In the center of the Glacier Peak Wilderness in northern Washington a magnificent, fully glaciated white volcano rises over a stunningly beautiful region of the North Cascades. On maps, the mountain is called Glacier Peak. To the Salishan people who have always lived in this part of the Cascades, the mountain is Dakobed, the place of emergence. For the better part of a century, a small, three-sided log shelter stood in a place called White Pass, just below one shoulder of the great mountain, tucked securely into a meadow.
In the early fall of 1976, while I was working as a seasonal ranger for the United States Forest Service, I drew the task of burning the White Pass shelter. It was part of a Forest Service plan to remove all human-made objects from wilderness areas, a plan I heartily approved. So I backpacked 11 miles to the pass to set up camp, and for five days I dismantled the shelter and burned the old logs until nothing remained. I spaded up the earth, beaten hard for nearly a century by boot and hoof, and transplanted plugs of vegetation from hidden spots on the nearby ridge.
At the end of those five days I felt good, very smug in fact, about returning the White Pass meadow to its “original” state. As I packed up my camp, the snowstorm had subsided to a few flurries and a chill that felt bone deep with the promise of winter.
I started the steep hike down, and half a mile from the pass I saw two old women. Almost swallowed up in their thick wool caps, they seemed ancient, each weighted with at least 70 years as well as a small backpack. They paused every few steps to lean on their staffs and look out over the North Fork drainage below, a deep, heavily forested river valley that rose on the far side to the glaciers and saw-toothed black granite on the Monte Cristo range. And they smiled hugely upon seeing me.
We stood and chatted for a moment, and as I did with all backpackers, I reluctantly asked them where they were going. The snow quickened a little, obscuring the view, as they told me they were going to the White Pass.
“Our father built a little house up here,” one of them said, “when he worked for the Forest Service like you. Way back before we was born.”
“We’ve been coming up here since we was little,” the other added. “Except last year when Sarah was not well enough.”
“A long time ago, this was all our land,” the one called Sarah said. “All Ind’n land everywhere you could see. Our people had houses up in the mountains, for gathering berries every year.”
As they took turns speaking, the smiles never leaving their faces, I wanted to excuse myself, to edge around these elders and flee to the trailhead and my car. I wanted to say, “I’m Indian, too. Choctaw from Mississippi; Cherokee from Oklahoma”—as if mixed blood could pardon me for what I had done. Instead, I said, “The shelter is gone.” Cravenly, I added, “It was crushed by snow, so I was sent up to burn it. It’s gone now.”
I expected outrage, anger, sadness, but instead the sisters continued to smile at me, their smiles changing only slightly. They had a plastic tarp and would stay dry, they said, because a person always has to be prepared in the mountains. They would put up their tarp inside the hemlock grove above the meadow, and the scaly hemlock branches would turn back the snow. They forgave me without saying it—my ignorance part of the long pattern of loss they knew so well.
Hiking out those 11 miles, as the snow of the high country became a drumming rain in the forests below, I had long hours to ponder my encounter with the sisters. Gradually, almost painfully, I began to understand that what I called “wilderness” was an absurdity. Before the European invasion, there was no wilderness in North America; there was only the fertile continent, where people lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world. In embracing a philosophy that saw the White Pass shelter—and all traces of humanity—as a shameful stain upon the “pure” wilderness, I had succumbed to a 500-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. This is not to say that what we call wilderness today does not need careful safeguarding. I believe that White Pass really is better off now that the shelter does not serve as a magnet to backpackers and horsepackers who compact the soil, disturb and kill the wildlife, cut down centuries-old trees for firewood, and leave their litter strewn about. And I believe that the man who built the shelter would agree. But despite this unfortunate reality, the global environmental crisis that sends species into extinction daily and threatens to destroy all life surely has its roots in the Western pattern of thought that sees humanity and “wilderness” as mutually exclusive.
In old-growth forests in the North Cascades, I have come upon faint traces of log shelters built by Suiattle and Upper Skagit people for berry harvesting a century ago—just as the sisters said. Those human-made structures were as natural a part of the Cascade ecosystem as the burrows of marmots in the steep scree slopes. Our native ancestors all over this continent lived within a complex web of relations with the natural world, and in doing so they assumed a responsibility for their world that contemporary Americans cannot even imagine. Unless Americans, and all human beings, can learn to imagine themselves as intimately and inextricably related to every aspect of the world they inhabit, with the extraordinary responsibilities such relationship entails—unless they can learn what the indigenous peoples of the Americas knew and often still know—a few square miles of something called wilderness will become the sign of failure everywhere.
Excerpted from “Burning the Shelter,” by Louis Owens, from The Colors of Nature, edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and Lauret Savoy (Milkweed Editions, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Louis Owens. www.milkweed.org