a small taste of immensity.
Let it never be said, however, that such glory is because of conquest. It is not glorious by the measures of the deranged creature called the Competitive Man, who keeps by his side the sick concubine Competitive Woman-who-Wants-to-Be-Man. It is not glorious by the measure of some inane clown-mimicry of a climb up K2, Kilimanjaro, fastest ascent (fastest masturbation), fastest descent, etc. etc., ad absurdum.
The glory is when the mere walker in the woods, the animal Homo sapiens, is at the still point of the turning world: “Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered….Except for the point, the still point.”
A small creature, a silly creature, a stupid and contemptible creature given the industrial culture he’s created, but also, free of that culture, a loving and sweet and gentle creature who needs only to find the still point.
And on the rim of Plateau Mountain, two creatures, father and daughter, now lay down at their camp to sleep.