Probably some of my earliest memories are of hiking with my parents, trailing behind them as we went through what seemed like miles of forest and rocky trails and along streams and across roughly-hewn bridges. Across sun-burnt ridges, across glaciers, through damp, green rainforests. I remember so clearly a hike along the coast of Kaui - I was probably seven or eight - up and down, up and down, the trail occasionally obscured by lava rock that had once flowed, molten and liquid, down these slopes. And it rained. It rained so hard we were sloshing through rivers all the way back to the car, so muddy my white socks turned brown; they were never quite the same again after that.
I thought of that wet, muddy hike when I read Barbara Kingsolver's essay Infernal Paradise, from High Tide in Tuscon. Her description of her hike through the wilderness of Haleakala Crater, on the island of Maui, have haunted me since I first read them. Together with a companion Kingsolver makes her way into the crater (at dawn, after the tourist buses have come to gape at the sunrise and then return to their beachfront hotels and fruity drinks by the pool). Formed by lava rock, the crater is its own world, where a few endagered species of flora and fauna fight to survive. More species have now become extinct in Hawaii than in all of North America, Kingsolver tells us. What is left has become endangered, the silverswords that only grow in lava beds, or the nene geese, who are trying, with a little help from humans, to make a comeback. If [they] survive this century, Kingsolver writes, it will be by the skin of their teeth. It will only happen because we decided to notice, and hold on tight.
I have in my collection of postcards a photograph of a silversword in bloom. It is an unearthly and beautiful thing, and Kingsolver's words echo in my head when I look at it. I think of her when I go hiking, and find myself looking across mountains shaped by glaciers, great expanses of snow-covered ice fields, when I look at the bare tundra which will miraculously be covered in wildflowers in summer, flowers that grow nowhere else but in this high place. Our world is getting smaller, our resources dwindling. I look at a small baby in her mother's arms and wonder what the world will be like when she is old and my generation is gone, what world will greet her children in turn. And then I find myself someplace, some distant mountain looking over a valley, perhaps, where nothing has changed for hundreds of years, or has changed so slowly that even a few millenia will not harm those flowers that will continue to bloom, so long as we care.
The first tragedy I remember having understood in my life, said Kingsolver, was the extinction of the dodo...The idea that such a fabulous creature had existed, and then simply stopped being-this is the kind of bad news that children refuse to accept...if only I could see such a creature in my lifetime, I would throw myself in front of its demise. Haleakala Crater is such a creature in our lifetime...The memory of beautiful, strange things slips so far beyond reach, when it goes. If I hadn't seen it, I couldn't care half well enough. I think of these words whenever I see something strange and beautiful and endangered, and I feel my heart break over all we stand to lose.
Kingsolver, Barbara. High Tide in Tuscon. Perennial, 2003. pp 198-200, 205-206.