Humility

Along with interviews and views from others I am posting some more serious essays I’m writing about nature and conservation.  This is an essay I wrote recently as part of a collection I’m working on, I hope you like it, it’s a reflection of some of my personal experiences and my view of humanity’s place in the world.

Humility

“…the smaller we come to feel ourselves compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness.” –Arne Naess[1]

You watch from a bush plane window as the small craft banks and circles.  Below you laid out in the ocean like some great museum diorama is the living body of a whale.  Your breath catches, your eyes boggle.  You try and capture a photo but your SD card is full and there is no time, No matter you think, Just enjoy the moment, there’s no way to capture this.  And there is no way to capture the moment, to recall the enormous creature beneath the point of outstretched wings.  You knew whales were enormous, you’ve even seen a whale skeleton at a museum in Kodiak but God!  Seeing it in person and alive, the whole creature swimming below makes all the difference!  The whale looks like a humpback to your untrained eye but you’ve never seen a live whale before this summer and the only other time, the whale was only blowing, breathing and your boat was stuck, so you couldn’t get any closer.  This whale is graceful, long, smooth and slick, delicate despite its enormity.

Do you glimpse how small you are?

You hear a rumble far away and look for the cause.  You are on the slopes of a glaciated peak and all around you are the summits, ridges and hills that together can rightly be called the mountains.  Across a valley on a far off slope you can see a puff, a white tail of snow, something that at this distance seems so small.  That small thing is the rumble you hear; it is an avalanche.  Watched through binoculars you can see a little more but it is mostly white chaos; tumbling snow, powder snow thrown everywhere.  Later you contemplate avalanches and the many things that can befall one climbing mountains as you watch a helicopter hovering further up the slopes on a ridge above you.  The helicopter is picking up the dead bodies of climbers who fell.

Do you see how weak you are?

You reach out your hand and touch the brown patina, a stain of minerals covering and slowly fossilizing bone.  Before you in the skull of a T. Rex, something that was excavated from Montana before you started working on the project.  Months of labor made this skull a close approximation of the skeletal underpinnings of a once living beast.  The patina covering the skull is cut through with delicate tracery of thin, yellowish lines.  You are told that many of these lines are from the roots of grasses and sage brush that were pulling minerals from the fossil skull in front of you.  Extinct for 65 million years and still part of the ecosystem, you marvel.

Can you fathom how young you are?

You are climbing your first glaciated peak with a group from college.  On summit day the weather is bad.  Everything is fog and blowing snow and cold.  Earlier in the trip you could hear the grumble of glaciers calving as you walked through a world of white fog and snow. After checking the conditions everyone goes to sleep again before making a latter descent, a descent without reaching the summit.  You aren’t happy.  To yourself you rant about what you’d have done differently, The weather wasn’t so bad, we should’ve gone anyway, or, If I’d been in charge, we would’ve started earlier and summited the day before.  Then listening to the radio in your fathers garage, you hear the news that a few climbers died on the same peak you were climbing, died because weather trapped them and overpowered them.

Have you found Humility?

 

[1] The Ecology of Wisdom, Edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall, ©2008 by Arne Naess, Modesty and the conquest of mountains, pg. 67 paper back edition

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