Friday, July 23, 2010

Traveling and Nature

"Right at the heart of American Conservationsim, from the beginning, has been the preservation of spectacular places.  The typical American park is in a place that is "breathtakingly beautiful"or wonderful and of little apparent economic value.  Mountains, canyons, deserts, spectacular landforms, geysers, waterfalls--these are the stuff of parks.  There is, signifigantly, no prairie national park.  Wilderness preserves, as Dave Foreman points out, tend to include much "rock and ice" and little marketable timber.  Farmable land, in general, has tempted nobody to make a park.  Wes Jackson has commented with some anxiety on the people who charge blindly across Kansas and eastern Colorado, headed for the mountains west of Denver.  These are nature lovers and sightseers, but there are utterly oblivious or bored by the rich natural and human history of the plains.  The point of Wes Jackson's anxiety is that the love of nature that limits itself to the love of places that are "scenic" is implicitly dangerous.  It is dangerous because it tends to exclude unscenic places from nature and from the respect that we sometimes accord to nature.  This is why so much of the landscape that is productively used is also abused; it is used solely according to standards dictated by the financial system and not at all according to the standards dictated by the nature of the place.  Moreover, as we are beginning to see, it is going to be extremely difficult to make enough parks to preserve vulnerable species and the health of ecosystems or large watersheds."
-Wendell Berry, Conservation Is Good Work

I read this essay back in eastern Oregon.  I will always remember that first part of the trip as my first encounter with somewhere that is truely desolate.  I made note of this passage and decided to revisit it after passing through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone (and naturally, much more desolate high desert and a seemingly infinite amout of farmland).  I wanted to come back to it becuase I figured that after riding though mile upon mile of farmland and after visiting two national parks and a national monument, I could read it in a more informed manner.  Now, revisiting it, I am slightly confused.

I am confused because now when I read this passage I think of a number of things:
-I think of how lonely I was in eastern Oregon
-I think of how water is such a necessity for farming (and a touchy subject) in the high desert
-I think about the overcrowded cattle farms that do not have any grass in sight
-I think of how I could not take my eyes off of the mountians in the Grand Tetons
-I think of the slight depression that I felt as Yellowstone lake disapeared from view for the last time
-I think of the gigantic coal mine we saw outside of Gillete, Wyoming
-I thnk about how many RVs I have seen
-I think about the desire to ride fast that I get when I am bored
-I think about the animals that are protected in Yellowstone, but whose migratory habits are disrupted by fences outside of the park to the south

These things that I think about seem to conflict with each other.  I cannot deny that I have been very bored at times, but during these times I have seen things that trouble me or make me think.  These are things that I would be ignorant to or at least would not have the time to think about if I was not on a bicycle.  Sometimes I wish our entire country was "park worthy".  This would make for an exciting bike tour, but fortunately for our countryss economy, it isn't.  I, therefore, think Berry (and others) are on to something when they consider how our vacation habits affect our view of nature.  I may be bored by some places, but I find myself connected to them none the less.  I find myself asking questions about the issues that I see as I ride and wondering what it might be like to live in these places.

On Tuesday we were riding from Sheridan to Gillete.  Early in the afternoon a thunderstorm blew up behind us and chased us for a while.  When it began to catch us I stopped to put my wallet in my waterproof bags and almost instictivly stuck out my thumb at a passing truck.  To my suprise the man stopped and helped us load our bikes in the back.  He drove us out of the rain (we never actually got wet).  We learned a lot as we rode with him.  He works in the methane business.  Underneath the ground there is methane trapped in the coal.  There is a huge infrastructure in place to extract this gas and pipe it to Chicago and California.  He also drove us by the coal mine and told us about the issues related to it.  We learned a lot from this man.  He answered the questions we had about all the things we had seen while riding that day.  He dropped us off in a parking garage where we met  a reporter.  Through our short ride with this man, we learned about the complex local issues of this seemingly boring area.  As we ride we have been able to observe and experience local depth and then learn more about this depth through conversations with local people.

I don't think that bike touring is for everyone (occasionally I wonder if its even for me), but when it comes to experiencing an honest image of nature and working toward the greater ethic of conservationism that Berry calls for, it is probably the way to go.  We are in the midst of nature the entire time that we are traveling.  It is hard not to care about it and respect it when you are in it.

Tonight we are sleeping in the basement of a Methodist church in Sundance, WY (as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).  We are pretty pooped.  Today is our first day off since Jackson Hole (and it's only sort or a day off because we biked 20-something miles this morning).  We ride to South Dakota tomorrow!


  1. Wow -- you guys are famous (sort of...) :-)

    Joe: do you guys know yet when you'll be in Chicago? My cell phone number has changed since the last time you've seen me (and I don't know if you even had it then), but it's on my facebook so you can get it there. Shoot me an email sometime and let me know what's up.

  2. it,s Mem and Pep
    so glad to read your blog WE ve been thingking of you always and expecially when we were at the international Peace Park between the usa and canada It was beautiful Take care and be careful we love you Hope to see ;you soon Men and Pep

  3. Hi, Ben! Thanks for sharing your reflections on Wendel Berry and on navigating the less scenic sections of our natural landscape. Good stuff. I just gave your Mom a book that I think you'd like, too: Solace of Fierce Landscapes - on mountain and desert spirituality. It's part journal by the author (as he navigates his mother's 10-year battle with cancer), part creative writing, part history of the desert mothers and fathers of our Christian heritage. It's a reflection on the role that harsh landscapes have played in the faith and spirituality of one man and in our Christian tradition. Powerful and compelling. Your entry brought the book to mind - particularly when you commented that the terrain bores you, but you still feel somehow connected to it. I'll send you a copy once you get back, if you are interested. Thanks for writing. Blessings on your way!