Every trail navigates some truth.

Or skirts, or circumvents or, heavyfooted, tramples it beneath. Thus is trail now metaphor, now analogy, now literal route toward epiphany. Perhaps all. Perhaps it is never anything more than perspective, the vantage on which you stand, wielding the lever of your perceptions to move the world.

From the ridgetop, miniscule traffic crawls. Have you stood there, higher than any normal human point of view? I stood and watched the diminished vehicles inch their pale path, and speculated that it must be some trick of optics that could make an impact ludicrously harmless at this range, chillingly horrific at a closer.

From the ridgetop the landscape might also be dichotomous: spacious and abundant – crowded and demeaned.

Both views exist. Both realities exist: juxtaposed and overlaid on the selfsame earth. Two trailwalkers pause side by side, breathless and flushed, evaporative coolers hard at work, each seeing each’s own world. Each denying the other’s. But breathing the same air, climbing the same hill, inhabiting the same town.

Truth is everywhere, but camouflaged. Obfuscated by intervening obstacles; distorted by the carnival-mirrors of our prejudice; just plain missed. So the trail, the journey, becomes an odyssey of unveiling, of discovery, of shifting light.

On this trail I’ve changed guises time and time; shuffled paradigms; revised the things I know. Truth metamorphoses into foolish misconstruction. So where once I believed that humans were an intrusion upon an otherwise perfect world, now I understand that there is no perfection, only complementary principles, dynamic systems, convoluted connectivities. This world gave us rise, and embraces us. We belong. We were invited. The issue is not whether we belong, but whether we’re the kind of guests who’d be invited again.

Ranchers love the land. Environmentalists love the land. If rational logic were an operant principle in the universe, it would follow that environmentalists and ranchers love one another. It should so follow – but, unfortunately, doesn’t.

But could.

The trail turns. It passes into shadow. Season to season, change and constancy dance their stately dance. From shadow, all beyond shadow is blinding bright. From brightness, shadow is impenetrable. My pupils dilate and contract as I step between realities, just managing not to stumble.

One of the great and angry dichotomies currently raging separates these worldviews: that humankind is a scourge upon the earth, and where humans are separated from the earth, the earth thrives; that humankind is the crown of creation, and that earth is the natural and rightful domain – possession – of our species. And until the proponents of each understand that there is in fact no borderline between their staked terrains, we will fight the same fight in the same kafkaesque refrain of animosity and misunderstanding that we have already fought and lost so many times before.

As John Muir has often been quoted: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the Universe. So as this trail has curved through covert, woven through wreckage, arced toward radiant zenith and tumbled over tortuous descents, I have also navigated nearer what might be truths, by default if not design: that we can’t protect the wellbeing of the land without ensuring the wellbeing of the people who live upon it. That every problem is an environmental problem, and an economic problem, and a political problem, and a spiritual problem. That a community is not just a neighborhood, not just a life-zone, but the interface and integration between them. That we can’t hope to interact benignly and responsibly with the whole biosphere if we can’t manage it with our own species. With our own neighbors. With our own families.

So if, as the experts say, many environmental problems are economic problems, then the reverse is also true, as is almost every variation on every theme of definition. Thus the Columbine High School shooting spree was a tragedy that involved guns, but it was not about guns. It involved the internet, but was not about the internet. It was about anger, and anguish, and alienation. It was about design flaws in our society that allow children to stray so far from the fold and go unmissed until it’s too late to bring them back. It was about fork after fork in the trail that we’ve taken without consulting our maps, or finding our bearings, or checking to see if we know where we’re going, or whether where we’re going is in fact the place we set ourselves to reach.

If this soliloquy, save the trail analogy, seems far removed from environmental issues, it is not. If study of the natural world teaches us only one lesson – only one – let it be the revelation John Muir shared. Our environment might be defined by watersheds, successional communities, species inventories, biodiversity –but it is no less defined by Littleton, Microsoft, Oklahoma City, and Kosovo. Or by Disney, McDonald’s, rock ‘n’ roll and gangster rap.

On the trail, my dichotomous vision tears itself asunder. Once, overhead, I saw an eagle – so look and look to see another. But watch the trail, because my guilt would crucify me if, inattentive, I should crush a lizard underfoot.

Which vision is more valid?

The image haunts me: the looking up to admire the eagle, and accidentally killing the lizard; the looking down to spare the lizard, missing the eagle altogether, and hoping that it soars there nonetheless. Haunting me, too, is the suspicion that the dichotomy itself holds some piece of truth that lingers elusive.

Maybe it is this: that there is no either. There is no or. There is only and.

Lawrence Blair Goral
9 July 1999
Coloma, California