The Rockies seen from Valier
Since I’m living on the East Slope of the Rockies, the three things that the mountain range means to me are 1) a reservoir of snow for summer water, 2) the creation of catabatic winds (now blowing) that give us warmth in winter and 3) a rain shadow that prevents forestation so that this remains a vast ancient grassland with the trees confined to the foothills, the coulees or on the refugia volcanic cones.
What mountains mean to Barry Greer (an elision of Macgregor) is 1) a challenge fit for a Highlander, 2) an escape from rules and authorities, 3) a way to explore his identity by challenging its limits. Or course, there’s that little matter of adrenaline addiction as well. And to use a pre-Christian religious metaphor, mountains can be Jacob’s ladder. He lives in the rain trench that is the Willamette Valley between the Coast Range and the Cascades, which present a formidable series of peaks.
The text of this review as well as the pith of the issue is that the way we think of mountains changes over time and place. The vision of the North Sister in the Cascades is what pulled Greer through the near-death of cancer and its near-lethal cure. My own challenge was crossing Rocky Mountain passes in winter on my UU circuit-riding rounds as a stubborn middle-aged ministry "broad." The two approaches are close enough together to establish another principle: that the best of writing about mountains is based on experience.
Middle and North Sister taken from summit of the South Sister
Any contemporary professor assigning the "North Sister Protocols", which is a mind-opening assortment of essays published in the past, will be asked “Is this gonna be on the test?” The education system works now by increments, data, steps, entitlements, proof, and political viability. We read the little squabbles about who did what when, like those between Krakauer and Mortenson, literary mountaineers. Cheap thrills. I’d like to read what Greer thinks of them.
The first publishers of this material include: Appalachia, Climbing, FreeSolo Press, Summit, Orion, Oregon Conifer, Wild Oregon, Dog River Review, and High Plains Literary Review. Oregon Sierra Club, the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and the Nature Conservancy. The pieces sketch a topography of mountain climbing literature.
Some quick quotes:
On the laws forbidding solo climbs: The best explanation for the paradoxical public attitude toward solo climbing, then, is political threat, a threat to recognized values, to doing something for personal rather than state reasons and to doing it without first getting permission. In short, it is a threat to group cohesion, control and authority.
A challenge to academic values: That particular generation gap is nothing new. The hippie/yuppie generation is far from the first to decide that human life moved not inevitably upward from poverty toward never-ending material gain, spiritual enlightenment, and the Internet.
Growing up as a Preacher’s Kid: My father wandered all his working life, leaving the South in search of spiritual and material progress. We never lived in the same house for more than three years; I never felt a sense of what my wife calls, "connection" until I discovered "Greer" to be a contraction and sept of Highland Scot "MacGregor." My father remains restless, irritated, searching after Progress.
Glen Coe in the Scots Highlands
Roots: I seem to have come full circle after a seven generation diaspora for Jacobite rebellion against British imperial progress. I'm still against the forced unity of Scotland and England, love mountains because they happen to be there and have no roads to allow infiltration of dubious Saxon modernism.
History: American wilderness historian Roderick Nash suggests that the idea (and it is an idea because it originates in our minds) of being lost appeared when humans separated themselves from the natural world. Only when we left a hunting and gathering existence and stopped moving through nature, only when we built fences to protect cultivated fields did we begin to think of something called wilderness.
Compare and contrast: American environmental writing, or what used to be called nature writing, split, I think, about a hundred years back into two distinct schools: the Muir and the Burroughs schools.
East coast essayist John Burroughs preferred to wait for nature to come to him. "One has only to sit in the woods or fields, or by the shore of the river or lake, and nearly everything of interest will come around to him, the birds, the animals, the insects."
The Burroughs school had its origins in Emerson and Thoreau and remains dominant today, represented by writers such as Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and Barry Lopez. Observation of natural phenomena is preferred by these writers over experience in nature.
Being a writer: Anger is the greatest prose motivator in the world, one of the best techniques known to humanity for getting past blank page terror.
And I would add that moral indignation is a bottomless well of rage, the Vesuvial inkwell fit for a pen made of Condor quill. (Melville.) The fiction called “The First” is about the ambiguity of summiting solo by default. When others are involved, there are moral dilemmas, to say nothing of the elusiveness of fact. Writing is like that as well.
But some of the ground Greer is covering has shifted. He doesn’t provide dates of publication for the pieces in this anthology -- only their venues. Building on the solid foundation of Nash’s “Wilderness and the American Mind,” as well as a sturdy family background of Baptist ministers, Greer comes back and back to the split idea that has sped many an intelligent and athletic young misfit into the mountains: nature is good/culture is bad. Wilderness is good/civilization is bad. The proposed enterprise is to find oneself by hitting one’s boundaries in the wilderness -- physically and mentally -- in faith that the peace it will give your soul will either equip you to do better among civilized men or you’ll at least know who you are.
But Greer is old-fashioned. One piece describes the advice of an old-fashioned editor telling a beginner to read all the best nature writers and then find his own voice. Today few editors would understand the concept of “best” being a matter of the quality of writing, nor would they spend time counseling writers. They want books to pass the “test” of high sales potential, as demonstrated by previous performance. Ground-breaking loses money. And they want to buy books already edited, proofed, indexed, footnoted, illustrated and supplied with blurbs.
It’s not that Nash is discredited, but that he is -- well -- maybe transcended by the stunning insights of recent science. Science mysticism. In Corvallis -- half cow college, half liberal enclave -- the word has not quite soaked in yet, but it will, that culture and nature have merged, wilderness and city are enmeshed, the sacred and the secular cannot be kept apart. The cutting edge is not Christian or even Abrahamic but near-Buddhist, even as China suffocates itself in progress. Consult the Bioneers, the Edge, even Tedtalks.
The obstacle that makes a person despair can reveal new ways to go -- a climber knows that. If conventional publishing and review venues are blocked, then there are pdf’s and old ladies who sit in the back bedroom reviewing books, hoping the wind from the Rockies won’t tear the roof off her house. (The library had an anemometer on top, but it blew away.)
Mt. Katahdin in Maine which challenged Thoreau.