30 January 2008

The Moulton Journal: Shifting Baselines, a Couple of Moose, and Skiing as Story

Shifting Baselines
It's a scary thought: all us skiiers are raving about what a great snow year this is. Yet, when you look at the last hundred years or so of data, it's really very average. But as humans (or Americans, anyway), we forget the lessons of history and only the recent past is our basis for comparison. Thus all of those so-called "drought" years from 1998 to 2007 are now normal, and the winter of 2007-08 looks exceptionally white and cold.

This is a good example of the classic phrase "shifting baseline," coined by biologist Daniel Pauly to explain how fisherman (and fisheries biologists) came to accept declining fish populations. In other words, it's all a matter of what you are used to. But no, it isn't: whether declining fish populations or global warming, there are real human impacts on the environment. If we do not appreciate their severity, we will end up like the Greeks or Romans or all those cultures that caused their own demise by ruining their environment [cf. Diamond (2005) Collapse].

But the snow is here, and I will get out there and enjoy it.

Since December, I've been seeing The Moulton moose cow and her calf separately. I thought that, as it seems to happen each year, the cow had driven the calf away or it had left on its own to stake out its own willowy territory. But this morning, there they were together again, feeding in the willow bottom near the Downy place (a mile or so below the parking lot), and bedded down as I returned:

Skiing as Story
Cross country skiing the trails of The Moulton is a performative act. It is something like Walter Ong and others thesis about Homer's Illiad and other oral traditions: they were never told the same way twice. Instead, the poem or song is stitched together from prefabricated parts, each with its own memorable thoughts, rich sensual metaphors, and other distinguishing features. And it's not a book that you read just once.

And so it is with a ski at The Moulton or with similar performances such as a hike through a familiar area. Each performance is a new story. In part, this is trivially true in a Heraclitean sense that "You can't step in the same river twice:" the snow, wind, temperature, light, wax, the pair of skis you're on, mouse tracks, and so forth are all different each time.

But in an equally interesting sense, each ski or hike is unique because of the way we stitch together familiar elements. Climbing across the ridge and skiing down the Buzzy Trail with its Single Jack and Double Jack is one day's introduction to The Moulton story, whereas another day might be introduced by way of a trek across the meadow, up the Orphan Girl hill, and down Wake Up Jim. Like Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, there is no one right order in which to read the chapters.

Sadly, I think, many residents of Modernity believe in and seek The One True Order. They seek the linearity of alpha-omega from beginning to end in an invariant way. They march into Iraq determined to transform diverse cultures that do not share "our" values into a democractic, "one nation under capitalism" neo-con version of Amerika.

This is exactly why we need the disorder, diversity, and complexity of nature and wilderness. It is a counterpoint to our daily experience of culture and technology, it challenges us to surrender our rational linearity, and it helps us discover the beauty of our relationship to the earth.


The Moulton: Montana's Finest Cross Country Ski Trails

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