The Story of My Heart: Brooke Williams speaks with 19th century nature-mystic Richard Jefferies

Last February, winter eased its chokehold on the high desert. The sun was warm enough for both mud and sweat, and I sat on our south-facing deck, eating a carrot and squinting while the desert quiet hummed like a huge and distant insect. I had been working for months to make personal sense of a book published in 1883—The Story of My Heart—and a man, Richard Jefferies (1848-1887), the 19th century Nature-mystic who wrote it.

My wife Terry Tempest Williams and I discovered the book years ago in the far corner of a dusty bookshop on an island in Maine. We read it out loud to each other, proposed to a publisher that it be re-issued, and traveled to England to walk on the ground that inspired it. I was near the end of 18,000 “after words” that would become my contribution. I’m not sure when, during the course of this process, I became obsessed. That bright day on that deck, I felt my obsession turn to frustration.

I knew Jefferies was out there—from strange insights I’d had since finding his book, from “visits” I can neither explain nor justify. I’d read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, The Dominion of the Day, which comforted me with the matter-of-fact description of the role of the dead in encouraging the living to “keep the story going” into the future. I had the strong sense that Jefferies had picked me to complete his unfinished business.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?”

I was tired and needed a day off from poring over his florid but densely beautiful prose, which I was sure held clues to our modern situation. I’d asked this question many times as I struggled to capture the meaning I knew hid in those old pages. I needed to know this. I needed to know many things.

“Why me, Richard Jefferies?” I asked out loud as a breeze swirled in front of me.

jefferiesThis time he answered.

“If the eye is always watching, and the mind on the alert, ultimately chance supplies the solution.”
I clearly heard those words which had become familiar during the two dozen times I’d read The Story of My Heart. I’d begun to rationalize: Obviously, I’m so close to this book that its words are now stored in my unconscious ready to use when I need them. But then I heard, “You seemed ready when you found it on that bookshelf. I had been waiting for a long time.”

This was the opening I’d waited for. I seemed to have discovered the portal between life and death. Not wanting to waste the opportunity to interview Jefferies, I jumped right in.

You’re dead…?
Such a limited, term, “death.”

Because?
You moderns talk about it, but you give no real credence to the immortal “soul.” You say you know the soul leaves the body at death, but you ignore the “souls” of your dead when you have much to learn from them.

Why have you come back now?
Come back? I haven’t been gone.

What do we need to know?
You think you’re special and you are—never in history have humans knowingly contributed to that which threatens to destroy them. But you can change.

One day as I moved up the sweet short turf near my home, my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling at every step; with every inhalation of rich pure air, a deeper desire. The very light of the sun was whiter and more brilliant. I was utterly alone with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I felt the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up: through the grass, there came an influence as I could feel the great earth speaking to my soul.

Your point is….?
You people pave everything. Or drill it or dig it for the carbon fueling your lives. The great earth cannot be heard through pavement, over the drilling and digging.

We are working to protect wild place from paving and drilling.
You speak of saving these wild places as a reminder of the past brilliance of our evolution or because they are havens for other species. This is true, but limited. You save these wild places because they will save you. The great earth is speaking about all that is at stake for the future of humans. Those who profit from paving and drilling do not know this. Not only do they refuse to hear what the great earth says, but also profit from silencing the great earth.

We do our best.
That is only part of it. Your people are strong and brave and capable of finding your way to the far corners of the Earth—no matter the season, no matter how extreme. This is admirable. But the earth-knowledge you need to save yourselves comes up through your feet anywhere that is wild, anywhere the natural system continues to function. You need only to slow down. You need only to open. This is how you evolve. You need to evolve.

How much time do we have?
Time is not what you think. Then the air around me grew quiet, and so did Richard Jefferies.

TSOMH–Interview by Brooke Williams. The re-release of Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart (torreyhouse.com), first published in 1883, features essays by Brooke Williams and an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inner Vision: A Pilgrimage in Tibet

Inner Vision

When he attempts to make the pilgrimage over Tibet’s Duge La Pass, a traveler almost loses his sight but gains new insight into the meanings to be found in the world’s highest mountains.

Words and Photos by Casey Flynn

Another avalanche rumbles down unseen slopes. Fat, wet flakes fill the air and cut visibility down to fifty feet. My fogged-up sunglasses hang from my neck, useless. The wind eases briefly and I can see other pilgrims through the white haze on the slope above me, blazing onward through three feet of fresh snow. Any semblance of a trail is buried.

Our objective is Duge La, a 13,000-foot pass that crests the spine of the Kawagarbo Range, crossing from Yunnan Province, China into the eastern reaches of Tibet. My fellow spiritual seekers and I are treading the outer pilgrimage route around the sacred Tibetan mountain Kawagarbo, a 21,770-foot monolith to our north. The two-week trek circles clockwise around the holy peak, across high passes, along steep gorges and through narrow valleys lined with waterfalls. Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.

But doubt gnaws at me. I’m throwing away years of snow safety training for the idea of completing the pilgrimage. It’s still snowing. Conditions are deteriorating. I have no idea what terrain lies ahead. But my stubborn attachment to making it around the mountain prevails. I forge upward.

Prayer flags appear out of the swirling, featureless landscape. The pass. Suddenly, the line of people stops moving. Wind whips the wet snow sideways through the rocky gap. A few pilgrims turn and start walking back toward me, but others grab hold and reassure them. When we start forward again, the cause of the panic becomes clear: a two-foot deep slab avalanche has ripped out and raked 3,000 feet down our descent route. Unconsolidated powder and scree make the going slow and slippery. Intermittent spatters of blood paint the snow surface, remnants of falling pilgrims.

In the safety of the valley meadows below, I sit on my pack to rest and eat peanuts. A Chinese man and his Tibetan guides catch up with me. He’s shivering violently. “I’m hungry,” he stammers in English.

I hand him a fruit bar. His guides don’t seem very concerned about his condition, but I am. “Do you have any dry clothes in your bag?” I ask.

He nods.

“You should change into them,” I say.

He stares at me blankly. He doesn’t seem capable of changing on his own so two of his guides and a friend began peeling his wet clothing off. I’m not much drier—with the temperature hovering around freezing, the snow is falling damp and soggy. A chill creeps up my legs. They find dry pants and a shirt and pull them over the man’s damp skin. He starts to improve immediately. The color comes back into his face.

“Thank you! Thank you!” He takes my hand in both of his and shakes hard before moving on.

I feel ill. I’m not drinking enough water. The cold and wet have discouraged me from stopping and taking off my pack to get my bottle. Now, the effects of dehydration are clenching my stomach and fogging up my head. I’m having trouble seeing clearly. Is it snow blindness from forgetting to wear sunglasses?

DSCN2516The Source of Power: “Every year, 15,000 Tibetans walk the path around Kawagarbo, believed to be the home of a powerful protective deity.” Photo: Casey Flynn

Darkness comes and I put on my headlamp. The trail blurs. My head and eyes ache. I want to take my contact lenses out, thinking it might help, but my fingers just scrape against my face, unwilling to do what I want. I extract the right lens but the pain from my clumsy attempts forces me to give up on the left. I stumble on half-blind in the night.

Later, I hear voices. Behind a large boulder, pilgrims huddle over a damp, smoke-spewing fire. They welcome me to stand with them around the crackling kindling, but the smoke sears my eyes. I stagger to a nearby boulder to rest. A father and son make space for me to join them under the boulder’s low overhang. I crawl into the cramped but dry space with them and wait for sleep to take me.

According to the Dalai Lama, “The goal of pilgrimage is not so much to reach a particular destination as to awaken within oneself the qualities and energies of the sacred site, which ultimately lie within our own minds.” Circumambulation is how Tibetans awaken these qualities in themselves, walking clockwise around the holy object with concentrated awareness. Pilgrimage sites have outer and inner routes. The outer path prepares pilgrims for the spiritual treasures that lie closer to the center.

Accomplished practitioners are said to have found hidden lands in sacred centers. I’m unsure whether these places are in one’s mind or whether they actually exist in geographic space but I was drawn to Kawagarbo and its secrets. I didn’t know what I would encounter along either path, but I needed to find out.

I can’t sleep. I can only fit into the tiny space with the father and son by curling up into a tight ball, but muscle cramps force me to stretch my dehydrated legs out until the cold forces me back into a ball. My repositioning is periodically interrupted by mice scuttling across my bag and my face, but I’m too weak to swat at them.

The father and son stir. Morning must have come but I can’t see it. My eyes are swollen shut. I listen to them roll up their bedding. The tarp that lies beneath their blanket crinkles as they fold it, stiff from the night’s cold. I hear the father walking toward me “Come, you must come,” he tells me in Chinese.

“I can’t,” I say.

“You must come!” He gently pulls me up.

“I can’t! I can’t see.”

He says something I can’t understand, but I can sense the concern in his voice.

“I can’t go. I have food, I have water, I am warm. I will stay,” I say. I’m not warm, but without sight, staying is the only choice. He keeps insisting I come but I keep shaking my head. At last, he hands me a plastic bottle full of hot yak butter tea and leaves.

I stretch out under the boulder’s overhang. I have food and water, but I’m close to hypothermic. Wet clumps of snow melt and flow down the boulder and through the zippers and cracks in my bivy sack. Day becomes night. The forest grows quiet and the cold sharper. Hallucinations and vivid dreams take over.

Late in the night, I crawl out of my bag, convinced that friends and a warm cabin are close by. There is no longer a separation between the inner and outer worlds. Shocked back to the present by the cold, I realize what I am doing and retreat back into my bag, back into delusion. Am I still on the pilgrimage?

The forest awakens around me. Birds chirp and a breeze rustles the leaves. I crack open my right eye and see light. My left eye is still swollen and a crust has formed across the lid. I can’t open it. Damp and aching, I stand up for the first time in 40 hours.

The snowstorm has blocked Duge La pass behind me. The only way is forward. At first, walking is slow and clumsy due to my altered depth perception, but over three days of solitary travel, I adapt to my partial blindness, aided by a walking stick. I gradually tell myself that my vision might be permanently damaged. Acceptance is easier and more practical than despair.

The early-season storm has ravaged the forest. Tangled masses of downed timber choke the trail and streams of snowmelt flood the path. I skirt cliff bands to navigate around blocked sections of trail. Several steep switchbacks demand that I climb down through the branches of fallen trees to reach the lower trail.

I follow footbridges lined with prayer flags and piles of mana stones, flat pieces of rock with prayers etched into them, to the village of Tsawalong. While resting in the dusty street, a man emerges out of a crowd of Tibetans and pulls me to my feet. I recognize him as the Chinese man from Duge La. Beaming, he shakes my hand, introduces himself as Zeng Yuan and thanks me for saving his life.

I hadn’t saved his life. I had only observed his condition, something he wasn’t able to see at that time. And then I realize what we share. The circumambulation is carrying us both forward. While lying under that boulder and walking solitary through the forest, I had begun to see my own condition more clearly. Though it almost cost me an eye, the pilgrimage gave me sight.

Feels Like the First Line

Thirty years later, legendary big-wall climber Eric Kohl heads out to retry his first route, which has now fallen into obscurity.

By Chris Van Leuven

“It’s got some cobwebs on it,” says Eric as we look up at the 30-foot boulder split with an overhanging, leaning finger-to-hand crack.

We’ve spent the past hour hiking up the railroad-grade trail that winds up Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, California, followed by twenty minutes along the side of a fence picking our way through thick forests, downed trees and poison oak along a steep, narrow creek.

We’re here to unearth legendary Yosemite big wall climber Eric Kohl’s first, first ascent.  It’s a route he found at the age of 17… 30 years later, it looks like it’s seen little traffic since he last climbed it in 1985.

We talk about our respective ages. “I feel old, but not creaky old,” he says. The crack is covered in moss webs. There’s not a spec of chalk on it. That’s the norm for like 90 percent of Eric’s routes—most of them haven’t been climbed in years.

Eric’s developed a reputation of establishing hard, bold routes, and though he’s put up many free routes, some up to 12d sport, his notoriety has come from dangerous aid climbs. He calls things as he sees them, regardless of how people receive him. Looking at this route, and comparing it against the modest rating he stuck on it, plus its remote location, I’m getting an idea of why he’s so misunderstood, and how hard he works on his climbs, often in solitude.

Even though I’m 12 years younger, I’ve known Eric nearly as long as I’ve been climbing, upwards of 20 years, but only recently have I gotten to know the man behind the ‘tude. My experience has been so positive, yet his rough reputation has more often than not overtaken his more caring side. Maybe I’m just lucky to be getting to know him now that he’s decided to open up to people and share his experiences.

On the way in we talked about the many romantic relationships we’ve had over the years. We’re both confident that the partners we share our lives with now are the ones that bring out our best. They don’t want to change us. Trust is a recurring theme and is the basis for how we let people into our lives, we say.

His older brother, Peter, 15 years my senior, and I were both mentored by the same bouldering guru, Russ Bobzien. Peter, 50, says even though he was once regarded as the best gearless climber in Prescott, Arizona, his brother Eric, specializing in gear-heavy aid climbing, is likely one of the most accomplished aid climbers in Yosemite. Peter and I recently spent a sun filled Wednesday afternoon traversing Marin’s most visible and well-traveled boulder, Turtle Rock, reminiscing about what Russ taught us about movement, and the many lines he pointed out that are still our favorites.

Today I’m ten miles away on Mount Tam with Eric in the shadows, by a cool creek, out of sight from even the hearty Mount Tam explorers, on a route filled with dead bugs.

Eric wasn’t mentored by Russ to learn smooth technique by ascending eliminates on Turtle Rock. Instead he tucked himself into one of Tam’s many sprawling fingers, engraining muscle memory and developing mental fitness on this short solo climb with its dire consequences. It’s a theme that would lure him up  an extensive list of fist ascent A5 pitches, mostly done solo, like World of Pain on the Yosemite Falls Wall, and Plastic Surgery Disaster on El Capitan. Eric’s done 34 Yosemite first big walls, and counting.

I wait on a moss covered boulder in the middle of the lightly flowing creek for him to setup the anchor on the tree on the top of the boulder using an old climbing rope he’s cut up for this purpose. A small waterfall cascades near my perch; otherwise everything is still.

He lowers down an end of the pink climbing rope until it dips in the river. Tiny bubbles float to the surface. I get up from my perch and try and keep the rest of it from landing in the water, until he lets the end free.

I notice a burned tree that has fallen over the nearby fence, crushing it. It’s a reminder how very close we are to trespassing on the Ralston Retreat property, which is likely one of its reasons that this climb has fallen into obscurity. Discovering it in the first places was a coincidence—an old high school friend was cultivating weed on the sunny hillside directly across the way. Ironically, the retreat is located on El Capitan Avenue.

The retreat, erected in 1913, contains a 14,000 square foot house, a heart shaped driveway and various footpaths over its 43 private acres. The concrete for the pool was poured nearly 100 years ago. The Ralston Retreat website shows a pic of the pool in use in the ‘30s and states the pool once held 35,000 gallons of water. It has long since been abandoned but the concrete pool is still there, though filled in with sediment. “I used to take girls to pool that is fed from this creek” he says, and laughs.

When he graduated high school in ’85, Eric moved to America’s granite mecca, Yosemite. At least there in the Park the granite was reliable, unlike here on Tam where it’s common for holds resembling gray concrete to crumble in your hands.

He called the route Ralston Crack, named after the house, and rated it 5.11a. Through his junior and senior years in high school, he frequented the route, first picking all the loose cobbles out of the crack on rappel and later recruiting a partner who’d never belayed, much less worn a harness, to belay him. He slapped the proper gear on his partner, showed him how to belay and sussed the route with the safety of a top rope. Over time he dialed it in so that every move was solid and routinely free soloed the line. It’s tall, steep, and challenging enough that I’d be hard pressed to find anyone to solo it today. Looking up at now in its dirty state it looks even less solid.

He hikes back down to the base and unzips his red and gray synthetic jacket to reveal his black motorcycle T—the same one he’s worn nearly every time I’ve seen him. He’s dressed in his customary camo man-pris and wearing gray, canvas approach shoes.

He crosses the creek and admires the line. “This was my first first ascent,” he says proudly. “Man, it looks dirty.”

“I’ll belay you,” he says with a smile. “See if you can onsight it.”

Each jam hurts because gnarly irregularities dig into my hands and fingers. I trend up the crack over the lightly flowing creek filled with jagged boulders. Each move feels insecure and I fall when I’m unwilling to thrust my hands into deep, gray cobwebs. Raking my wooden toothbrush through them, I pull off a big glob of thick cobwebs littered with bug parts and cast it to the ground. Eric laughs.

After several failed attempts, I finally make it to the top. Like he said, it does ease off but only after a long series of hard moves. Due to the poor landing, an un-roped fall from anywhere on the route would land me in the hospital. Towards the top it’s so dirty that I often just grab handfuls of moss.

He talks about an ex. “I was so unhappy when we dated,” he says. Then he talks about the happiness and mutual dedication of his fiancée, Cherry.

He ties in. His man-pris are now rolled over his knees.

After climbing a few moves off the ground, he falls and yells an expletive. “I can’t believe I used to solo this thing all the time,” he says with astonishment.

That’s what I thought.

“How hard are do you think it is?”

“5.11+ and gutsy,” I reply.

“I’m out of shape,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right,” he adds, before slumping on the rope again.

He returns to the ground and looks down at the open wound on the back of his hand. He repeats, “I used to never fall on this thing.” Another expletive. “It’s hard. I thought I would get this thing second go.” Several attempts later, he still has not made it clean.

“I haven’t done it since ’85,” he says. He slips his approach shoes on, lets out a sigh and sits down on the boulder over the creek, then looks back up at the crack.

“Climbing this thing got me all psyched on cracks in the Valley,” he says.

“It’s funny. I’m totally struggling. If I had my brother here he’d totally walk it. I could lose about 10 pounds… I could probably do that if I cut my beer drinking in half. And Cherry always cooks me this really good food. I blame her for gaining all this weight. She got a slow cooker and makes meat and potatoes in it.”

“I’m trying to dial it in to feel how you felt when soloing,” I say. “But I can’t make it that secure.”

“I had it totally dialed so that I knew there was no chance I’d fall,” he says. He stares up at it. “I’ll give it a go,” he says.

The creek tinkles around the rocks.

He comes down and looks me in the eye. “Yeah, that’s the sequence,” he says. “That felt hard. I can’t believe I just did it.”

“I’m [expletive] bleeding all over. “Look at that,” he says with a small laugh under his breath referring to the strawberry on the back of his hand.

He puts his approach shoes back on. “That definitely takes me back, dude. Hard to believe 30 years ago I found this thing. I don’t know. All these years this crack was a forgotten place. I would come here all the time if I still lived in Mill Valley like I did in high school.” He now lives in Pacifica. “I’ll probably check it out again.”

I think about how maybe this really was Eric’s road to El Cap. If he could see soloing this, and did what it took to get a belay on it on the first place, maybe that same tactic was useful for climbing El Cap, both with partners, alone and later, on cutting edge first ascents.

I think back to the time I asked him about his thoughts on some of his more treacherous big wall FA’s. He said he doubts he’d be able to do them anymore.

We soon leave the boulder. Heading out, he points up to a crag mid-way up Mount Tam. It’s one I’ve never noticed before, though like Eric I’ve been climbing on Tam since high school.

“I hiked up there with Cherry once and looked over the top to see bolts. I don’t know who put those in or when.” He asks if I’d like to climb it with him. “It’s a long walk,” he warns, but I agree to venture up there anyway.

Chris Van Leuven writes for The Alpinist, The Gear Institute and Elevation Outdoors.

January 2013 Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor

Letter #1

John: I’ve been an avid reader and collector of MG from issue #9 through #183. A few months ago when MG revised its appearance to more closely reflect that of the classic MG of the past, I sent you a letter commenting on MG going “Back to the Future.” Now I learn that MG has stopped publishing. I did not intend for you to back to the Great Hiatus in publication. What’s the story here? Will I ever see issue #194 yet alone #200?

I understand some effort is being made to return to publication. Without knowing the nature of the current problem, I think that, if all else fails, you consider the following radical proposal. Turn MG into a quarterly, subscription publication that retains the irreverent character and history of the rag we all have grown to love. I realize this is a long way from the newspaper-like, intermittent publication that existed in the 1970s, but maybe it will allow MG to continue to exist. Just avoid modeling Outside, Mountain and local stuff like Outside Bozeman, and continue to be the iconoclast publication MG has always been. I’d really prefer to see MG stay pretty much as it is, but if it comes to a choice between death and life, I’ll choose life.

Sincerely,
Bob Kohut

Letter #2

Mr. Fayhee: Good evening. It is with somewhat heavy heart that I type this letter. Finally today, after a few weeks of searching for supportable snow, and sussing out the finer points of mountain bike tires and snowy trails, I made it down to the post office and received an unfortunate letter explaining the hiatus of MG. I wanted to pass along my condolences and support. I hope that you and the whole crew can enjoy a little time off and get out and enjoy and adventure, find inspiration perhaps, for a rejuvenated MG somewhere down the line.

Also, I would like to offer my help in any way. I hope there is a way you can forward this email onto a list somewhere for possible subscribers, street-team helpers and overall supporters of a new(old) improved (still the same old, odd) MG for when it might resume and resurrect. If this list exists, please add my name to it.

Lastly, thank you for the last ten years. I have always cherished the Gazette. It always seems to show up about the time I remember to pay rent, and certainly helps ease that pain, and many others.

I wish you and all the staff and contributing writers the best, and look forward to hearing from you all soon in some form.

Thank you.
Andy Keck
Leadville, Co

Letter #3

John: I am in receipt of your recent letter of “transition” for Mountain Gazette. I have been down this road with you before and have no doubt that your publication will rise like phoenix from the ashes and once again purvey thoughtful writing and images to a receptive audience. I only hope there is something left on my subscription. If so, please cash out the dough and purchase a bottle of scotch (these days I am currently enjoying both Old Pulteney and Glen Rothes) and set the bottle in the middle of the table at your next visioning and strategy session. I suspect the scotch will help grease the mind to look toward Mountain Gazette’s future. After all, we need Mountain Gazette. Too much of what is written today about outdoor pursuits is sanitized and unemotional. A lot of today’s outdoor literature lacks connection. Since its inception, your mag has transcended the ages (a couple generations?) with writings from the heart about the joys, foibles and trials and tribulations of pursuits in mountains, on rivers and just living in the Intermountain West. We need the writing with the sweat and dirt on it that you have published.

Keep it going if you can. In the meantime have a ruckus New Year.

Allan Pietrasanta
Bishop, CA

Letter #4

Hi John: Mighty sad to learn that the Gazette is going out of print … again. Sure will miss reading something new on paper from you each month. Your piece on the Inca trail was captivating. I’ll have to get online and read the whole thing. It reminds me of the stories in your book on backpacking in the Copper Canyons. Now there’s a scarcely known gem of yours. At first, I didn’t know what I had as my friend passed the book along to me. I began by reading the “Nuts and Bolts” section and I recall thinking, “Who the hell is writing this?” I was delighted when I looked at the front cover to see your name. I should have known it was you. The book offers great advice, but I think Mexico had changed a bit since then. Have you read “God’s Middle Finger?” That book makes me think I better bring along a strong man who speaks fluent Spanish if I want to drive my ’91 Civic all the way to Creel and back. It sucks how few rights women have down there. Anyway, after nearly 15 years of dreaming, I hope to go there this spring (I’m substantially younger than you and did not even know the Copper Canyons existed until 1998). Your book is coming with me.

Best of luck to you on your future endeavors. I’m sure you know that, when one door closes, other doors open. I’ll drink a beer (or 3) in honor of your achievements.

Happy Trails,
MK Thompson

Letter #5

John: I was really disappointed that the story “The Hermit Trail” by Anonymous somehow made it to print in MG #193. The fact that the writer refers to the “two girlfriends” by not two but four different names shows that this caliber of writing should stay in the file cabinet (or circular file). Anonymous refers to these two girlfriends at various points throughout the story as [Molly, Polly] and [Susan, Sarah]. How an author cannot manage to keep track of the names he gives his characters is beyond my comprehension!

Jenny Sheehan
Santa Fe, NM

Letter #6

Hello Sir, I have been listening to your interview on KBUT from a few months back

and have to tell you that the fact that you are NOT so hip on new gear, people and trends (such as you mentioned in reference to Elevation Outdoors), makes you a much more valuable editor for a mountain culture monthly. To me, most current mountain lifestyle publications read more like a “you will be sicker if you had this…” purchase catalog. My reason for keeping with the Mountain Gazette is in its dedication to people experiencing the outdoors, and their communities, as they are. Please continue.

Thank you,
Michael O’Brien

Letter #7

Hello, John: I recently read “The lost art of making fire” from your collection, “Bottoms Up,” after an afternoon of building up the firewood supply for my family for the winter. I was raised gathering firewood and heating my home with a woodstove in addition to having gatherings centered around campfires, whether in the backyard or out in the bush, and I am amazed when I end up camping in close proximity to newcomers to fire. I tend to take people at their word, but the foundation of that trust started to crack when I would watch people who were self-proclaimed experts in camp-craft struggle to start a fire while blaming everything from the brand of lighter or matches to the type of kindling and air currents. Building fire is a finer art than talking loudly.

That being stated, I also spend as much time as possible in the wilderness and, as a consequence, I often wonder about backcountry fires and the attitudes toward them.  Dead and downed wood does provide housing for birds, rodents and bugs, who do provide fertilizer for the sagebrush and even riparian areas in the High Country, but they do not bring the same benefits as naturally occurring fire does when the ashes are left to fix the soil and spur growth of flora, and in turn, fauna. Things do not exactly decay quickly in the High Country; trees and bones alike bake and wither in the sun as the moisture is drawn out of them leaving suspended nutrients above the earth. Fires are suppressed to protect property, leaving bone-piles of readily ignitable fuel dotting the public lands.

I am a wildland firefighter; firefighting is in large part made up of countercultural folks, working hard to save up enough money to camp and surf couches during the off-season, living as cheaply as possible to keep seeing amazing places that no one else does (mostly when they are on fire- but backpacking in and out to fires is part of the job as well).  The wildland fire community is comprised of strange personalities, peripatetic types that do not fit into any part of a corporate “culture”; and it takes pride in the fact that it is one form of enjoyable, tough work that allows a person to be outside the majority of the time earning a living while not dependent on the tourism “industry.”  Firefighters also see the regeneration and benefits of wildfire firsthand. We return to the places that we put in 100-plus-hourhour workweeks to see if what we did mattered. Fire does matter. There is a reason it is the foundation of civilization; it is also the foundation of life. As has been said — we humans are fiery people living on a fiery planet; to ignore that is to go through life with a blurry view of things at best. Are North American humans now in the stage of civilization where we can begin to deny where we came from — to alter our past history?

I was raised to spread the ashes from my campfires and woodstove so the soil could absorb it, something that I have continued to do and will continue to do until it becomes a felony to procure my own source of heat, light and cooking fuel from the land. Tree farms might not be pretty, but I prefer looking at them to looking at strip malls, and, with population increases, I would much rather see water diverted for tree farms than to water lawns with while leaching chemical fertilizers into the ground. I cringe when I see ashes and pieces of wood in dumpsters; heck, sticks provide light and heat too. I also keep ashes for backpacking trips and sprinkle them along the trails and places I camp; it is probably as close to spirituality as I get, but I have always been fascinated by trees and treat them reverently, using all parts of the animal, to borrow a phrase.

A fire is a sacred event, providing heat and light; it is a mesmerizing, hallucinogenic conversation carrier. A fire is a connection to the sky, to the clouds, to the stars, to the earth, to growth and death. A fire is a gift from the gods.

In an age of plastic everything, bottled water, bottled oxygen, air conditioning, air cleaners, gas heating and on and on, it is sad that woodstoves are banned.

Perhaps I should add the disclaimer that I grew up poor, in a rural area, with even the nearest town, one lacking stop signs, a safe distance away, so I might be considered a redneck, therefore, what I write does not matter.

Cheers,
Joseph Van Nurden
Gunnison, CO

Letters #8

John: I just read your Inca Trail piece and it’s funny as hell. I’ve always wanted to do that trail myself, now I want to even more. I thought the Dorworth piece about us cat skiing in Canada came out very nice in the magazine. Hope I didn’t permanently scar him with my driving. Keep up the good work with the Gazette.

Karl Weatherly

To the loyal members of the Mountain Gazette Tribe

To the loyal members of the Mountain Gazette Tribe,

By now many of you have heard that we’ve temporarily suspended the printed edition of Mountain Gazette. Please be assured we are working hard to make sure this isn’t the end of an era. It’s a bump in the road as we navigate a very difficult publishing landscape. Mountain Gazette has an incredible history, publishing a lengthy list of impressive works by the likes of Edward Abbey, Charles Bowden, Hunter S. Thompson, John Nichols and Mary Sojourner, and we want to make sure the legacy continues.

With that in mind, we are going to continue publishing new stories regularly on our website, mountaingazette.com. As you know, the MG Rolodex includes an incredible list of writers, photographers, and artists, and we plan to continue to utilize their talents. While a digital magazine doesn’t offer the same experience as the printed issue, it does allow us to include longer stories that aren’t confined by page lengths.

Enough of the silver lining. We realize this isn’t ideal, but it’s the best we can offer right now. So please stick with us. We are encouraging readers to sign up to receive our email newsletters and to follow us on Facebook, so we can stay in touch about what is going on at Mountain Gazette online, as well as how things are progressing with the possible next iteration of the printed edition.