Let’s begin at the top, shall we?
Here are the things I remember from over 5,000 ft up, an elevation I reached via a scramble across the aptly named Knife’s Edge Trail: the shake of nerves through my legs, the shock of neon green lichen on granite boulders. To my right was a giant bowl of pine trees, dappled with impossibly tiny indigo lakes. To the left of me I could see, well, literally everything, all of the sky and the land as far as vision goes, and I remember the accompanying sinking sensation in my gut from glancing into that abyss.
I remember the little boy and his grandfather and their shining black dog, all muscle and tongue, the pale blue sky, the line of people queueing up for photos by the worn sign that read “summit,” a group of college aged men in matching Patagonia fleeces, and finally, the eyes of the three women I had made the trek with, smiling and triumphant.
I wouldn’t learn, until eight years later, that according to the Penobscot and Abenaki, Katahdin’s summit was inhabited by a legendary bird spirit associated with cold weather, night, and storms. The spirit was called Pamola, and resented mortals intruding from down below, meaning that the summit of Katahdin was off limits, too dangerous, and perhaps, too sacred, for humans.
In a way, the settler colonists considered the summit of Katahdin sacred as well: they summited often. In 2016, Katahdin was added as a monument to the National Parks system, which intends for certain vistas and landscapes to function as “natural cathedrals: protected landscapes where people could worship the sublime.”
I realize, eight years later, that I, too, participated in that masculosexual ritual of walking to a “climax” of land, in order to symbolically conquer it.
But couldn’t there be other ways to relate to mountains?
To each other?
For now, let’s move around. Let’s sling a hammock between two trees and settle in. Let’s take a dip in a mountain stream.
The day before our climb, Cathy and Mel arrived at our dorm at dawn. I grabbed thin long-sleeved shirts and leggings and stuffed them in my bag for layering as I ran out of the back door. My backpack was a grey Jansport from early high school. It was covered in pins, studs, and sharpie-ed stars. I made a pitstop at the fridge and filled it with Lime-O-Ritas and Allagash White.
Once we arrived at the campsite, Cathy taught me how to cook in the fire she built. We mixed chopped potatoes, cheese, beans, veggies, and seasoning, wrapped it all in tin foil, and threw these packs into the flames. The food, so simple, tasted better than whatever I could have made indoors. We ate as the sky turned indigo and it became hard to see. Then, we savored the metallic taste of the canned liquor and watched the stars swirl overhead.
The way up Katahdin was a long tunnel of trees beside a clear mountain stream. In some places, we moved single file with a growing march of tourists. At one particularly congested point, an older white man with not one but two elaborate walking sticks and a backpack on a large frame trailed us. He chose to focus his attention on me.
“Are you going to hike in that?” he asked me, perhaps referring to my borrowed boots and old backpack, “You don’t have nearly enough gear. I would recommend turning back now and coming back when you are ready.”
I slowed to let him pass, but he lingered.
“Gear heads,” Cathy rolled her eyes when he finally passed, “Ignore ‘em.”
I am certain that this moment has resonance for women, especially women of color, participating in an activity that has come to be understood culturally as “outdoorsy,” with the subtext of “white” or “male.” I felt an echo of Thoreau’s 1864 essay “Ktaadn,” which is peopled almost entirely with men involved in the lumber trade. One exception is a Native woman, who Thoreau describes as “a short, shabby, washerwoman—looking Indian.” He claims he would prefer something “more respectable” than this woman, perhaps a “row of wigwams, with a dance of powwows, and a prisoner tortured at the stake.”
Maybe the reverberations of this colonial way of looking—at women, at land, at “the other”—are still present in the interactions between different groups of people who meet on these trails. I felt the ghosts of this way of looking on Katahdin. These ghosts are everywhere, as far as the eye can see in America.
Was it this way of looking that justified the felling of so many trees in the northeast? As Thoreau writes of the lumber industry in the 1860s, “The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver-swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.” Prospectors set their sights on the “virgin” timber they saw beneath Katahdin’s tree line and hacked away, clearing first the dense forest tracts on the north and east sides of the mountain, then the south and southwest sides. After being cut, the lumber was then floated down the Kennebec, the Androscoggin, the Saco, the Penobscot, and the Passamaquoddy rivers.
I attended college in Maine, on a campus a short bike ride from the Androscoggin. One day, pausing to consider the way the water moved over the rocks on a green bridge that overlooked a paper mill built in 1868, I learned that the river was once so dense with floating pine trunks that loggers could walk across it. In later years, the paper mills polluted the water so much that it was unable to hold oxygen, and fish died by the millions. In fact, U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie, who grew up near the river, was inspired to draft the Clean Water Act in 1972 by witnessing the river’s pollution.
I was born and raised in New York City, and going into the hike it was easy for me to believe that I was experiencing some untouched, pristine, Nature with a capital N. Maybe I believed that this nature was somehow separate from humans, in a way that Thoreau was perhaps also seeking. And yet, the land, plants, and animals around Katahdin had been impacted by humans, in ways big and small, in a delicate balance for thousands of years. With the arrival of industry, that balance has been altered dramatically, as climate change has put nearly all ecosystems in the globe in peril.
According to a communication put out by Baxter State Park, it is yet unclear what the future will hold for the land around Mount Katahdin. Some scientists predict that Maine will have warmer, shorter winters with less snow. Some predict that disruptions to the Gulf Stream will lead to deeper, colder winters. In general, the research points to a greater intensity of storms. That is the realm of Pamola, the fierce guardian spirit of the mountain, its protector.
So, what happens if we alter our relationship to these fierce spirits? What if we begin by looking differently? What happens when we stop looking at the landscape as a place to visit, climb, and conquer? What happens when we erase the unconscious notion that only people who look or speak or behave in a certain way belong to the Earth? What happens when we view nature as a collaborator? What happens when we accept nature as ourselves? What happens if we return national parks, which were taken forcibly or stolen through broken treaties, to their original stewards? What new future could we build? What fresh air could we breathe? What new balance will click into place?
Note: Names changed for confidentiality