In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
We were standing, about ten of us, at the top of the Fanaråkbreen Glacier, bound together by a thick rope and a common desire not to disappear under thin ice. It was the height of summer in Norway, and down below, the annual glacial melt was well underway. Our guide seemed to be issuing very comprehensive instructions in Norwegian, but his English translations — meant for me, the only American — were much shorter and lacked, I thought, the proper cautionary zeal. The gist of it was this: the glacier was moving slowly, like a bear turning in its sleep, and could not wholly be trusted.
Clinging to another rope knotted at one-foot intervals, we lowered ourselves down Fanaråknosi, a nearly vertical precipice of ice and snow, to reach the glacier proper. It sloped down about a mile to the timberline of Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, the troll-haunted mountains where Henrik Ibsen set part of his poetic drama Peer Gynt. We started moving like one awkward animal across the glacier. Much of it was still covered with snow, which could obscure newly formed crevasses in the ice. As we walked parallel to a deep fissure, I could hear water rushing beneath it. When we were finally near the timberline, I asked the guide if global warming was having an effect on this particular glacier. He pointed to a boulder fifty yards away and said, “Five years ago the ice reached over to that rock.”
By Himalayan standards I suppose the Fanaråkbreen Glacier isn’t all that spectacular. But it is melting, as is nearly every other glacier in Norway, and it is another real-world indicator — not a computer model nor a soaring line graph — that the climate is warming. When I’d flown into Oslo ten days earlier, I had seen out the plane’s window a much larger and more ominous melting glacier: the Greenland Ice Sheet. NASA’s leading climatologist, James Hansen, has predicted that once atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide — currently at 390 parts per million — reach 450 parts per million, the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet will be irreversible, and sea levels will rise twenty-three feet. Hanging there in the sky above Greenland, I found myself at an oddly symbolic spot: I was halfway between my ancestral homeland of Norway and my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky — the city that, according to a 2008 report by the Brookings Institution, contributes more to melting glaciers, per capita, than any of the other top one hundred metropolitan areas in the United States.
My grandfather was a country preacher for sixty years in the Tidewater area of eastern Virginia. He used to tell me I was named after the Norwegian Viking Erik the Red, father of Leif Erikson, who’s widely thought to have been the first European to reach North America by boat. When I visited my father’s parents in the summer, my grandfather would take me to see the bronze statue of Leif Erikson outside the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. And though my grandfather told me I was actually a descendant of Erik the Red, in truth we never traced our family lineage back beyond a Norwegian named Wilhelmenia Frederickson, my grandfather’s grandmother, who immigrated to Chicago in 1888.
I suppose I’ve wanted to visit Norway ever since my grandfather tricked me into believing his harmless conjectures about our Viking past. Recently, the more I’ve found myself writing about environmental problems in the United States — particularly the mountaintop-removal strip mining that is destroying central Appalachia — the more I’ve noticed that Nordic countries consistently outperform the rest of the world when it comes to issues of sustainability, alternative energy, and “steady-state economies.” In other words, they don’t measure a nation’s health and wealth solely by the amount of resources it consumes. In 2005 Norway ranked higher than all other countries except Finland on Yale University’s Environmental Sustainability Index.
I am not one of those catastrophe tourists who make it a point to visit endangered ecosystems before human forces finally drive them to extinction. But when I learned that Lexington, due in part to its reliance on coal, is making a heavy per-person contribution to the melting of Norway’s glaciers, I decided it was finally time to bring the genealogical line full circle and travel to the land of Red Erik.
The Norwegian word for “footpath” is wanderwege. It’s a fun word to say out loud, even if you don’t know the language. And Norway is certainly a country of wanderers. Men, women, and children alike spend a great deal of time exploring their nation’s mountains, glaciers, and fjords. The footpaths that wind throughout the country’s national parks are connected by more than four hundred “huts” — most are more like small lodges — where Norwegians can bed down for the night, get dinner and breakfast, then set out for another summer day of wandering.
For a week I had been going from hut to hut throughout the Jotunheimen National Park, where Norway’s tallest mountains tumble into each other like jagged waves. On my last full day before returning to Oslo, I had planned to climb Mount Fanaråken. Clinging to the top of Fanaråken, at 6,775 feet, sits the country’s most remote hut. But first I had to circle from the base of the glacier I’d just descended to the foot of the mountain.
I struck out across the rocky terrain, which had been sculpted by the ice into stark hanging valleys. The highest peaks were, for the time being, all on the horizon, and I felt as if I were walking across the bottom of the vaulting sky that was reflected in small lakes. The air quickly grew milder with my descent, and it seemed as if all four seasons were competing to claim this day. Throughout the Jotunheimen, melting snow was creating beautiful pockets of water and still blue lakes. The wanderwege meandered over snowfields and across shallow streams. In some places the snow took on a rosy, almost pink hue, created by the alga Chlamydomonas nivalis, which makes its home around ice crystals. (The reddish pigment protects chlorophyll from exposure to the harsh sunlight at high elevations.)
There was no sign here of human artifice except the crudely stacked cairns that bore the trail blaze — a bright red T. I felt a rare, intense immediacy walking across this spare plateau. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been trying all my life to get to this place where there was nothing standing between me and the natural world. Almost everything that goes by the name “culture” had dropped away. And here I was, performing the most natural of animal acts: wandering.
Back in my grandfather’s Baptist church, we used to sing at Christmas the John Jacob Niles hymn “I Wonder as I Wander.” What we were supposed to wonder about was “How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die / For poor on’ry people like you and like I.” But on this day I wasn’t feeling particularly ornery. I was elated, in fact, to be striding through this glacial wilderness. No one had to save me today; I felt quite up to the task myself.
Still, John Jacob Niles was right about this: walking often feels like the measure of thought. Perhaps Norway’s most renowned walker and thinker is the philosopher Arne Næss. Born in 1912 in Bergen, Norway, Næss introduced modern mountain climbing to the country, along with an ecological and philosophical movement called “deep ecology,” whose central tenet is to dethrone Homo sapiens from atop the Great Chain of Being so that all life can be seen as having intrinsic value. Before his death in 2009 Næss had been saying for thirty-five years that people in the West need to replace our “high standard of living” with “appreciating life quality.” That is to say, we should stop mistaking accumulation for wealth, or a certain standard of living for life itself. Næss believed that Norwegians come more naturally to this way of thinking because of a national attitude of friluftsliv, which roughly translates as the “free-air life.” When winter breaks, Norwegians take to their outdoors in a way that Americans do not. What drives them there, according to Næss, is “a positive feeling for areas that are not obviously dominated by human activity.”
It was an easy feeling to understand, wandering through the expansive, rugged terrain of the Jotunheimen. As I drifted down into the Skogadalsbøen Valley, vegetation returned, and I recognized, growing under the birch trees, a violet wildflower known back home as “delphinium.” Farther down, glacial melt was turning the Utla River into a green, churning body of water. A wooden footbridge led me across it to the base of Mount Fanaråken. Ferns grew around many of the larger stones that lined the path — and often were the path — up the mountain. The day was beautiful and clear. Small blue butterflies flitted among the low-growing juniper. The only trees that can live at this elevation are birch, and because of global warming they are climbing to even higher altitudes.
Occasionally I heard the dull clanking of bells, then noticed a small cluster of sheep grazing in one of the sparse mountain pastures. A stream meandered down around the rocks almost as slowly as I climbed them. I crossed over it in several places and each time paused to splash the cold water on my face. On the rocks near the stream I noticed the small carcasses of what looked to be some kind of brown mouse.
After about two hours of climbing I dropped my pack and settled into the hollow of a large rock covered in lichens. I ate a few slices of salami, then leaned back and closed my eyes.
“A good soldier takes a nap whenever he can!”
Startled, I glanced up at a tan, shirtless man who looked to be in his sixties. “That’s a saying we used to have in the Norwegian army,” he explained cheerfully, then added, “You are the American from the glacier walk.”
“Right,” I said, now understanding why he knew to speak to me in English.
He wore dark sunglasses, and his short gray hair poked in all directions. “We don’t see many Americans.”
“Good. I came to get away from them.”
He smiled enigmatically. “Up here you get mostly Germans and Swedes.”
“What about the Danish?” I asked.
“Agh,” he replied. “Danes don’t know how to walk. Too much —” and he raised an imaginary cigarette to his lips.
I asked about the small patches of fur on the rocks. He said they were the remnants of mountain mice that had probably been killed by ermine or a smaller mammal called the “least weasel.” It was a good thing too; when the mouse population spikes, their feces make the water in the streams undrinkable.
“Well, enjoy your nap,” he said, wandering on.
I ate a few more slices of salami and some cheese, then shouldered my rucksack. Higher up the trail, the narrow Jervvasselvi River began stampeding down around the ridge in quick cutbacks. Above the timberline the rivers gave way to a series of crater lakes, some hollowed out by cirque glaciers that rotate against the bedrock, others perhaps the tops of dormant volcanoes. Snow was still melting at the edge of these tarns, which seemed to turn the sky an even-denser blue. The clouds now hung at the same elevation as the ridge marking the horizon.
The trail circled a larger lake, the Jervvatnet, then led up to a ledge, where I was startled to find a small cabin lashed to the side of the mountain with guy-wires. About fifteen by ten feet, the cabin sat on a foundation of flat stones. I couldn’t resist peering through a window. Inside were two unoccupied rooms: in one stood a wooden table with two chairs and a small wood stove; the other housed a narrow bunk bed. If anything embodied the essence of philosophical solitude, surely it was this extreme yet inviting abode. Who lived here? Perhaps the shepherd of the flock I had passed on my way up. But I found myself wanting to imagine that a lone philosopher sat at that table, slowly crafting some treatise inspired by the awesome mountains that rose around him or her.
I had read that Arne Næss spent summers in his own alpine hut farther south. Standing beside this cabin, I could see how the deep-ecology movement might have originated in such a place. At this elevation one must admit that human beings have no dominion over the harsh landscape. According to Næss the fundamental lesson here is modesty, and, like the commandments of Moses, it is a lesson that should be carried down from the mountain and enacted in the cities, where we most often become immodest in terms of what we take from nature. Of course, no one likes to be told to be modest — the Israelites probably weren’t thrilled to see Moses hauling a stone tablet full of shalt nots — so it’s a message that has always been hard to bring down from the mountaintop.
In cities, surrounded by all manner of human contrivances, we can more easily convince ourselves that Homo sapiens is the main character in the world’s drama, and that if we create problems, we will also invent new ways to solve them. But at five thousand feet, where relying on the bare essentials is the name of the game, such thinking seems tinged with the hubris that got so many Western tragic heroes in trouble. Oedipus was blinded, after all, as a result of his own shortsightedness, and it’s the same shortsightedness that today blinds us to the impending climate crisis or the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which finds that 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems are in decline because of human behavior.
We often don’t see this because we have drawn such rigid distinctions between ourselves and the natural world. It’s a problem that Næss traced back to much of Western thinking. “Only philosophies that impose sharp subject-object dualism try to trace a border between the self and ‘its’ geographical surroundings,” he writes. Yet that was precisely the project of many seventeenth-century Enlightenment thinkers: to set up a profound separation between the talking animals and the rest of the world. John Locke typified this position when he maintained that “the intrinsic natural worth of anything consists in its fitness to supply the necessities or serve the conveniences of human life.”
In the Jotunheimen, Locke’s thinking seems unsound, immodest. Here the human ego can’t help but feel real humility. From this elevated perspective we might cease to see the natural world, its flora and fauna, as simply a collection of objects. Rather we might begin to see the objects around us as other subjects. Then we might develop, or rediscover, a psychological faculty that seems to have gradually atrophied since Locke’s time: the feeling of empathy.
One morning a few years ago, on a visit to New York City, I was trying to navigate the subway when a train approached my platform. A throng of businesspeople rushed from it, and in that mad dash someone’s careless foot came down on the slender white cane of a blind man, breaking it. He fell to the concrete and reached furiously around for the remnants of his shattered cane. No one, including me, stopped to help him. “Do I have all the pieces?” he cried out. Bystanders showed no sign of listening. I stood there, paralyzed. Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t anybody else? Had we all inoculated ourselves against such daily pathos? Would I be embarrassed, in front of these New Yorkers, to be seen helping this man — embarrassed by my empathy? Finally a man in a yarmulke stooped to gather up the scattered sections of the blind man’s cane, then helped him up the stairs to the street. And that simple act stung me with a shame I carried for days.
I suppose that scene came back to me on Mount Fanaråken because the mountain seemed like the opposite of the New York subway. It was a solitary place where one could calmly contemplate the problems of the world below. It was a place where a philosopher like Næss could conceive the principles of the deep-ecology movement and perhaps show how they might ultimately find relevance in the subterranean world of the crowded subway.
The American philosopher William James (who had some influence on Næss) once said that mountain climbing was his “main hold on primeval sanity and health of soul.” Halfway up Fanaråken, I could feel in my own mind and body what James meant. To recover that sense of belonging to a natural landscape is indeed to recover the sanity of one’s own nature. That’s probably because we spent 95 percent of human history wandering such places in small bands of nomadic omnivores. The human mind evolved here, not in cities. The mind’s interior landscape feels at home, much as we try to deny it, in the “wilderness” that has really been our species’ domestic domain for almost all of our existence.
Standing beside the small cabin, I could see the tiny outline of another dwelling at the top of Fanaråken: the hut where I needed to end up. So I set off again. From the bottom of a long snowfield I saw the Norwegian army veteran sunning himself on a boulder in the middle of that vast whiteness. He waved from the rock and asked if I wanted company. I said sure, and he scampered down. He said his name was Victor, then added with conviction, “Think: Victory!”
I was actually starting to think that I might make it to the top of Mount Fanaråken, but the steepest climb was still ahead. Soon the path turned into a staircase of stones interspersed with steep snowbanks. The only life here, besides us, was the green lichens that clung to the cairns marking the trail.
Up these rocky slopes Victor climbed ahead of me, steady and sure-footed. We had to shimmy through several narrow corridors between boulders. The trail had now utterly disappeared.
“According to the old stories,” Victor said, “the gods were angry once and rained stones down on everybody’s head.”
Well, here those stones were, rearranged by glaciers but still presenting impressive obstacles, an object lesson to those who anger the gods.
We finally reached a small plateau where, through a crevice between two smooth slabs of rock, we could see the Jervvasselvi River gushing from its source. Lying flat on our stomachs, Victor and I reached through the crack to fill our water bottles from this mountain stream, then leaned back to drink. After we’d caught our breaths, Victor asked where I was from. When I said Kentucky, he paused and then replied, “Don’t you have a problem there with . . . how do you say it, ‘mine stripping’?”
I said that we did indeed have a problem with strip mining, and I briefly explained how coal operators are blowing the tops off the Appalachian Mountains and dumping everything that isn’t coal into the streams below. Victor took a long drink of water, stared down for a moment, then said, “That would never happen here. We would never let corporations have that much power.” Then he added, “In Norway we always think of our grandchildren’s generation.”
As I stared out at the snowcapped peaks on the horizon, I thought about my own mountains back home. Because the Appalachians are much older than the Jotunheimen, they no longer rise to these sublime heights. Though they represent the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America, their modest size makes them vulnerable to attack and exploitation in a way that the Rockies or the Sierras are not. And of course, unlike those mountains, the Appalachians are stratified with a great deal of the mineral that heats and cools the majority of U.S. homes. Those who want to defend the Appalachian Mountains usually end up fighting the public opinion that the country needs that coal and that the destruction of the Appalachians is simply inevitable.
I encouraged Victor to indulge in a little more U.S.-bashing, but he didn’t take the bait. When I expressed my admiration for Norway’s lack of crime, Victor replied, “We don’t have that many people here. If we had as many people as you do in America, we’d have a lot of crazies too.”
He did say, however, that when a Norwegian soldier leaves the service, the firing pin is removed from his army-issue rifle. It seemed a significant detail. Compared to Americans’ general attitude about the extent to which individual rights trump larger societal concerns, such as gun violence, I really was on the other side of the world.
We hoisted our packs and started climbing again. Above the headwaters, the boulder-strewn paths turned mostly into deep snowfields. There were no tracks, no compacted path to follow. Victor and I seemed to be on a bit of a fool’s errand. (I would later learn that most hikers choose to go down, not up, this steeper, western side of Mount Fanaråken.) My shoulders were baking in the sun, but my legs and feet were freezing. Certainly, I told myself, the summit was at the top of the next snowbank. But each time we reached that elevation, the trail snaked back across the mountainside and up another embankment.
Victor, however, was unperturbed. Every now and then, he would look back at me and say something to the effect of “It’s tough going, but where else could you see this?” Then he would throw his arms open to the snowcapped panorama. I had to admit, I had never seen anything like it.
At around six o’clock we finally climbed out of the snow onto a nearly level ridge that led to the summit. I could see a badly weathered Norwegian flag flapping above our destination, the mountain hut called “Fanaråkhytta.” Unexpectedly we were joined from the other side of the mountain by a small group of British tourists. I was startled to hear more than one person speaking English, and we all marched together across a sea of igneous gray rock.
The hut itself was a modest wooden structure that had once been a weather station. In 1926 it had been converted into a bunkhouse for the most intrepid of Norwegian wanderers. Taped to a wall inside the foyer was a recent New York Times article that had named Fanaråkhytta one of the most remote “hotels” in the world. Across the room the hut’s good-humored young attendant was busy checking hikers in.
The Norwegian Trekking Association has an admirable system for housing its guests: there are no reservations; children and the elderly get the first beds, then women, then men. No one is turned away, but a lot of young men end up sleeping on the kitchen floor.
I approached the small wooden counter where the attendant stood, clipboard in hand.
“Do you have a sleeping bag?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He checked a column on his list. “Thick or thin?”
“Thin.” Another check. Then he wrote down one word, which I hoped was the equivalent of “blanket.”
“The best I can probably do for you is a foam sleeping pad,” he said.
“Is it all right if I sleep outside?” I asked.
“That is what I would recommend.”
A sign on the wall behind him read:
“GAA ALDRIG DIT . . .”
“What does that say?” I asked.
“ ‘Never go there,’ ” the young man replied. He smiled. “It is meant to be ironical.”
Some members of the British party were pestering the attendant about water for their tea. While he explained patiently that the kitchen could not spare any water because the closest spring was a quarter mile away, I walked back outside. Three vigorous-looking young men came tromping up the summit. On a patch of snow they threw together two tents faster than I had ever seen. More hikers arrived from the other side of the mountain. All the Norwegian men were tan and shirtless like Victor. The Norwegian women wore little more. The British were bustling about in long-sleeve, button-down shirts, still conferencing on where to locate water for their tea. I found myself feeling slightly ashamed of my fellow English speakers. They didn’t seem to show the proper respect for Mount Fanaråken. In fact, they hardly seemed to see it at all. I wanted to cast my lot with my great-grandmother’s people, these rugged lovers of mountains.
I located a large flat rock that tilted slightly toward the western horizon and dropped my pack there. The light had taken on a silver hue. The summit felt like the most elemental of landscapes: earth married to sky. There were no intermediaries, except of course us, the talking animals who’d invented the words earth and sky — indeed, who’d invented the word God, then come to the mountaintop searching for him. It’s the obvious place to look, here where the immanent comes closest to the transcendent. But surrounded by that thin air, I began to feel the mountains were an extension of the Creator’s being, not some place of exile from his presence.
The philosopher’s first question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” seemed irrelevant at the top of Fanaråken. Here the fundamental metaphysic was that there is something — these irrefutable mountains — and that seemed like its own kind of miracle.
Why? It is a question that arises out of dissatisfaction with one’s place in the world, yet it reaches back to the very first landscape, the Garden of Eden. Eve didn’t ask it until the serpent had made her doubt she belonged in that garden. And, seventeen books of the Bible later, “Why?” was Job’s fundamental question. But when his God finally got around to an answer, the Voice from the Whirlwind told Job, in blistering terms: Who are you to ask? Before my vast creation, you are nothing — stop bothering me. That is the real message of Job: not patience but modesty before the mystery of Creator and creation. And it’s the message here too. The mountains don’t need us; we need them, and we need a language of belonging to understand our presence among them. Whatever human culture might take hold in the Jotunheimen — say, in the form of people gathering and telling stories at mountain huts — it could be defined only by the demands of the mountains themselves. The mountain seems to say: Forget the why; begin with the concrete miracle of rock and soil. Go from there.
For supper the hikers crowded into the dining room, where windows opened onto three views of the mountains: east, west, and south. I sat at a cloth-covered table with three Brits, a young Norwegian woman, and the three young tent builders, who turned out to be economists from Oslo. Casually, hospitably, the Norwegians switched their conversation to English.
“You picked the perfect time to come to Fanaråken,” one of them told us. “It’s foggy and rainy here 360 days a year.”
The hut attendant, standing near us, raised a finger and said in a mock-serious tone, “Actually, that is an exaggeration. It is foggy and rainy 352 days of the year.”
The whole room broke up over that, and then we got down to our plates of meatballs, cabbage, and flatbread. We all went back for seconds. After you’ve arrived at this altitude, propelled solely by your own legs, meatballs and cabbage chased with water can taste like the best meal of your life.
I mentioned a newspaper article I had recently read that named Denmark the “world’s happiest country.” What was the difference, I asked, between Norwegians and their southern neighbors?
“They come from villages and are used to sticking together,” the Norwegian woman said. She was an architect who had lived for six years in Copenhagen. “They are more social. Norwegians believe in ‘one man, one mountain.’ Our country is very remote, so people never formed that collective feeling the Danes have. You know, it’s good and it’s bad.”
Good, I surmised, in the sense that one learns self-sufficiency when living remotely; bad in the sense that we are, most of us, social animals after all. The Norwegians had their friluftsliv, their free-air life, and the Danes had their cigarettes and their convivial natures.
I asked about Arne Næss.
“Oh, yes, he’s very respected in Norway,” said one economist. “His nephew was a mountain climber too. He married Diana Ross.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes, only the nephew died in a climbing accident a few years ago. But he was quite famous, like his uncle. I mean, Diana Ross!”
It seemed fitting that on this distant summit our two cultures would meet through the marriage of mountain climber to Motown singer. Popular music is one of the few elements of American culture that Norwegians have chosen to appropriate. It would be nice, I thought, to see Americans appropriate Norwegians’ love not only of their country but of their countryside.
Around 10 P.M. the hut attendant gave me the last of the four-inch-thick foam sleeping pads and a blanket, and I went off to claim my own part of the mountain for that evening. Nearby two Norwegian girls sat on a rock, braiding one another’s hair. I unrolled the foam pad and settled in to watch the sun finally set behind the jagged western range of Jotunheimen. The other forty or so hikers came out to enjoy the view. The blue-gray mountains were now turning to silhouette, giving way to that even older deity the sun. It cast a diffuse yellow glow across the horizon, then darkened to bright orange along the erratic contour of the farthest ridgeline. That orange swath stretched almost all the way around to the eastern mountains behind us, and a deep quiet that seemed grounded in reverence settled over us all.
The evening slowly grew colder until I was wearing, in multiple layers, every piece of clothing I had brought with me. The last thing in my pack was a four-ounce bottle of aquavit, a Norwegian liquor, which I raised in a salute to these ancestral mountains. As the harsh spirits warmed my chest, I spotted Victor sitting at the edge of a precipice and walked down to where he was. Together we pondered the last light as it disappeared behind those distant peaks.
“This is the most beautiful sight in Norway,” he said.
“I absolutely believe you.”
“Don’t ever come back here!” he added with sudden conviction. “It will never be like this again. This is how you must always remember Mount Fanaråken.”
And I thought he was right. I wouldn’t ever come back. Instead I would let this day stand out in my memory, singular and luminous. And Victor was right for another reason, one he couldn’t have suspected. I had, as it were, traced my family’s bloodline upstream, all the way to the top of this mountain in Norway. But now I had to follow its migratory path, as my family had, back to my real home in Kentucky.
I could see from the perspective of Mount Fanaråken what the Norwegians, with their impeccable environmental record, could teach us: to distrust corporations, to think of our grandchildren’s generation, to adopt principles of modesty and empathy. That was certainly in keeping with the sermons my grandfather used to preach in his country church. The tenets of deep ecology didn’t seem so different from the message in the Sermon on the Mount or the lessons of Job.
What was different was my own country’s indifference to the size of its carbon footprint and to the leveling of its mountains to extract that carbon. In Norway I had escaped that denial for a time, but to keep trying to escape it would only make me complicit. I had to return to Kentucky and try to be of use in the fight to preserve the mountains of my home state. Perhaps I could conjure some of that Viking tenacity that my grandfather said flowed through our family’s veins. After all, even the peaceable Jesus had taken on the money-changers in the Temple, and it’s money that corrupts the politicians and the coal operators back home. They had to be confronted. But, I thought, a successful resistance to their callous aggression must rise out of an impulse truer than theirs. That resistance would have to begin with reverence for what Henry David Thoreau called “the poem of creation.” It is an impulse that has nothing to do with money or self-interest and everything to do with humility and wonder in the presence of rock and sky.