Swans Commentary » swans.com October 5, 2009  



Climbing, Work, Activism


by Martin Murie





(Swans - October 5, 2009)   In this piece I expand on the insights of Jeffrey M. McCarthy in "Why Climbing Matters." (1)

First let's admit that there are many climbers out there whose main motivation is "conquest." McCarthy knows this and he doesn't disavow the feeling of conquest, but it is a sideshow in his argument. I once met a climber who bragged of his conquest of Mount Moran in the Teton Range by a series of gastons. He credited his "will" as the power that "gave" him the summit.

McCarthy's key argument is expressed in a citation from a Colorado climber, Josh Wharton.

With my left foot I kicked hard at the ice, doing everything I could to drive the blunt teeth of the aluminum crampon with as much force as the rock shoe would allow. With my right hand in a gaston at the crack's rounded edge and my right foot stemming desperately for subtle features, I begin to slowly creep upward. Occasionally the ice choking the crack breaks off into unstable chunks, forcing me to jam hand and/or foot into the gaps between ice and rock. (2)

McCarthy comments: "Here is the whole body engaged. . . . and it captures the kinesthetic awareness, the animation that climbing opens."

Expanding from this fact, let us notice that every intense experience inheres in a particular situation. Walking on a trail in the Swiss Alps I came to an abrupt end of the trail at a cliff top, a steep slant of rock, the only way forward. Would my street shoes take me across? I studied the rock, its grainy surface. Alpine tundra beckoned. Decision came to my body before my intellect gave me the several warnings aimed at solo climbers. It was an easy crossing, but exposure was there.

That little adventure was nothing compared to Glen Exum's solo pioneering of an alternate route to the summit of the Grand Teton, where he had to decide whether to jump across the break in the ledge he was following. He jumped.

Henry Thoreau had a rude awakening while descending Mount Ktaadn. He felt suddenly an "alien" in the wild. Charlotte Meyer, in a panel at the Eugene meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, suggested that an extension of Thoreau's alien sensation would lead him to the conviction that some places on the planet were not designed for human occupation. I think we all have had a taste of that conclusion. (3)

I now take a turn to the world of work. Dispatched by the Laborers' Union in Oakland, California, to a work site, as usual, I was the only white among black workers. I doubt that any of us knew the name of the corporation that hired us. It was just a job. At quittin' time I noticed a worker walk to a corner, kneel down, and scoop up a bit of trash and drop it into the waste barrel. Loyalty to the job, I've noticed it time and again. It is what motivated that laborer, and it is what motivated Ivan in Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan, serving a sentence in a Siberian prison camp, can't bear the thought of leaving a cement and block job unfinished. He keeps laying blocks and two co-workers catch onto the rhythm and keep handing him blocks and cement. It's a miserable Siberian day, but they complete the job. Loyalty to the job. (4)

McCarthy posits three types of climbers: the conquerors, the appreciators and defenders of wilderness, and those who use the body to its full extent -- sensuous, muscular, fully active and aware. Now we have a spectrum to work with, conquest-driven at one extreme shading to appreciators, and total mind/body awareness at the other. I place workers who act with sinuous and body engagement with the climbers who do the same. Furthermore, every job has its dangers, just as serious climbing has danger lurking. The worker is aware of risks, but they are put in a mental background so the job can get done.

I once described, in a piece in The Zephyr, a type of outdoor operator of motor vehicles, including jet craft and off-road vehicles, as Centaurs -- half human, half motorized. At a certain point the racket of the machine and the concentrated management of the machine bars any real engagement with nature.

One day my daughter Janet and I walked to the top of a ridge that led by easy slopes to the summit of the mountain. At the ridge we noticed that a four-wheeler had managed to reach the ridge crest over extremely steep and jagged rocks. I put that Off Road Vehicle driver in the Centaur slot along with conquest-obsessed climbers. We met another ORV driver who confessed that he always stopped short of that last pitch. Too risky. He realized his machine could hit one of those jagged rocks slightly the wrong way and topple backwards.

On close examination we run into subtleties. In the Jarbidge Mountains of northern Nevada I noticed a four-wheeler going slowly off-road to a stop where two young girls dismounted and began to pay very close attention to some plants. They stayed there quite a while; the off-road machine was apparently their mount to get to where they could silence the motor and concentrate on what McCarthy names "appreciation." The parents were nearby on their four-wheeler; they joined the girls. Eventually the two machines were driven back to the road and trundled slowly down the dusty mountain road.

However, as a rough approximation, we can take account of overlaps from conquest to appreciation to the full body freedom of savvy climbers and alert, mind/body workers, as long as we keep in mind that this abstraction is an approximation, and that intense experiences of nature or urban terrains are inescapably particular, and also that particulars can pile up in our minds and bodies, leading to greater appreciation and understanding.

There are millions of workers who toil with intense concentration and accumulate wisdom along the way. When I was a laborer and gave rides to my fellow workers so that they did not have to find a bus stop, I drove and kept quiet. I soon learned that job loyalty was not discussed. They had all learned the hard way, just as climbers learn the hard way, the ways of corporations and governments and white society. Job techniques and awareness were simply taken for granted. These learnings ought to be celebrated and included in any examination of environments. From United Farm Workers to telephone and power line workers to laborers who put their entire bodies into total sensitivity so that the job can be done right. Each job has its dangers. No job is free of risk, until we get to cubicles and desks and computers where the isolation from nature as well as built environments is nearly total.

We could do worse than pay attention to the world of work in the built structures of cities and towns and highways and other infrastructures, thereby taking account of all body/mind sensitivities. Danger haunts the world; it is not confined to adventures in the wild. Let's be clear on that, especially now in the multiple crises we humans face: Climate change, species extinctions, unemployment, food distribution networks failing, ocean acidification, rising ocean waters, tundra softening, and so on.

McCarthy warns us against the dangers that dwell in the world of abstraction, and rightly so. A wide array of dangers haunt this beautiful earth. To get lost in the abstract jungle is one of the worst moves; it turns us into harmless puppies. We need to become well acquainted with the whole array. A good beginning is Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild.

All knowledge has its shadow. The advancement of biological knowledge into what we call the natural world simultaneously advances the processes of normalization and control, forces that erode the wildness that arises from nature's own order, the very order that, presumably, is the point of preservation.

At the core of the present conjunction of preservation and biological science -- the heritage of Leopold -- lies a contradiction. We face a choice, a choice that is fundamentally moral. To ignore it is mere cowardice. Shall we remake nature according to biological theory? Shall we accept the wild? (5)

The antidote is the dwelling of mind and body -- "kinesthetic sensations" -- in particular situations. McCarthy reminds us that we do not have to climb dangerous mountains, but if we reach out to others without arrogance or condescension, we can come to the final step, and here I end in activist mode. Can we intellectuals from all ways of life get off our butts to join protests in the streets, in offices, at gates?

I am reminded of Cindy Sheehan's reception at Obama's vacation site where she set up a vigil, just as she stationed herself at Bush's ranch gate in Texas. Obama refused to meet her, but he, in the recent past, had made big publicity out of another family's grief at the loss of their son in Iraq. His politician's antennae are busy waving in the loaded air, detecting moves from the right, ignoring the liberal and left.

The urgent necessity of our time is to build a massive People Power that will ensure a fight against the disease that threatens all of us, waiting on the sidelines while air, water, and soil turn dangerous, and technology, expertise, our very minds and bodies succumb to acquiescence. When we do act we will find new fine-tunings of body and mind among the great diversity in American citizenry, new sensitivities, new openings, loyalty to each other. It's time, now. The planet's clock does not stop.




1.  Jeffrey M. McCarthy. "Why Climbing Matters," ISLE, Vol. 15.2, Summer 2008.  (back)

2.  Josh Wharton. "The Unveiling," Alpinist 9, (Winter 2004-05).  (back)

3.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich Translated by Bela Fron Block, Lancer Contempora Books, 1963.  (back)

4.  Charlotte Meyer. Thoreau Panel, ASLE meeting at University of Oregon, Eugene, 2005.  (back)

5.  Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild, University of Arizona Press, 1996.  (back)


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About the Author

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 5, 2009