City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 13, 2017

July 13th – Revised

The Thoreauian Experience

4:00 p.m. In the near 100 Fahrenheit degree afternoon heat, at a seep along Bonneville Drive leading to the canyon, there is a thick stand of Common goldenrod. Its inflorescences have up to 30 small yellow flowers that each extrude 10 to 15 stamens. It is distinguished from roadside Missouri goldenrod by its serrated leaves (Pratt, Banner, and Bowns 2013). On one flower, a small 2 mm pink unidentified nymph solider beetle is grazing, and as I rotate the angle of the sunlight, its iridescence changes to lavender. Like yesterday, I again go for a short jog to milepost 1.0 and then back down the Pipeline Trail.

With summer’s heat and the proliferation of leaves, disease and opportunistic parasites arrive. In the first one-third mile, there are numerous Narrowleaf Rocky Mountain cottonwood saplings. One the saplings, something is attacking the leaves. At first glance, their leaves look like locust bean pods that have opened, but on closer inspection, some disease is forcing the leaves to fold back and grow four to five small bean-like pockets on each leaf. The newly grown pockets are open at the bottom. I pry several open, but find only one that has a small 1 mm fully-formed gnat inside. It is not clear whether this is some hatched larvae that forced the leaf to form the pockets or whether the gnat has simply crawled inside for protection. On the Pipeline Trail, a single Gambel’s oak leaf that has about ten small red-orange insect larvae attached to its underside. I mark this for a future check to see what develops.

There are only a few butterflies along the road, but at the seep Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia (Benth.) Kuntze), a.k.a. Nettleleaf Giant Hyssop or Nettleleaf Giant Horsemint with lavender inflorescences has matured. The small stand is covered with about 12 Cabbage white butterflies. In the heat, only a few people are on the quiet road and none are on the trail. I am restored.

As I jog through today’s canyon, I try to clear my mind of all thoughts and just experience the canyon’s nature. Although the benefits are commensurate, the amount of time that each day’s excursion takes is great, and this reduces my engagement with friends and a social life. Some see it as self-absorption, although I view it as centering. At a minimum, the practice of daily nature observation provides a restoration of mental attention and executive functions (April 24th and April 25th). From that renewed and centered emotional strength, a better understanding of the day’s political, social and economic events can be had, and only from a position of understanding can actions be formulated that will not make things worse for oneself or ones friends. But is a Thoreauian daily nature experience of nature just another form of modern narcissism?

Based on my experience visiting the canyon each day for almost a year, it is not. Close observation of nature is about sensitivity to and recognition of subtle biological relationships between plants, animals, geology and weather. That study is undertaken in the spirit of husbandry, since humans are the only beings on the planet with sufficient sentience to willfully modify the environment. There are few better metaphors for preparing oneself for a life moral well-being. It is a form of practice for being sensitive to and understanding human relationships. But its practice is only a sufficient condition to becoming a good person, and it is possible to study nature and biology for a lifetime while ignoring the lessons of interconnectedness that it provides.

* * * *

In dueling articles 2015, Pulitzer Prize winner Kathryn Schulz argued in The New Yorker Magazine that Thoreau did not deserve his literary fame: he was simply a self-absorbed narcissist (Schulz 2015). Essayist Jedediah Purdy responded the following day in The Altantic: Thoreau was engaged in the issue of his day – the abolition of slavery – and however awkward he was socially, he wrangling with moral issues remains an instructive today. Thoreau developed the stream in American thought that community injustice committed against some of its members is an injustice against all members of the community. Purdy notes that like Thoreau in the nineteenth century, life today involves moving in the alienating gray area “between feeling the justice and wrongs of our communities as our own and becoming insensate to them” (id). Thoreau’s method of thoughtful engagement, which grew out of his daily, careful observation of nature, is a good approach for daily life in our complex modern world.

That sense of alienation in a gray area of indecisiveness is magnified in modern culture by our cultural insistence that policy decisions should not be based on human values alone, and that experts should quantify and model issues to guide our selections (April 27th). Our ability to quantify and model reality has increased exponentially still the beginning of the digital industrial age in the 1980s, but this has the effect disempowering ordinary citizens (id). Many of the mathematical models that guide modern society, in particular in economics and commerce, are simply rough guides with little statistical validity, and although such modeling does provide a useful check on often-wrong intuition, they are not replacements for the human-valued centered decision-making of Theoreau’s century (id).

Our increased technological ability to collect enormous amounts of information and to model reality continues the dualism between Plato and Aristotle that set the structure of Western civilization two-thousand years ago. Plato was the ultimate deductionist: he felt that the characteristics of an underlying transcendent reality could be deduced and from inferior models of the everyday world. Artistole was the penultimate observationalist and inductive thinker: he felt that things in the everyday world were ends in and of themselves, and thus, observing and enumerating the infinite variations of natural objects was an end in and of itself. Our modern technological society are simply augmented versions of that duality and of Thoreau’s era. I can view mountains of information about the small 3 by 12 square mile canyon collected from sensors and quickly scan millions of research journals and academic books about its weather, wildlife and plants, but in the end, modern scientific research (and my amateur enjoyment of it) is Aristotelian observation followed by Platonic deduction and modeling. Again (see April 27th), the uncertainty generated by knowing the limits of one’s knowledge and careful decision-making supplemented by consideration of expert scientific opinion are important values, but at times, a Thoreauian sense of community alienation and indecisiveness must be set aside and directions chosen from human-centered values.

This tension between our increasing technological prowess and stifling emotional alienation were known to Thoreau. Norte Dame English professor Walls in the preface to her biography released on Thoreau’s 200th birthday (July 12th) argues that since Thoreau lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene era (April 27th), he was struggling with prospects of future environmental destruction, given the American character and that humanity had begun to modify the nature environment on a continental scale (Walls). Menard notes that early American divided their identity into two parts: a “British” identity that was associated with European industrialization and an “American” identity that was forged from their encounter in the new continent (Menard 2012, 600-602). In Thoreau’s famous essay Walking, he concluded that the American character had been shaped by the nature’s wildnesss. Thoreau argued in his famous statement that “Wildness is the preservation of the world”, that nature is a source of continuing replenishment. As America developed across the Mississippi and into the western United States, it needed to preserve undeveloped wilderness in order to maintain its vigor as a society:

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. . . . The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source” (Thoreau 1862, 665).

And societies that over-develop and destroy their wild places lose the ability to replenish their vigor and creativity. He attributes that loss to the end of the Roman Empire:

“It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf [their destroyed wildlands] that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were” (Thoreau 1862, 665).

In Walking, Thoreau predicts that if Americans do not preserve wilderness as they expanded into its western territory, e.g. – the Salt Lake valley in which City Creek Canyon is located, then the American character will degrade and decline into a mere “English” society (Menard, 605, 607-608):

“[Y]et we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man, – a sort of breeding in and in, which produces at most a merely English nobility, a civilization destined to have a speedy limit” (Thoreau 1862, 670).

One-hundred years later and after considerable development of the West, Wallace Stegner in his Wilderness Letter echoed Thoreau’s reasoning. The American character was uniquely shaped by wilderness and to maintain that character, the residual of wild places left by 1960 must be preserved:

“I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. . . . Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; . . . We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed (Stegner 1960, and “wilderness was working on us”).

Thoreau also argued that daily exposure to natural places was necessary for the maintenance of mental health: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements” (Thoreau 1862, 658). Regular exposure to nature was a condition to well-being: “Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences?” (id at 664).

Foreshadowing the development since the 1980s of biophilia and attention restoration therapy (April 19th to April 27th), 100 years later after Thoreau, Stegner also concludes that wild places are necessary for our emotional health in light of continuing hyper-development of Western lands:

“One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. . . . . We simply need that wild country available to us, . . . . For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope” (Stegner 1960).

The history of the early resource exploitation of City Creek’s Canyon and its subsequent preservation as a natural area parallels these tensions and contradictions (March 20th to April 3rd).

* * * *

On July 13th, 2007, a man was robbed by two women who drove him to City Creek. A second man, working with the women, came out of the bushes and robbed the man using a BB gun (Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, July 14, 2007). On July 13th, 1930, forty school girls hiked up City Creek to Rotary Park (Salt Lake Telegram ). On July 13th, 1912, a large fire was reported to have burned between City Creek and Dry Fork Canyons, and E. H. Clark, Wasatch Supervisor organized a canyon fire patrol (Salt Lake Tribune). On July 13, 1908, thousands of residents escaped high summer heat by going to resorts and to City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On July 13th, 1906, efforts to remove the last industrial facility in lower City Creek Canyon, a rock crusher owned by P.J. Moran, continue (Deseret Evening News).

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