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Yosemite Nature Notes 46(2) (1977)


Tunnel View
[click to enlarge]

Pine Trees, Barnacles and Everything

by Will Neely

The disease is called “looking at”.

Busloads on scenic tours — Americans, Germans, Japanese, get out and “look at” because, geologically, we are all of us new here. But the geologic perspective is lost. We prefer the close-at-hand, not the domes or the glacier-worn canyons, but the squirrels and squawking jays.

We must look at, try to tame, feed, hold, possess and eventually love to death, any flower, animal or landscape. The compulsion to feed an animal is such that visitors do it in spite of the signs saying “no!”.

We are so alone, so divorced from nature! We want to be part of it, as though someone had not invited us; we don’t know how to join the mysterious brotherhood of wilderness, but must try to bring wilderness to our own terms of understanding. We cannot leave it alone, unmanaged. We tempt the animals with baits, hold out our hands and get bitten.

The Indians left alone.

They left alone, they had no desire to hold, have, pet and love to death. They were inside and didn’t worry about an invitation. We stand dismally outside, peering through the window, looking at. We try to get closer by building roads into the wilderness, by buying more camping gear, and where the road leaves off, then the wilderness, like a mirage, dries up, not leaving a wet place where it once was supposed to be.

To get closer to nature we drown ourselves in “facts”. We buy maps, guide books, we read “all about it”, circling around, armed with information. The closest we get to nature, I believe, is when we scratch a mosquito bite.

In spite of the barrier of facts, some of us innocently do get close. We kick a pine cone on the trail, we loll around in the grass, we pretend to fish when really we want to watch the languid water go by. We rub our hands on a smooth rock, not for the history it imparts, but just because it feels good.

The unthinking, uninformed moment scarcely slips by impoverished. We are enrichened by knowledge, for out of the shrubbery jumps a guide, well-meaning and well-structured with facts to enrich our diet. We are led by the nose to some object or other and submit to an account of its history. No matter what we do in the quiet of wilderness, we cannot hide any unpurposeful activity.

I tried to float a dry leaf in a quiet pool the other day and a passing hiker looked at me. I had to explain that I was studying the wind and currents and their significance to national security. What he later did not see was that I put my toes into the water, too, and happily wiggled them. . . . without a thought for national security.

Naturalists, and I am one, have a tendency to ramble. To ramble is to poke your nose into every conceivable crack in nature. Joseph LeConte wrote “Ramblings in the High Sierra” and it is well-respected. A symptom of rambling is meandering off into the countryside, unstructured and unguided, and somehow coming back alive to tell the tale.

It is a natural disease. There is no cure but to stick to doctor’s orders . . . find some fact, any one will do, isolate it, structure it and set it, well-cemented, as a monument to the public.

But nature has no set boundaries on facts; facts flow as easily as the imagination in a gentle tide, or, if well-cemented like a barnacle, it clamps up tight and lets the public pry away, then suddenly eases itself wide open, as one steams open a love letter, only to find the same old substance inside the mysterious shell, the same substance that everything else in nature is made of.

No wonder naturalists ramble. All nature is one continuous flowing and ebbing from form to form. You might as well talk of coyotes as of pine trees or the microbes that eat both of them. You are simply describing the shell, the boundaries, the limitations. That is called “looking at”.

I shall continue to float vagrant leaves and wiggle my toes in the water, and shall, eventually, like the barnacle, shut up.



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