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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Yoghurt, attics, and the joys of broad, flat rocks

The American environmental movement is sometimes criticized as being overwhelmingly white, with the ethnicities conspicuously under-represented. That may or may not be true for “card-carrying” environmentalists, but this last week reminded me what I've long known, that appreciation for the wonders of the natural world cuts across ethnic boundaries, to judge by my encounters with the South Korean couple that own the local yoghurt shop, and a pair of Mexican-American laborers who blew insulation into my attic.

My wife Tammy and I often enjoy these balmy spring evenings (note: apologies to those in the northeast who have yet to see any balmy evenings) by visiting a nearby frozen yoghurt shop after dinner. I was wearing my fleece jacket with the Yosemite patch of Half-dome on it. As we totaled up, the Asian owner asked me if I’d been to Yosemite. In the ensuing conversation, he revealed that he and his wife had climbed half-dome several times, as well as Mt. Whitney once. When we learned that the part of Asia he was from was South Korea, Tammy told him of our enjoyable several days in the famous Sorak-san mountains of that country, which surprised him greatly.

The Sorak-san mountains, extolled in Korean poetry for nearly as long as China’s Huang Shan mountains (whose praises were sung by Li Po in the T’ang dynasty, over a thousand years ago), run along the east coast of Korea in its mid-line, plunging precipitously down to picturesque fishing villages where we greeted the boats returning at dawn laden with very lively squid, anchovies, octopus, and sea urchins. (Tammy purchased several octopods, expressly in order to walk further down the dock and liberate them back into the sea.) The granitic mountains themselves are laced with tumultuous, boulder-strewn streams below its Buddhist temples perched high up dizzying cliffs. Tammy and I negotiated the jumps to one large, flat stone in the midst of one stream, where we stretched out in the sun and re-lived the Chinese T’ang dynasty poet Wang Wei’s favorite pasttime on his own Green Stream: “Oh, to sit on a broad flat rock / And cast a fishing-line forever!”

Several days later two Mexican-American fellows adding insulation to my attic noticed some Grand Canyon photos among those adorning our hallway walls, and enquired whether I’d ever been to northern Mexico’s famous Copper Canyon. I explained I’d heard of it, and yearned to go for many years. Enthusiastically they sung its praises, and detailed several different routes to get there. From there the talk progressed to Yosemite, once again, which one of the fellows had spent much time in, car-camping and taking day-hikes. His eyes gleamed as he spoke.

I showed him backpacking photos on my study wall of our father/son hikes, and he noticed the photos I have of John Muir, recognizing Muir as an old man, though he’d never seen the adjacent photos of St. John as a young and then middle-aged man. The triptych of Muir photos has a leaf inserted into it from the giant bay tree facing the entrance to Muir’s home in Martinez, California (now an historical site).

Just below the three Muir photos is another triptych, this one three photos of Charles Darwin as a young, middle-aged, and old man. Attached to this group is a cone of the Dawn Redwood I gathered while visiting the gardens of Darwin’s Cambridge rooms at Christ College. You could say Muir and Darwin are the foremost of “my men,” analogous to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous list of “my men,” which included Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Carlyle, Louis Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and fourteen others.

“My men” are headed by Muir and Darwin, but would also include Thomas Jefferson, the Chinese scientist Ye Duzhuang (whom I met in 1984 in Beijing), Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and the poets Li Po (T’ang dynasty China) and Robinson Jeffers (early 20th century California). Maybe in some future entry I’ll talk about these gentlemen. For now, though, I’ll just note that my men, like the Korean couple and the Mexican-American fellows, range over several continents, and illustrate that being open to the beauty and lessons of the natural world is a human trait, shared fully by men and women of many ages and many nations. More power to them!

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