Freedom in the Grace of the World

Earl Shaffer,
adrift after serving in the South Pacific in World War II and struggling
with the loss of his childhood friend Walter Winemiller during the
assault on Iwo Jima, made his way to Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia in
1947. He headed north toward Mount Katahdin in Maine and for the next
124 days, averaging 16.5 miles a day, beat back the demons of war. His
goal, he said, was to ''walk the Army out of my system.'' He was the
first person to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail.

Earl Shaffer,
adrift after serving in the South Pacific in World War II and struggling
with the loss of his childhood friend Walter Winemiller during the
assault on Iwo Jima, made his way to Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia in
1947. He headed north toward Mount Katahdin in Maine and for the next
124 days, averaging 16.5 miles a day, beat back the demons of war. His
goal, he said, was to ''walk the Army out of my system.'' He was the
first person to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail.

The beauty and
tranquility of the old-growth forests, the vistas that stretch for miles
over unbroken treetops, the waterfalls and rivers, the severance from
the noise and electronic hallucinations of modern existence, becomes, if
you stay out long enough, a balm to wounds. It is in solitude,
contemplation and a connection with nature that we transcend the
frenzied and desperate existence imposed upon us by the distortions of a
commodity culture.

The mountains
that loom on the northern part of the trail in New Hampshire and Maine,
most of them in the White Mountain National Forest, are also forbidding,
even in summer, when winds can routinely reach 60 or 70 miles per hour
accompanied by lashing rain. The highest surface wind speed recorded on
the planet, 231 miles per hour, was measured on April 12, 1934, at the
Mount Washington Observatory. Boulders and steep inclines become
slippery and treacherous when wet and shrouded in dense fog.
Thunderstorms, racing across treeless ridge lines with the speed of a
freight train, turn the razor-backed peaks into lightning rods. The
Penacooks, one of two Native American tribes that dominated the area,
called Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, Agiochook or
"place of the Great Spirit."

The Penacooks,
fearing the power of Agiochook to inflict death, did not climb to its
summit. The fury you bring into the mountains is overpowered by the fury
of nature itself. Nature always extracts justice. Defy nature and it
obliterates the human species. The more we divorce ourselves from
nature, the more we permit the natural world to be exploited and
polluted by corporations for profit, the more estranged we become from
the essence of life. Corporate systems, which grow our food and ship it
across country in trucks, which drill deep into the ocean to extract
diminishing fossil fuels and send container ships to bring us piles of
electronics and cloths from China, have created fragile, unsustainable
man-made infrastructures that will collapse. Corporations have, at the
same time, destroyed sustainable local communities. We do not know how
to grow our own food. We do not know how to make our own clothes. We are
helpless appendages of the corporate state. We are fooled by virtual
mirages into mistaking the busy, corporate hives of human activity and
the salacious images and gossip that clog our minds as real. The natural
world, the real world, on which our life depends, is walled off from
view as it is systematically slaughtered. The oil gushing into the Gulf
of Mexico is one assault. There are thousands more, including the
coal-burning power plants dumping gases into our atmosphere that are
largely unseen. Left unchecked, this arrogant defiance of nature will
kill us.

"We have reached a
point at which we must either consciously desire and choose and
determine the future of the Earth or submit to such an involvement in
our destructiveness that the Earth, and ourselves with it, must
certainly be destroyed," writer-poet Wendell Berry warns. "And we have
come to this at a time when it is hard, if not impossible, to foresee a
future that is not terrifying."

Year after year I
returned to these forbidding peaks from conflicts in Central America,
the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. I had a house in Maine on an
800-foot hill with no television, cell phone or Internet service. The
phone number was unlisted. It rarely rang. I refused to give the number
to my employer, The New York Times. I brought with me the stench of
death, the cries of the wounded, the bloated bodies on the side of the
road, the fear, the paranoia, the alienation, the insomnia, the anger
and the despair and threw it at these mountains. I strapped my pack on
in the pounding rain at trailheads and drove myself, and later my son,
up mountains. I rarely stopped. Once, in a bitter rain, I crested the
peak of Mount Madison in August and was immediately thrown backward by
howling winds whipping across the ridge and pelting hailstones. It was
impossible to reach the summit. On a hike in the remote Pemigewasset
Wilderness I made a wrong turn and, fearing hypothermia, walked all
night. By the time the sun rose my blisters had turned to open sores. I
wrung the blood out of my socks. I go to the mountains to at once spend
this fury and seek renewal, to be reminded of my tiny, insignificant
place in the universe and to confront mystery. Berry writes in "The
Peace of Wild Things":

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children's lives
may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great
heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I climbed my first
mountain in the White Mountain National Forest when I was 7. It was
Mount Chocorua. The mountain, capped with a rocky dome and perhaps the
most beautiful in the park, is named for a legendary Pequawket chief who
refused to flee with his tribe to Canada and was supposedly pursued to
its summit by white settlers, where he leapt to his death. It is a climb
I have repeated nearly every year, now with my children. I guided trips
in the mountains in college. I would lie, years later, awake in San
Salvador, Gaza, Juba or Sarajevo and try to recall the sound of the
wind, the smell of the pine forests and the cacophony of bird song. To
know the forests and mountains were there, to know that I would return
to them, gave me a psychological and physical refuge. And as my two
older children grew to adulthood I dragged them up one peak after
another, pushing them perhaps too hard. My college-age son is deeply
connected to the mountains. He works in the summer as a guide and has
spent upward of seven weeks at a time backpacking on the Appalachian
Trail. My teenage daughter, perhaps reflecting her sanity, is reticent
to enter the mountains with the two of us.

I stood a few
days ago in a parking lot at Crawford Notch with Rick Sullivan, an Army
captain and Afghanistan war veteran. It was the end of our weeklong hike
in the White Mountains. Sullivan noticed a man with a T-shirt that read
"Operation Iraqi Freedom." The shirt had Arabic and English script
warning motorists not to come too close or risk being shot. The man, an
Iraqi veteran, was putting on a pack and told us that he was the
caretaker of a camp site. He said he left the Army a year ago, drifted,
drank too much and worked at a bar as a bouncer. His life was
unraveling. He then answered an ad for a park caretaker. The clouds
hovering on the peaks above us were an ominous gray. The caretaker said
he planned to beat the rain back to the tent site. I thought of Earl
Shaffer.

"You try and
forget the war but you carry pieces of it with you anyway," the
caretaker said. "In the mountains, at least, I can finally sleep."