The Souls of Clouds--Part Three

On September 11, 2011, this photo appeared in the New York Times.  
This is Part Three. Read Part One  and then Part Two   

    Because I had spent the better part of day reading the New York Times--"The Reckoning" and the front-page feature stories on 9/11 memorial events, I was primed to believe everything I saw in that Sunday's paper was about 9/11.
   A dramatic black-and-white photograph (above) was placed in the very middle of the Op-Ed page. Glancing quickly to the titles of the three articles surrounding the photo, I could not immediately tell which article it belonged to, which author was going to do some free-wheeling reckoning of life a decade after the terrorist attacks. The editors surely wanted readers to look at the photo and believe for a split second that it was billowing smoke. I did, but it was not.
     It was Old Faithful, the ever-erupting thermal geyser in Yellowstone National Park, captured on film by American photographer Ansel Adams in 1941. The “smoke” was actually water and steam. The article that wrapped its columns around this image was written by Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff and titled “We’re Rich! (In Nature.)” 

On September 11, 2011, Kristoff Rightly Reckons We're Ric
    The article was not about Yellowstone or Wyoming, but about something much bigger and grander.Kristoff begins his article this way: "At a time when Americans fret about terrorism and aware and are afflicted by the worst economic downturn in 70 years, let’s embrace a remarkable treasure possessed by every citizen of our country….It doesn’t count in our net worth, but its value is incalculable: our national parks, national forests, and other public lands.”
    Oh, joy! How refreshing! I was so ready to stop fretting about wisps and embrace the earth! I had been feeling bad, sheepish, guilty, and disrespectful about my euphoric hike with my husband and son in Mt. Baker National Forest on September 11—a day whose arrival I unintentionally failed to acknowledge until September 12th.  Maybe I wasn't so un-American after all.
The author on September 11, 2011 (unbeknownst to her).
    I continued reading: “Particularly in the grim post-9/11 era, Kristoff writes, "—an age shaped by anxiety and suspicion—there’s something profoundly therapeutic about reconnecting with simplicity and nature….The wilderness trims our bravado and puts us in our place. Particularly in traumatic times like these, nature challenges us, revitalizes us, humbles us, exhilarates us and restores our souls.”
    The clouds have parted! I love this man!
   Perhaps I had been in the right place on September 11 this year--on Mt. Baker--doing exactly what I should have been doing: being in the company of my family, enjoying America’s remarkable treasures, loving the outdoors, greeting every single hiker we passed, lying in snowfields, sunning on a scree slope, photographing alpine wildflowers, looking at the sky, wondering about the clouds, feeling the contours of the earth in my feet and legs and lungs.
   The inspiration for Kristoff's article had apparently come from his family backpacking trip this summer--not geyser gazing in Yellowstone National Park, but hiking in Oregon's Mount Thielsen Wilderness Area. Like Mt. Baker, Mt. Thielsen is a volcanic peak in the Cascade Range. There's nothing like a little well-earned elevation to give you perspective. Shame on the New York Times for not running one of Ansel Adams' photographs of a peak in Glacier National Park or Yosemite! Or a photo of Mt. Theilsen by a lesser photographer. What were they thinking? 
  On September 10, the day before his article ran in the Sunday Times, Kristoff posted this on his blog:
    "Part of me felt that I should write Sunday’s column about 9/11, for the 10th anniversary. But frankly, I figured that readers by now would be sick of backward-looking reviews of this painful decade. So if you were looking for an evaluation of how we handled the aftermath of 9/11, my apologies – and go take a hike in the outdoors to get over it!"
    I love his frankness and his "apology" and his advice to get over it. Why could the rest of the New York Times not have done the same that day? Not to be disrespectful, but it is time to get over it. It's time to de-friend 9/11 and move on. 
    Kristoff clearly has. His Op-Ed piece wasn't just about his happy hike nor about his homeopathic Rx for the ills of 9/11. He used his column to exhort readers to fight against the proposed opening of 50+ million acres of federal lands to logging, grazing, and other uses. And he encouraged every reader to get outside, to love their national parks more than their video games, to find solace and joy in our communal wild and open spaces. 
    I applaud Kristoff's activism. And give him a standing ovation for his elegant conclusion that nature "reminds us that we are part of a larger universe, stewards rather than masters of our world."
    After returning from the Mt. Baker National Forest on September 12, I struggled with what to do with the happiness, pleasure, peace, satisfaction I experienced on our hike. Sure, I shared stories about the trip with my friends, I shared photographs of the spectacular views with my family. I felt good about America. I posted a blog about it. I used to think that wasn't enough. But now that the New York Times has forced an existential crisis on the Accidental Naturalist, I think it is enough.
  After two months of thinking about the meaning of 9/11, I have done what N.R. Kleinfield predicted might happen in "Getting Here from There:" "Ultimately, he writes, "each person attaches an individual meaning to 9/11, if possible." 
   It is possible: there is no meaning.
   What is meaningful is that we have shared an experience of 9/11. We have talked about it, written about it, cried about it, debated about it, lost sleep about it. We have felt loss, horror, terror, anger, compassion, depression, sorrow. This is what makes us human. It is the act of sharing our experiences that confirms our humanity. Directly and from a distance, we have all responded to 9/11. And that is meaningful.
   And now, back to the top of the Mt. Baker on September 11, 2011. Here, with my family and other hikers, we all felt the joy, peace, exhilaration, and well-being that comes from hiking into scenery of the American wilderness that takes your breath away. Had I hiked there alone, the experience would have been incomplete; I needed to share this. Luckily, I had my husband and son to ooh and aah with, to admire the terrain with, to puzzle over strange clouds with. And I was in the presence of other grateful hikers, including the young man who said, "Now I feel I've been to America." 
   To that I would like to add, with thanks, "Now I feel I've been human."