A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H.—The wind on the peak of Mount Washington—the East Coast’s highest point, where some of the most erratic and treacherous weather in the world occurs—reached 60 miles an hour the day I was there with my family. Backpackers huddled in the biting chill next to large boulders or congregated in the lobby of a snack bar and gift shop that extract money from the thousands of tourists who ride the cog railroad or drive up the auto road from the base of the mountain each summer.
This strange confluence, where those who hike to the peak and those who ride in cars and trains meet in uneasy silence, is emblematic of the clash of cultures that threatens to doom the planet and the human species. One group knows and respects the power of nature, is able to feel its majesty and is aware of our insignificance and smallness before the cosmos. The other, enamored of the machines that obliterate distance and effort, and that insulate us from the natural world in a technological bubble, is largely dead to the rhythms that sustain life.
The narration given during the rail trip up the mountain is about the technological glory of the rack-and-pinion rail line, in place since 1868. This narrative presents the weather and steep slopes as ominous elements that human engineers defeated. In truth, the lacerations caused by the rail tracks and the automobile road—along with the tawdry tourist attractions on the summit that include a small post office from which visitors can mail picture postcards—desecrate the mountain.
The backpackers at the summit were resting, many after climbing up Tuckerman’s Ravine, where parts of the rocky ledges are at 45 degrees, a trek that can take five hours. Some had been hiking for days or weeks. Half a dozen thru-hikers, instantly recognizable by their spartan backpacking gear, motley clothing, layers of dirt and bedraggled hair, had started in Georgia last spring at Springer Mountain. By the time they finish this fall atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, they will have walked 2,181 miles at a pace of about 15 miles a day and largely cut themselves off from the outside world for almost half a year. They and the other hikers watched the gaggle of tourists, many of whom rushed a few steps to the official summit of Mount Washington to get their pictures taken, buy sweatshirts at the gift shop or eat hot dogs, chips or plastic-wrapped sandwiches in the snack bar.
Those whose lives pay homage to the sacred are considered by many in the modern world to be eccentrics and cranks. On the other hand, those who live disconnected from the sources of life, who neither fear nor honor nor understand the power of nature, who place their faith in human technology and human power, are celebrated and rewarded with power as they propel the planet and the species toward extinction. The natural world, if we do not radically reconfigure our relationships with each other and the ecosystem, will soon teach us a severe lesson about unbridled hubris.
“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world,’ ” Max Weber wrote. “Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.”
Hannah Arendt called our malaise “world alienation.” She warned that it leads to contempt for all forms of life.
We do not have the power to make a new world. We only have the power to destroy or preserve the world we inhabit. We will either recover the sacred or vanish from the Earth. Those who do not respect the force of nature, who do not intimately know and understand its power, are doomed by it. The Native Americans got this right.
The Abenaki (pronounced OBB-uh-nan-hee and translated as “people of the dawn”) lived for thousands of years in the shadow of what we know as Mount Washington. The tribe called the mountain Agiochook, or “Home of the Great Spirit,” and named the life force Manitou. The Abenaki believed that when one violated or desecrated the natural world, Manitou unleashed destructive fury. Within the tribe, the mountain and the rest of the natural world were infused with spirits for good and spirits for evil. The Abenaki knew the destructive power of hurricane-force winds, subzero temperatures, floods and avalanches and the inevitability of death, which could arrive without warning. They had the capacity for awe. They did not venture above the tree line onto the tundra and rock near the summit of Agiochook. This space was reserved for the gods.
But the arrival of the Europeans, driven by an avarice that blinded them to all but profit, saw in the mountain potential riches—they mistook crystals in the rock formations for diamonds. Darby Field, an Irishman hoping these “diamonds” would make him wealthy, climbed the summit in 1642 despite warnings from his Indian guides, who refused to go with him. Later, farms, homesteads and settlements sprouted. Armed Europeans—aided by the diseases they brought, such as smallpox, tuberculosis and syphilis, as well as alcohol—obliterated native communities. The few Abenaki who remained were often kidnapped and enslaved domestically or sent in chains to work in the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Land, timber, minerals, animals and mountains—as well as human beings—had no intrinsic value to the Europeans. Nature existed only to make money.
The Abenaki engaged in three armed rebellions—King Philip’s War, Queen Anne’s War and later Father Râle’s War, the last named for a French Jesuit priest, Sébastien Râle, who spent 30 years with the Abenaki. The priest was murdered and scalped by the British militia in a nighttime raid on an Indian settlement along the Kennebec River in what is now southern Maine. The attack also left 80 Indians dead, many of them women and children. The attack was not part of a war. It was, like other raids on Indian settlements, part of a massacre. The Massachusetts provincial assembly had placed a 100-pound scalp bounty on Râle’s head, along with bounties for any Abenaki scalps. By the Revolutionary War, there were fewer than 1,000 Abenaki left. They had once numbered in the tens of thousands. [continue reading]
copyright 2015 Chris Hedges. First published in TruthDig.
Mount Washington in New Hampshire. (Northfoot Adventures / CC BY 2.0)