“Earth has no sorrow that Earth cannot heal.”
Those words from Muir’s private journals, published more than 20 years after his death, are generally viewed through the anthropocentric lens that only sees the sorrows of humanity. I suggest that Muir meant exactly what he wrote, referring to the sorrows of Earth itself. When Muir was born in 1838 the population of the U.S. was 17 million (including 2.5 million slaves), and when he died in 1914 the U.S. population had grown to 100 million. Muir’s rambles through, love for, understanding of and influences on the Sierra Nevada need no introduction, and long before his death the deleterious impact of humanity on his favorite mountain range was obvious. And Muir, an avid reader and serious student of Thoreau, Wordsworth, Humboldt and Emerson, was likely aware of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 book “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in which he posits that human populations would continue to grow until stopped by disease, famine, war or calamity. Though he could not have foreseen such particular (and, to me and many others, personal) calamities as human caused climate change and today’s accelerating pollution of Lake Tahoe by algal growth, sediment erosion, eutrophication, cultural eutrophication, intentional and unintentional introduction of invasive fish, invertebrate and plant life, more than 220 years ago Malthus was aware that Planet Earth cannot support 8 billion human beings.
Throughout his life in America (he did not arrive in America from Scotland until he was 11 and not to California until he was nearly 30) he was an advocate for preserving the environment. Michael Turgeon writes, “As Muir grew older, his advocacy started translating into policy. Congress finally established Yosemite National Park in 1890, and Muir was instrumental in the formation of several other National Parks, including Sequoia and Grand Canyon. He soon co-founded the Sierra Club with the goal of furthering preservation and filling in the gaps left by government conservation work. And in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt travelled to Yosemite to meet with Muir, in what is now seen as a seminal moment for American environmentalism.”
That seminal moment was not enough for America’s environment, including the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe. A study by the University of California Davis titled “Environmental Problems Facing Lake Tahoe” includes this:
Destruction of Wetlands
“Lake Tahoe historically had natural wetlands that acted as filtration systems to remove excess nutrients from stream water before the runoff would reach the lake. This is one of the many reasons for Lake Tahoe’s famously clear and pristine water. Unfortunately, the value of wetlands was not fully known prior to the heavy development that began in the mid-1950s. For example, the Tahoe Keys was built on one of the largest wetlands in the Lake Tahoe basin. Research has shown that the wetlands of South Lake Tahoe used to remove tons of sediment and nutrients. The detrimental impact of this development can be easily seen during heavy runoff when plumes of sediment cause the water to turn cloudy.”
“The numbers of dead and dying trees throughout Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada are increasing due to a combination of drought stress, insect attack and disease. This carries direct implications for fire safety, biological diversity and carbon sequestration.”
Lake Tahoe has never relinquished its place in mind or heart or spirit as my first real home as a child, though I have not lived there in many years. As I write these words in September 2021, the unprecedented fires of the Sierra, including the ones impacting Lake Tahoe and environs are raging, just as the UC Davis study predicted a few years earlier. And those predictions are a direct consequence of what Thomas Malthus predicted more than 220 years ago. I mean, difficult as it is to accept and understand, none of this is surprising. These excerpts from my essay “My First Mentor: The Sierra Nevada”* describe that first real home:
“I turned 8 in 1946 and my family, like millions of others, was putting itself back together after the emotional/mental/relationship traumas and dislocations of WWII. Each of us—Mom, Dad and I—lived apart and led three very different lives during that war. When it ended we reunited and moved to the Sierra, living in a series of small mountain cabins where there were few and often no neighbors in winter. My primary companions after school and before dinner with Mom and Dad were the skis I used to access my Sierra Nevada playground. Neither of my parents were skiers or much interested in the outdoor life, but they encouraged and supported me in those things I most wanted to do—ski in winter, wander in the woods and meadows and hike up some of the peaks in summer, swim in the lakes when warm enough and read while at home. That is to say, a significant amount of my time between the ages of 8 and 14 was solitary.
“Solitude can be an unspoiled mindset for the experience of learning and the Sierra Nevada is a perfect setting for that same experience. Timothy Leary coined the term ‘set and setting’ to describe a slightly different (though not so different as some might think) consciousness expanding experience in which “set” was the mindset of the participant and “setting” referred to the surrounding social environment. The Sierra was more often than not my solitary social habitat. I was a young adult before being exposed to the writings of Muir, Plato or Leary, but I knew the Range of Light illuminated my path through them……..
“As a boy and young man the Sierra Nevada was the center of the world in which I learned to play, explore, test my skills and limits to learn about myself, including gratitude for the gift of living amidst such beauty and bounty. Of the Sierra it has been said, “One is never alone or unobserved,” and this is how I have always felt in the mountains of the world during more than seven decades of mountain life……..
“I don’t remember Ernie Lee as a skier, but he was the all-year manager of a summer resort. Ernie knew the Sierra and its huge snowfalls intimately, and knew how to live safely with them. His daughter Michele and I attended the same one room school with 8 grades, 8 students and one teacher. When Ernie found out that I was regularly wandering around the mountains on skis alone at the age of 11, he went out of his way to alert me to the steepness of slopes that might avalanche, the different types of untracked snow and how they affect one’s ability to ski in control and other basics of the Sierra Nevada not immediately obvious to a young boy. Ernie emphasized that the pleasure and satisfaction of moving through snow was a blessing that carried inherent and often hidden dangers that were the responsibility of each individual, no matter how old or inexperienced.
“It took many years to reach a level of consciousness that embraced the responsibility that inescapably goes with caring for that blessing by noticing that the Range of Light was not so bright as in the days of Muir. The relationship was out of balance and had changed noticeably in just a couple of decades in the life of a young man who loved his home, respected his mentor and sought the light. Everyone who spends time in the mountains learns that the smallest detail of nature is connected to everything else — in this case, the entire Sierra Nevada and to one’s own well being and survival. I was troubled by some of the first shifts in the natural order that I found unacceptable. Clear mountain streams where we once freely and safely drank were no longer drinkable, and more than one of my favorite mountain lakes was visibly befouled and no longer pristine. Both of these unnatural alterations and many others everyone reading this knows from personal experience and spoken or written word revealed that the student was taking more than he was returning. Neglect the responsibility and the gift will gradually—so gradually that the changes pass unnoticed and become acceptable and normal—decay, become polluted, diminished and be treated as commodity rather than cornucopia. E coli, stormwater runoff, fertilizers, greenhouse gas emissions, animal waste, sediment and “nutrients” creating algae — these words describe concepts I had never before associated with lakes, streams, ponds, meadows, valleys and mountains of the Range of Light.”
Those early rambles, tumbles, plods and schusses in the mountains above Lake Tahoe remained with me throughout a long life of skiing, some of it in the backcountry of mountains of the world, most of them in western America. I had the good fortune to skin up and ski down mountains in China, Chile, Argentina, Europe, Canada and Alaska, and some of my most cherished experiences and memories of places and people are from those exotic adventures. Because of the ‘set and setting’ of those first skiing endeavors above Lake Tahoe, the snowpack and weather and climate of the Sierra (the most compassionate of any mountain range I know) and the pure allure of its skyline, Lake Tahoe’s mountains were always my favorite backcountry skiing. At the age of 83 my skiing is limited to lift serviced runs down runs groomed to carpet smoothness by machines that cost a million dollars and pump carbon dioxide into an already overheated atmosphere so that my old bones can continue enjoying what’s left of the beauty and bounty of the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. I am grateful and at the same time recognize my complicity in the destruction of that for which I am grateful.
In May 2021 I was visiting friends and family and drove from Reno to Lake Tahoe over the Mt. Rose Highway, a favorite route I have traveled innumerable times. The sky was blue and the air crystal clear. I stopped at the Scenic Overlook on the west side to enjoy the view of what is still to me the most beautiful lake on Earth, so long as one is not close enough to perceive the personal and Lake Tahoe changes between childhood and old age noted above. As always, I was moved by the landscape and lake which are part of me and I of them, when unexpectedly tears were running down my face and I was filled with both gratitude and emotions of loss I do not know how to describe. I am not the weepy type and such experiences are rare for me, but I believe the tears were nostalgic ones of appreciation for a life lived as well as I could manage and my personal piece of mankind’s sorrow of the certainty that the Earth will indeed heal its own sorrows.
*My First Mentor: The Sierra Nevada will appear in Claude Fiddler’s book of fine photography and essays “Inside the High Sierra”, and will be available at www.insidethehighsierra.com this fall.