Originally posted 5/24/2009
Bavaria ain’t got nothin’ on this. From my perch atop a granite slab, a postcard-worthy alpine scene lies stretched out before me. In the distance, white-capped mountain ridges peek out from a V-shaped dip formed by the closer hillsides. From where I’m sitting, the land steeply slopes down to the river below, the rapids swirling and whirling with such force that the white water looks like a river of milk. It winds its way to the small tourist destination town of Leavenworth, Washington, where the mountain goats are gluttons for the countless carrots fed to them by vacationers. The contrived atmosphere of the town can be blamed on the mandatory Bavarian-styled buildings, the token goats that wait in the park for their next carrot, a street band belching out traditional Bavarian music with brass instruments, and locals whose job it is to dress Bavarian, act Bavarian, and direct tourists to the best place to buy a bratwurst.
But the campy brass band is far away from where I am now, and the only sounds I can hear are the chirps and chortles of birds. A gray hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus), with lavender wings, flits its way past me. Usually found in the lowlands, this winged wonder has likely traveled a long way from home.
What captivates me more than the butterfly or the grandiose view is the whole place taken in its entirety. What I see is an image of rebirth. The land is littered with the charred reminder of a forest fire. Blackened skeletons of trees leaning catawampus, look like spent birthday candles that have fallen this way and that after a crazed child has shaken the cake a couple times. Yet, despite these burned remnants, the landscape does not look dead—not even close.
Wildflowers of all colors speckle the landscape. Jeffrey’s shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi) buzz from bees sneaking into their cups of purple petals to retrieve nectar. Glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) cascade down creek beds in white blankets. Yellow and brown-speckled tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) are flourish amongst the brown and yellow-speckled chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata). The red explosion of petals on the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) burst like fireworks. Everywhere I look regeneration is taking place, growth is balancing destruction. Life is balancing death.
Beneath the weight of my hand on the granite, the red and yellow lichen crumbles. How easily we destroy the earth, I think. I watch a black fly lap at the blood beginning to cake around a fresh wound on my ankle. I decide not to flick it away. Instead, I continue to watch it nourish itself, feeling strange that I’m now part of the food chain of this area. I hope that some bird will benefit from scarfing down this fat fly. All at once, an overwhelming feeling of peace sweeps over me. How good it feels to just be in this wilderness rather than trampling across it, never finding a balance of give and take.
As a culture, we seem bent on bending the natural will of the earth. If it grows, we pick it or clear-cut it. If it lives, we kill it. We dam it, pollute it, mine it, dynamite it, raze it, hunt it, poison it, drill it, melt it, litter it, and take, take, take from it without replacing what we’ve taken. We want to dominate it at all costs. If the water doesn’t flow where we want, we’ll divert it. If the soil doesn’t produce the bounty we crave, we’ll poison it. If the tomatoes aren’t big enough and the salmon isn’t pink enough we’ll alter the genes and inject some dye.
Historically, our technology has always worked against nature, trying to harness its power and converting it into waste rather than recycling the energy into more beneficial forms. Yet the forces of nature are strong, and if we were to vanish from the earth, our inventions would not win the battle and stand the test of time– at least, not according to Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. In his book, Weisman investigates nature’s ability to regenerate in mankind’s absence. In most cases, life is able to make a comeback.
The eerie echo of his book produces a sinking feeling. The message: if we continue on the path we’re on, we will self-destruct. Nature wins. We lose.
I was recently biking across Lopez Island, a quiet, innovative place where solar panels are almost as common as the funky, personalized mailboxes stationed at every residence. On one country road, I stopped to observe a house I had almost passed by, until a friend pointed it out to me. We looked in awe at the faint outline of a house, camouflaged by a rooftop garden growing where shingles should be. It just made so much sense.
We have to strike the balance. Although I fear this might sound too hippy-dippy from some, we have to try to live in harmony with the forces we’re always fighting against. The examples of our failures at this are endless: Hurricane Katrina, houses built on mudslide-prone hills, burning rainforests for cattle ranches, and the idea of Las Vegas (a city that diverts so much water and consumes so much energy, the slogan should be “Everything that happens in Vegas, doesn’t actually come from Vegas”).
After getting lost in my thoughts, I come back to the present, and step down from my slab of granite. I tread carefully along the goat trail, trying to avoid the fragile foliage attempting to wipe the trail from existence. But I know my footprint is bigger than I would like it be on this earth, wishing I could give more back than I do. If only we all wanted to wear a smaller shoe size.