Bearing Witness

Photo by Holly Hughes, at North Cascades Institute

My graduate school art history professor maintained that we Americans don’t write manifestos, we deliver sermons. That was a disappointment to me, because I was so impressed as a teenager when I read Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. Sermons thundered from pulpits alarmed me, and never seemed to have anything to do with art or going outside.

Robert Michael Pyle takes the title of his book Walking the High Ridge from a quote by Vladimir Nabokov: “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” Pyle goes on to say that for as long as he’s written, “I’ve felt that naturalists who take their pleasure and heart from the land have an inescapable duty to speak up for it—and to convince and encourage others to do the same.”

That high ridge has been home to me, both literally and figuratively, for most of my life. An interest in natural history led me to the edges of hard science, but I could never plunge into the numbers and analysis. Similarly, my artistic imagination interprets the natural world freely, but I’ve never been able to spend much time in pure abstract art. From my high ridge, I feel that inescapable duty to speak up. I can neither write a manifesto nor deliver a sermon. All I can do is bear witness.

I notice and speak for the small, the ordinary, the common and humble; as well as the damaged, crowded, packed-down, and broken. And for the magnificent, spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime. For the cataclysmic change of a forest fire in a familiar place. For an avalanche that alters a slope in seconds. For the glacier lilies that push yellow recurved petals out of the mud as soon as the snow melts every spring. Or for the subtle intrusion of real estate signs, then the road punched in, the dump trucks, the gates. For the Jaguars and BMWs that now show up at the hardware store and post office in my little town.

I will continue to go to the land of clearcuts, mowed down in the 1970s and 80s, now growing back in a profusion of firs marching in straight lines. I can tell the world how quiet it is there now that talkie-tooters no longer echo across canyons and you never see a log truck. That the huckleberry crop can be stupendous and the songs of thrushes filter down from the canopy in the remnant patches of old-growth mountain hemlocks. These places are forgotten temples. Once I saw marbled murrelets flying there.

I will still go to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to work on trails, even though it’s my opinion that its wilderness character has been compromised almost beyond redemption. On hot summer days, a brown smudge from the city hangs over the Cascade crest, and at night the urban glow reflects deep into the mountains. I can lie in my tent at Waptus Lake (I walked nine miles to get there) and tell time by when the first flight climbs out of Sea-Tac in the morning. I can look back in my journals to tell the story of when I first noticed glacial silt in Pete Lake, meaning that the Chimney Glacier is melting. The green color of the lake is sublime, but the bottom of the lake is gooey with glacier dust.

I can say all these things, always trying to express the childlike wonder I still feel at rain, wind, trees, flowers. I am nearly fifty years old and still a child. There have been so many changes, and things continue to change. I know that I cannot, will not flinch from the hard stuff of living in this world in this century.

Life is so fragile! Yet persistent yet fragile yet persistent yet…

2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. I love your stance.

    The wide-eyed child lives prominently in me, too. I keep her well fed and tended.

    I’m sending you a link that, if you care to vist, will take you to a site set up by a local group here that’s fighting the intrusion of Industrial Wind to these fragile, ancient hills. I’m sending you it because you’ll see a “letterhead” (as I call it) that is our view from this meadow and front yard. In “real life” it’s much closer than it appears; it had to be ‘pushed back’ to get it all in, end to end. These are the mountains where my hubby & I spot errant baloons in the morning sunlight, gleaming and flashing in the sun’s early gold as they writhe against their bonds in some far off tree top. A 2nd reason for sending you it is so you can see some of the country here that you’ve wondered about by clicking on the VIDEO; it’s 30 minutes long.

    http://highlandmtns.org/

  2. My apologies. The link did not work. Maybe without the last slash, it would… or you can simply type in Friends Of The Highland Mountains.

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