appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: February, 2015

A Night in the Big Horns

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never had a bad time in the wild, even when absolutely miserable. Some eight years ago I earned the opportunity to travel the great North American West with a young group of geologists and environmental scientists. One of the early stops on our month-long adventure was among the rock and sediment of the Big Horn Mountains in Northern Wyoming. It was June, but under western skies at elevations over 9,000 feet, there is still plenty of snow and ice pack around. We spent the day among the anticlines, synclines, thrust faults and paleosols looking for signs of ancient life. And these signs were abundant. Especially, if I recall correctly, ancient plant life. With each outcrop we moved to other geologic periods. We were there to discover and explore the remains of Paleozoic and Mesozoic flora and fauna – a few fleeting hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth. Even had a snow fight or two along the way.

As the “work” day came to a close we made our way to camp, set up our tents, rolled out our sleeping bags and began our preparation of the bon-fire. Fire is a necessity in the Big Horn’s anytime of year. Temperatures, at such elevations, continue to plummet into the lower 20’s and often even cooler. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze to get to know one another a little better. We filled our bellies with loaded mashed potatoes, a good, warm, carbohydrate laden meal for the chill awaiting us. As the hours went by, beneath an array of twisted lodgepole pine’s, we had plenty of laughs, built the foundation of long-lasting friendships, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

Later into the night, as fresh snow dusted the grounds, those of us dedicated to the flames of the dwindling campfire, and equally to the flames of whisky in our bellies (never go to bed early, you may miss something), a harsh reality set in. The wine bladders froze, we were uncomfortable and a whole new day awaited us in just a few looming hours. We were to push further west toward the Bear Tooth Mountains of Idaho. Bone weary, we extinguished the fire and made our way to our tents, none of us knowing each other well enough just yet to keep each other warm on such a cold night.

I am not privy to the exact temperature of the evening, but frozen wine bladders do not bode well for optimum sleeping temperatures. Ahead of me was the most uncomfortable night (for years to follow) of my life. To say I shivered would be an understatement, to say I cursed the chilled air would make delicate of the actual turn of events. Sleep came in short bursts, the product of pure exhaustion and nothing more. The cold readily found a way to snap me out of whatever light drifting relieved me. I moaned and prayed for the night to end. Of course it did. In the morning we crawled out of our tents, warmed up a deserved breakfast, packed up camp and moved on our way. As miserable as I was, however, I rank my stretch in the Big Horns as one of my favorite experiences out in the wild.

It’s good to test your mettle every once in a while.

Consider the Microbe

Photo Credit: Oregon State

Photo Credit: Oregon State

All too often, in our considerations of the wild, we overlook the simple, microscopic life that lives in absolute abundance around us, in us and on us. The microbe is the foundation of all ecology. These prokaryotes, the simplest of cells, allow for the sustenance of life. From the inferno of the Hadean Earth, they enabled all the great radiations of life. The microbe will craft worlds our civilizations will never know. American micro-biologist Carl Woese, famous for classifying the microbial domain Archaea, is quoted by the New York Times:

It’s clear to me that if you wiped all multicellular life-forms off the face of the earth, microbial life might shift a tiny bit . . . If [on the other hand] microbial life were to disappear, that would be it – instant death for the planet.

We should be humbled by this order. Behind such a simple existence lies an infinite complexity — a beautiful bounty, billions of years of history and a wonder that we will never truly understand. For this, and many other reasons, I am amazed by and adore the natural world.

I am an advocate of wilderness preservation for what open spaces can teach us. I do not mean the information found in stratigraphy, though rocks do tell the greatest tale ever told — they have crafted their story for some 4.6 billion years, after all. I instead refer to nature for nature’s sake. When we take time to contemplate the microbe, we see the simple turn to the complex in a great bottom up diversification of life. The wild functions under the fixed laws of nature. It is competition in a world of scarcity, mutualism among species of different Kingdoms, cooperation among the three great domains of life and selection pressures that order the natural world.

The wild inspires the imagination. How different our world could be. If only we practiced in the same bottom up tradition.

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