I discovered a surprising book in my vast library recently: My Wilderness, East to Katahdin, by a certain William O. Douglas. Many of us think of the modern era of environmental awareness as having begun with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. But My Wilderness, published in 1961, has some of the same ideas, though in a less organized form. Rachel Carson organized the concepts into a powerful argument and provided all of the scientific references, but William O. Douglas and probably many others had thought of them earlier.
One of these concepts was the interconnectedness of nature and how modern industrial society can mess everything up by ignoring these connections. One example about which Douglas wrote was the federal government practice, in the 1950s, of dropping poison bait from airplanes to kill off the wolves. But the result was to kill off many other kinds of animals, some of which had kept populations of agricultural pests such as grasshoppers in check. The result was population explosions of insect pests. The answer to this was, of course, more spraying. Another example was the attempt to destroy the sagebrush by herbicides, to encourage the grass to grow for the ranchers to graze their livestock. But wildlife that depended on the sagebrush began to die as a result.
Another concept was the government practice of renting out federal land very, very cheaply to ranchers to graze their livestock. At that point, the ranchers began to act as if the federal land was actually their private land that the government should just let them keep. This continues to happen today, such as the takeover of federal land by the armed Bundy family militia in late 2015. But it is nothing new. Douglas quotes an acquaintance who worked for the federal government (I presume the Bureau of Land Management) who said, “…a permittee who has the right to run sheep on public land pretty soon begins to think he owns the range. Take it away from him, or cut down on the number of sheep or cattle he can graze, or increase the rental, and he hollers as if his property has been confiscated” (page 41). Then as now, ranchers who pretend to be wild west cowboys want to take land that belongs to the taxpayers—that is, as much as to me as to them—and keep it for themselves. This is a practice that they refuse to call socialism.
Douglas was a man who hiked all over the continent. He writes of backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; Zion National Park in Utah; Maroon Bells in Colorado; Baboquivari along the Arizona-Sonora border; Quetico Provincial Park in Canada; The Smoky Mountains; the Everglades; the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal near Washington, D. C.; and the White Mountains, Allagash, and Mt. Katahdin in the northeast United States. He was no stranger to the challenges of survival in the wild. The descriptions in this book are sometimes evocative and help you to feel like you are actually present in a place you will probably never visit. But, although I have no doubt that he saw all of these organisms, his descriptions were usually lists of plants and animals that sound like he copied them out of a guidebook. There were quite a few books of this sort published about the same time, such as The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson, The Near Woods by Millard Davis, and One Day at Teton Marsh by Sally Carrighar. Douglas’s book is highly disorganized, except for each chapter being about his experience in one particular place.
What makes this book unique is the person who wrote it. Who was he? Do the black robes in this portrait give you a hint?
William O. Douglas was, throughout nearly all of the time during which he took the hikes he describes, a Supreme Court justice. He still holds the record of serving the longest on the Supreme Court, almost 37 years, from 1939 to 1975. Aside from Teddy Roosevelt shooting big animals and mistaking it for a love of nature, we have never had—and almost certainly will never again have—a prominent politician who had or will have such a passionate and thorough knowledge of the natural world. Today, with the new “conservative” (vs. conservationist) takeover, it seems that the less you know about science and nature, the more qualified you are for any office, particularly positions in which you are supervising government conservation and scientific activities. But even the few remaining liberals in government seem to think that the Earth is just a stage on which the human drama takes place. Douglas was most famous for writing the “Rights of Rocks” statement. In the Sierra Club v. Morton suit regarding the commercial development of Mineral King, just south of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, Douglas wrote, “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” That is, trees should be able to sue for their own preservation. Can you imagine any Supreme Court justice, or any other prominent politician, saying anything like this today?
Douglas considered Nature to be a holy place. Thousands of books are published with such a theme, and millions of people believe it, but none of them in such a prominent position as the one Douglas held. Just read these words: “If we make conservation a national cause we can raise generations who will learn that the earth itself is sacred. Once a person breaks through to the level where love of beauty is the ideal, he will worship the rocks and plains that are America. Then he will look on a tuft of grass with awe. For it has the secret of chlorophyll that man hardly comprehends” (page 32).
The survival of human life as we know it on Earth depends on our leaders having this kind of insight. And it will never happen.