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
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
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 email@example.com.
» Serial killer task force assembles detectives
» Gorton moves to block BPA's money for removing dams
» Deal ends conflict over fish hatcheries
» Senate approves cap on pay of teachers
» GOP outlines $10.87 billion budget plan
» Backers vow to try again after state lobbying limits fail
» Bill spotlights alcohol offenders ages 18 to 21
» Development plan ignites furor in Bend
» Johnswood Park housing opponents expand complaint
» After 25 years, Oregon City teacher takes a recess
» Many nonprofits now scrambling to prepare for Y2K
» Fear caused by Bellingham inferno spreads
» At 10 ounces, baby Mighty Mo a tiny battler
» Marine Drive earns dubious new status: safety corridor
» Central Catholic student determined to do the right thing
» Clinton Street Theater closes weekday doors
» Coast Guard halts search for couple lost at sea
» UO increases security as it prepares for anarchists
» Inconvenient wait pays off big for Lotto winner
» Experts on birds aren't so gullible about gulls
» Missing Veterans hospital patient found