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.
The Europeans of the era ridiculed the beliefs of the American Indians, along with their communal structures, in which everything was shared and all had a voice in tribal decisions. They routinely referred to them as “savages” or “heathens.” They painted the militiamen who terrorized and slaughtered Indian communities as military heroes and agents of Christian civilization and progress. They scoffed at legends and beliefs like the one that the remarkable stillness of the lake at the base of Mount Chocorua was sacred to the Great Spirit and should not be violated by the sound of the human voice. The Europeans did not believe that nature could seek vengeance. They were sure they could domesticate and control the wilderness.
Mount Chocorua is named for the great chief Chocorua, one of the last of the Abenakis, who was killed around 1720. He was hounded to the summit of the mountain that now bears his name by white settlers and either shot or pushed off its precipice. He is reputed to have damned the Europeans before he died, saying: “May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in the clouds and his words are fire! May lightning blast your crops and wind and fire destroy your homes.”
Chocorua’s grim curse is now reality. Greenhouse gas concentrations, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, continue to rise. Last year was the hottest since we began scientifically tracking weather, and 2015 is expected to top 2014. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting at an accelerated rate, causing the oceans to rise. Even if we stop all carbon emissions today, some scientists say, sea levels will rise by 10 feet by 2065 and as much as 70 feet over the next couple of centuries. Major coastal cities such as Miami and New York will be underwater. Droughts plague huge swaths of the planet. Wildfires, fueled by parched forests, have been burning out of control in Southern California, Canada and Alaska. Monster cyclones and hurricanes, fed by warming air currents, are proliferating, ripping apart whole cities. Massive species extinction is underway. And we could face a planetary societal collapse due to catastrophic food shortages within the next three decades, according to Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute. Food shortages are being driven by the warming of the planet, an ever-burgeoning population and “widespread shifts in consumption patterns as countries develop”—code for the growing and unsustainable global demand for animal protein as developing countries urbanize and income levels rise.
The blind, self-destructive exploitation that lies at the heart of capitalism, the placing of monetary profit above the maintenance of life, the refusal to understand and accept limits, have turned the victimizers into the victims. Ignoring the warnings of native communities, we have evoked the deadly wrath of nature. And I fear we may not be able to find our way back.
“These differences in theology, in myth and ritual, in politico-economics, and in psychological theory produced entirely different conceptions of the place of man in the natural world and of the divine scheme of the cosmos,” Richard Slotkin wrote in “Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier.” “To the Indian the wilderness was a god, whether its face at the moment was good or evil; as a god it deserved and received worship for both its good and its evil, its beauty and its cruelty. Similarly, all the gods and the earth itself were referred to as members of one’s own immediate family, as close blood relations. For the Puritan the problem of religion was to winnow the wheat from the chaff, the good from evil, and to preserve the former and extirpate the latter. The evil was of the world, of nature; the good was transcendent and supernatural. Hence it was quite appropriate to destroy the natural wilderness in the name of a higher good—and quite inappropriate for anyone to worship, as the Indians did, the world or the things of the world, such things being evil by nature.”
There were a handful of Europeans and Euro-Americans who understood the sanctity of the natural world, including the Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, whose 1860 book, “The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscapes & Poetry,” called on the reader to respect natural beauty and power and drew on poems on nature by writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. King, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that humans cut off from nature and the plight of the oppressed—he was a fierce abolitionist and advocate for the poor—could not grasp the power of the divine, that morality was formed primarily by empathy and intuition, not religious doctrine. Respect for the natural world, he argued, connected human beings with the sacred and the interdependence of life.
King’s book remains the best work about the White Mountains. He wrote:
The world, as the almighty has made it, is not such a world as a monk, a mystic, a broker or a Calvinist would have made. They would have left out the pomp of sunsets and the glory of dawns, the delicious tints and harmonic hues of flowers and meadows, the grace of movements, the witcheries which moonlight works, the spiritual fascination which the gleam of stars produces. The broker would say it is a useless waste of Heavenly chemistry; and would have gone for the cheapest furnishings; the Calvinist that it injures the religious faculty of man and would have robed the earth and hung the heavens in black and grey. But God thinks differently. His universe is not only an algebra for mathematicians, and a sermon for theologians, but also and equally, a poem for the taste and heart of man. And I cannot interpret beauty in any other way than as one evidence, and a splendid revelation, of God’s love.
I spent last week backpacking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with my wife and two youngest children. One night, before the moon rose to a height that dimmed the constellations, I stood in an open meadow with one of the children. The dark silhouettes of the peaks at the southern end of the Presidential Range loomed with a reassuring comfort above us. He and I searched out constellations—Orion, Ursa Major—and stars such as Polaris. We held our fingers up to the night sky. In the space covered by just one of our thumbnails were 100,000 galaxies. We reminded ourselves we were specks that lived on the tip of an ever-expanding universe, the surface of a vast and constantly inflating balloon.
“To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society,” Emerson wrote. “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.”
We peered out to where the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy is supposed to be, somewhere near the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. This supermassive black hole has perhaps 4 million times the mass of the sun and is 25,000 light-years from Earth. It is a place where space and time bend until time stops, where all our equations and understanding of the physical universe no longer make sense, where what we perceive as reality is overthrown. Light, trapped inside, cannot escape. No physicist can explain the internal dynamics of a black hole. Yet it seems probable that 13.8 billion years ago a black hole exploded and caused the universe to be created. At the core of a black hole, from all we can determine, lies the infinite or perhaps portals to other places in the universe. No one knows.
The world does not fit into the rational boxes we construct. It is beyond our control and finally our comprehension. Human beings are not the measure of all things. Existence is a mystery. All life is finite. All life is fragile. The ecosystem on Earth will die. It will be slain by our failure to protect it, or it will succumb to the vast array of natural forces, from colliding asteroids to exploding stars—including, one day, our sun—which turn into supernovas and throw out high-energy radiation that have doomed countless planets in the 100 billion galaxies beyond ours. We have lost the capacity for reverence. We slew those who tried to warn us. Now we slay ourselves.