A Special Place and How It Was Lost

I know a place that I have kept a secret for a dozen years. I think of this place as Bonsai Pond, though it has no official name and appears on the wilderness map only as an elevation (nearly 7000 feet) and a blue circle at the center of brown circles. These are topographic lines, close together, suggesting steepness. In fact, Bonsai Pond sits atop a pillar of rock, and the only way to get there (short of helicopter) is to scale it. In this way, Bonsai Pond is sort of an island in the sky, isolated by difficulty of access. And the pond at the center of this “island,” small though it is, has an island of its own. It was this island that so beguilingly suggested the name Bonsai Pond, for growing on the island are dwarfed and contorted whitebark pine trees, shaped by the elements to look like a bonsai garden.

The top of the basalt pillar that is home to this pond may encompass as much as a couple acres of rock and soil and green growing things—shrubs and wildflowers, but also some good-sized mountain hemlocks, which happen to cluster around the one flat, open area that suggests itself as a natural campsite. And then there is the view. As it happens, this rocky pillar among mountains provides an unimpeded vista of three spectacular peaks. And they are close enough to contemplate in great craggy detail. It is partly because of its proximity to these major mountaintops that I first experienced this spot as a power place. And I couldn’t but wonder if the Indians hadn’t used this particular upthrust of basalt as an especially powerful vision quest site.

When I think about it, it was for just some such purpose that I was saving Bonsai Pond for myself, which is why I never sought to use it as an ordinary campsite, and why I never mentioned it to anyone else. A time would come when I would need to reestablish my connection to the cosmos, or to my own deeper self, and when I felt that need for connection or special knowledge, this would be the place I would come for it. Here I could take the large view of nature, the mountain peaks and meadows and vast stretches of rolling forest, then refocus and see these same shaping powers as expressed in the pleasing miniature landscape of the bonsai garden on the island at the center of this powerfully placed pond.

It is rare to find such a contrast in perspectives available at a single site, rarer still for those perspectives to embrace such complementary natural beauty. I know this with a fair degree of certainty because I have explored this spectacular wilderness, camping and hiking week after week for seventeen summers, as a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. I can think of a dozen places that share the essential qualities of Bonsai Pond, all very beautiful places, all excellent (even inspiring) places to camp, but all, one way or another, lacking that special something that makes Bonsai Pond truly unique.

Last summer, for some reason, I thought a lot about Bonsai Pond. It was time, I figured, to pay the place a visit. Not to camp there, not to seek a vision, or connection, or wholeness, but just to renew my sense of the place. When I got there the place had been utterly changed for me—not by some natural disaster, not even by the devastation that careless campers can sometimes leave behind. What had ruined it was the addition of an alien technology.

Of the four foreign “apparatuses,” I could positively identify only one, a wooden box maybe two feet by three. What was inside the box I could not guess. The other three things were made mostly of metal. One was a silvery half globe, flat on the bottom, mounted on a tripod. On another tripod with staff was mounted a small metallic box, possibly a camera. And on a much taller staff was attached something that looked to be from outer space: a series of iridescent blue panels, on the order of Venetian blinds, which may have been a sensing device, or antenna, or possibly a solar panel to power the other gadgets. Whatever it was, it glittered and had something like little stars winking brightly out of its metallic blue whatchamacallits.

I might not know the individual functions of all this paraphernalia, but, once past the shock of first seeing it, I thought I knew its purpose. All the mountains around Bonsai Pond had once been active volcanoes, and the prominent peak to the southwest had been noted recently, thanks to satellite imagery, to be bulging slightly on the western flank of its upper base. No doubt all the equipment had been marshaled up there to monitor any changes to the bulge, which was growing at the rate of an inch per year.

I knew perfectly well what the arguments would be for “keeping an eye on the bulge.” In the case of a blowout volcanic event, people living near any of the creeks and rivers that drain the area, as I myself do, could be caught in a major debris flow and not survive the event. That would be a worst-case scenario, but the memory of the Mount St. Helen’s eruption, then more than two decades past, still lurked in the Northwest mind. We knew that an “inactive” volcano was not necessarily a “dead” one, and a very slightly active volcano might be building up to something bigger. To monitor Mother Nature with doo-dads might well provide important scientific information, and might also save lives.

I can see this point of view, but it is one that leaves out matters of some importance. Naturally, I am not happy about the particular place that was chosen to construct this monument to advanced technology. Little as I know about the technical parameters, it seems highly unlikely to me that this monitoring station could not have been effectively sited somewhere else. And so I have to question the judgment, the sensitivity, and indeed the wilderness ethic of those whose decision it was to put this gaudy hardware precisely here.

The actions of the Forest Service are guided by protocols, rules, guidelines, and laws, many of which were probably violated in the course of installing this monitoring station. Let us consider the most important of these, the Wilderness Act itself.

Does this monitoring station—according to the letter as well as the spirit of the law—belong in designated wilderness? Two key sentences from the Wilderness Act itself should give us a pretty good idea. “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This sentence, written, critiqued, rethought, and carefully rewritten by Howard Zahnhizer, is considered by many to be the heart and essence of what legally designated wilderness means. And at the core of this sentence is an archaic and not well understood word: untrammeled. In Old French usage, dating back to the eleventh century, a trammel was a kind of net used to catch fish or birds. Modern dictionary equivalents for the word untrammeled include: “unimpeded,” “unrestrained,” “unencumbered,” “unlimited,” “unconfined.” By using the word untrammeled, Zahnhizer gave to the Wilderness Act its overarching concept of wilderness in its essence.

In the sentence that follows this key word and concept, Zahnhizer offers the wilderness manager more detailed, specific direction:

An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land without permanent improvements or human habitation which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a rugged, primitive, and unconfined type of outdoor recreation; (3) is of sufficient size to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition, and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, archeological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

By this legal definition of federally managed wilderness lands, the high-tech gewgaws I encountered at Bonsai Pond clearly do not belong there. I knew that to be true the moment I saw them, feeling, as I did, their presence as a wrench in my gut—laws, regulation, and policy aside. Yes, there can be little doubt that this four-part monitoring station is against the law, as written. But laws can be circumvented, regulations bent, policy suspended or waived. Which, I am sure, is how this monitoring station got here in the first place.

A decision was made and was signed off on at the various levels of Forest Service bureaucracy: District level, Forest level, even, perhaps, at the Regional level. Administrators all along the line have said it was okay to break the law in this very special case. It is futile, therefore, to argue against this affront to wilderness on purely legalistic grounds. The law is clear. Wilderness is to be “managed so as to preserve its natural conditions…with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” But the law can be got around, has been got around. Instead of looking at legalities, then, and trying to split the hairs of definition, it might be more profitable to look at what is behind the law, what it is in the human spirit or the human condition that prompted the writing of such a law in the first place.

Over the years, in my job as Wilderness Ranger, I have been called upon to talk to a number of wilderness groups about what wilderness means. I have never said exactly the same thing twice, but I notice that certain elements recur, including a three-part historical perspective. Usually I begin with the year 1964, when the Wilderness Act became law, and note how there was something in the culture then which made possible the setting aside of hundreds of square miles of land, protecting it as designated wilderness. Part of that something was the certainty that soon there would be no wildlands left.

From here I like to shift the historical perspective back to the time of Lewis and Clark and describe what the Wild West looked like then, with its diverse intact ecosystems, its pristine free-flowing rivers—the whole vast landscape vital and teeming with wildlife.

Then I shift the perspective again, going back not just forty years, or two hundred, but to the time before agriculture and settled communities, to when we were hunters and gatherers, living in small nomadic bands, living in nature every day of our lives. This was the natural condition of the human being, all human beings, for tens of thousands of years. Living in nature’s landscapes, in tune with nature’s rhythms, open to (but also vulnerable to) nature’s very substantial powers. This was the human condition, the human life-way, for a good deal longer than the urban, high-tech, alienated way we live now. It is in our genes, our collective unconscious, in the very marrow and sinew of our bodies. That is why so many of us feel the call to connect with raw, wild nature, because, in the process, we connect to our truer, deeper selves. The wilderness experience can re-create for us the condition man was born to, can reawaken dormant senses and responses, and give us the profound sensation of being more fully alive.

It was for just such a heightened experience that I was saving Bonsai Pond. With the changes made to the rim-rock landscape overlooking this Zen-like setting, something critical changed in my own inner landscape. I could never feel at ease here, never open up to my deeper sensitivities under the gaze of this alien presence. And even if I could ignore the high-tech clutter, there would always be the threat from the sky. I could not but wonder if this was to be the day of the helicopter, the day when a crew was ferried in to check on the station and steal, utterly, the spirit of this place.

The betrayal of that special place was for me a great personal loss; but, in its implications, it was much more. Wilderness has standing in the collective American mind, something like what Wallace Stegner has called “the geography of hope.” The loss of a place like Bonsai Pond goes beyond the diminishment of physical wilderness; it diminishes, and does damage to, the idea of wilderness. While the planet has lost one more special place, the human psyche has lost even more: a last best place of refuge. In this process, a diminished interior landscape is the legacy for us all.

Gary Gripp was a wilderness ranger in Oregon’s High Cascades for 17 years, giving him many winters off to read and think and write. He blogs now at www.wildearthman.com.