4 Nov 2014

The naming of things: "Mount Thoreau"

Submitted by Kimon

End of September 2014, a group of people passionate about wilderness and writing gathered to ascend and name a peak in the Sierra Nevada of California "Mount Thoreau" -- after the famous 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, writer of Walden and such essays as Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle. Very appropriately, this peak is opposite Mount Emerson -- after Thoreau's close friend and intellectual sparring partner Ralph Waldo Emerson! This is an unofficial name, as this does not follow USGS procedures -- and so a little act of civil disobedience -- but it was a moment to collectively live in the wild and remember Thoreau.

Kim Stanley Robinson was among them -- also poet and writer Gary Snyder, Tom Killion (whose woodblock print of the Sierra illustrates Robinson's collection of Rexroth poems Rexroth in the Sierras), writer Paul Park, and other friends of Robinson's, about 20 total. Robinson wrote an extensive piece on the event, the experience and generally on Thoreau: The Actual World, "Mount Thoreau" and the naming of things in the wilderness. You can read it here, along with photos from Christopher Woodcock and others. Some extracts:

[...] nothing up there is named after Henry David Thoreau, the great American nature writer, the man whose books inspired John Muir and helped create the preservation movement that saved the Sierra Nevada as wilderness. This seemed an oversight, a mistake, a little crime. And an opportunity. Because there is already a Mount Emerson up there, named by John Muir himself, after a trip to the area in 1873. [...] Peak 12,691 is somewhat lower than Mount Emerson, but much more gnarly and interesting; the two peaks have much the same relationship that Emerson and Thoreau had, not just in size and aspect but in position, being close to each other but separated by a huge gulf of air. [...]

Once you give up on the idea of sleeping during a night in the mountains, it can be very restful. If it is clear and not too windy, I dispense with a tent and sleep out. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the stars are simply incredible. I watch them, don’t try to sleep, and thus often sleep pretty well. Awake or asleep, in tent or out, a mountainous peace fills me. [...]

We were also continuing a long tradition of meeting in the Sierra to celebrate its art. In the early Sierra Club summer trips, John Muir or Ansel Adams might tell a story by the fire or Cedric Wright play his violin. Here we were doing it again, awake in the dark and the wind. The feeling of that moment resists expression, has no name. It was the kind of party even Thoreau might have liked.

[...] in this case I think the honor of the name is worth the loss of the unnamed. Emerson and Thoreau were friends, and together they changed us. Now their two peaks form a gate like the Pillars of Hercules, marking a way into a certain kind of American reality, as well as a bit of Sierra backcountry. In wildness is the preservation of the world.

The event was also covered by the New York Times, including an audio report!

(Photo: "Mount Thoreau" from the north, by Kim Stanley Robinson)