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Copyright 1999
Oregon Live ®
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Our lives are entwined in continuum

George Mallory's climb and the Makahs' hunt reflect an affirmation of nature's role

Sunday, May 30, 1999


By Gregory Bothun Special to The Oregonian

In 1924, George Mallory set out to do something difficult --climb Mount Everest. Why? Because it was there? To be a conquerer of nature? Thousands of years ago, a few unnamed Makah tribesmen set out to do something difficult -- harvest a whale in the ocean using only a long canoe and sharp-pointed sticks. Why? Because whales were there? To be macho and prove their superiority over nature? Hardly.

Both feats were reverent journeys into nature. Journeys that breed humility and a recognition that humankind is involved in an intimate partnership with the natural world. Journeys that endow the participant with spirituality. Journeys that are legacy.

In the modern world, we may live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau once suggested. Perhaps this modern life is better characterized as a disconnected menagerie of to-do lists, places to go, people to see and landmarks to achieve. In our too-busy daily lives, we rarely, if ever, are reminded of legacy.

Yet, within the space of one month, two remarkable events occurred that reflect legacy and the continuous journey we are all on: After 75 years, the frozen body of George Mallory was discovered at 27,000 feet on the north face of Everest by a team of five climbers. After more than 70 years, the Makah tribe once again harvested a whale. How strange it is that these two events, seemingly completely disconnected, have so much in common.

Mallory showed that it could be done. He started a process, an arduous process that leads to a special kind of communion with nature. Nature hid Mallory's body for decades so that over time, the kindred spirits of the Mountain and Mallory no longer roared with the Everest wind. The memory of Mallory evolved into a historical footnote and curiosity about whether Mallory "made it."

But now, the spirit of Mallory roars again, and it roars most loudly in the souls of the five climbers who found him because of an unusually dry Everest winter. At 27,000 feet in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable, these climbers became viscerally connected with the process that Mallory began. Five people became Mallory for an instant and lost all sense of themselves until, in climber Dave Hahn's words:

"We covered him up, and then it was just amazing: Take one step away from there, and you're not worried about George Mallory's life anymore; one step away from him and you're worried about your own life and falling down the north face again."

These people transformed their lives by connecting to the continuum Mallory began. And so they left him where he belonged, where he wanted to be. They buried him there, covering him with rocks in that frozen wasteland, freeing his spirit to be forever present on the north face. No one in the Western world thought this to be an act of barbarism.

Making the reconnection
Yet, a little more than two weeks later, pictures of a young Makah standing on top of a dead whale, arms raised apparently in triumph, have fueled righteous indignation about the tribe's killing of a gray whale. The media's portrayal of this event paints a picture of barbarism and cruelty, not one of spiritual reawakening and reconnecting with the continuum.

The Makah are the whale. The whale is the Makah. Without the whale, there would be no Makah. Without Everest, there would be no Mallory. Scores of climbers have scaled Everest without thinking of Mallory, but now his spirit has reappeared, and future climbers will know and remember.

The spirit of the whale has been lost to the Makah since the 1920s. The ritual and detail of the whale hunt have to be rediscovered. For now, these details live in history books. In a few years, they will live in the hearts of the young Makah. The spirit of the whale lives again off the coast of Washington.

The Makah have reconnected with who they are and where they came from. Who are Westerners to deny them this? Was it the Makah who caused the near-extinction of the gray whale in the 1920s? Or was it someone else who took away their culture and heritage?

A matter of respect
We live in a highly reactionary time. A time where media coverage often serves to promote outrage rather than to inform. The Makah whale hunt has produced a strong polarization of views. If the Makah had harvested their whale without television cameras, chances are this ritual would have earned far more respect than it has. Next year, when the Makah hunt for more whales, we can expect even more vicious protests, fueled by the image of a young Makah standing on the whale, apparently triumphant over its capture and death.

When will we transplants to North America give the native culture the homage and respect it deserves? They were here before us. It's their culture that has been usurped. We don't own the Earth, no matter what we pretend and how we behave.

Rather, like Mallory and the whale, each of us is part of the continuum, a product of the past with an opportunity to leave behind our own legacy. But what will this legacy be? One of prideful misuse of the Earth's resources for short-term gain or one of deep respect for these resources that make all life possible? Its our choice now.

When we forget about the continuum, we become lesser. Our vision becomes short term and our needs become more selfish. Responsible long-term management of the environment demands a long-term outlook and a more humble view of ourselves. We need to establish the partnership with nature that was forged by Mallory and re-established by the Makah. We should look at these events as inspiration, as boilerplates for how we can all become better citizens of the planet.

Yes, it's true that pride and machismo strongly interfere with humility; that passion in a primal moment can paint a lasting misleading image. But, over time, I expect that young whale-killing Makah will reconnect with his heritage and understand the humility and reverence the whale hunt demands. Then you won't find him celebrating victory. You'll find a transformed person who has become spiritually connected to the continuum of life.

What's the excuse for the rest of us?


Gregory Bothun is a physics professor and a faculty member of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. He can by reached by e-mail at nuts@bigmoo.uoregon.edu.

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