A Letter to Thoreau


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Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

Dear Thoreau,

Salutations from my outpost in the Pacific Northwest.  I can imagine you snug in your cabin at Walden Pond.  I know you’ve only received one or two letters in your life that you considered worth the postage, and I’m not sure this one will reach up to the standard you’ve set, but I feel compelled to fill you in on a few recent developments of philosophical themes dear to your heart.                    

I’ve been taking classes at Central Washington University, which is located in the City (really a small town) of Ellensburg. In many ways, your experiment of going to the woods to live and your many writings on your experiences have been an inspiration to generations of naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts of all ilk. My present studies focus on the philosophy of wilderness as taught by Dr. Michael Goerger.  He is a spirited individual and rigorous in his analyses of our contemporary dilemma relating to the conflicting demands upon the tracts of wilderness bequeathed to us through congressional bills and the whims of presidents since your time. 

What seemed, in your time, like an infinite expanse of land with a cornucopia of resources is becoming a limited commodity.  I use the word “commodity” because so many of our countrymen consider the wilderness only as a material resource, something without value unless it can be exploited for financial gain.  Any ethical appraisal or concept of esthetic nourishment the wilderness might offer is a byproduct reserved for a privileged few (HZ 63).  

The debate on how to manage the federal parks we call our “national treasures” (an idea not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye when you were living in your cabin) has been continually raging since Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, made conservation a top priority by establishing an array of national parks, forests, and monuments intended to preserve the nation’s natural resources.  The realization came to us that our scenic wonders should be protected, and steady progress has been made by environmentally conscious individuals to ensure that some of this heritage will be protected for future generations.

After you so poignantly revealed in Walden; or Life in the Woods how nature opposes human society, others discovered that they, too, could find solace and renewal from the deadening existence of social intercourse.  Dr. Goerger has had us read selections from your works and the works of your dear friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as from the works of John Muir, Sigund Olson, Howard Zahniser, and Edward Abbey.  While Emerson is a true philosopher, Muir is a true outdoorsman, an adventurer, who explores the western United States and writes profoundly about the destruction of the forests and the beauty of untrammeled wilderness. (Check out his Atlantic Monthly articles.)  He railed against the havoc caused by logging and mining to get Congress to establish protections and create some kind of management of our resources instead of just wasting them.  He’s forthcoming about his connection to God in the setting of the great outdoors, and he focuses on beauty and the esthetic value of his nature experiences.  In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt camped with John Muir in Yosemite Valley, in California, and Muir convinced Roosevelt to establish a national park, while the valley was still pristine (Wiki).  Today, it is overrun by tourists, but it is still a sublime vista.  Come west, and we’ll go see it before they build another dam.

Olson is susceptible to romantic nostalgia.  So much of the vast forest was wasted between Muir’s time and his.  He has notions of history and a lost way of life and what he calls “a gap” between human nature and civilization (SO 120).  Like yours and Muir’s, his is a complete sensory experience, perhaps mystical; however, this is not to say Olson is not reasonable.  He worked effectively as a writer and as an administrator in the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation.  He was instrumental in getting Jimmy Carter, our 39th president, to sign a law, in 1978, granting the Boundary Canoe Area Wilderness full wilderness status (Wiki).  Knowing your libertarian leanings, I can sense you raising an eyebrow upon my mention of these official groups, but an environmental movement was born from the incense that rose from your hearth, and I think you’d like Sig; he’d be a great companion on one of your huckleberry party excursions. 

Now, Zahniser is a bird of a different plumage.  Not much of an outdoorsman, he’s more of a missionary on a quest to secure wilderness for future generations.  He believes “wilderness is something to which everyone is entitled, including those that are not yet born” (HZ 63).  The battle to retain some semblance of wilderness has become desperate since you stood in the clearing near your cabin and listened to the sound of frogs along the banks of Walden Pond.  Although Zahniser is not one to rough it, he concurs with your view that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (PT 103), but he doesn’t go so far as to say that “unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind” (ibid.), because he feels that, in these times, we need recreation like camping and sports in the wilderness as well as mystical experiences.  He, too, is against development, in the sense of exploiting the wilderness for commercial profit, and he accomplished a monumental task by writing and husbanding through Congress what is now called the Wilderness Act.

In an exchange of letters between C. Edward Graves and Zahniser, during the drafting of the document, Graves asked Zahniser to change the word “untrammeled” to “undisturbed” in the definition of wilderness.  In its final form, Section 2, Part c, of the act reads:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (Wiki).

Graves had his reasons for making the change and Zahniser had his for leaving the word be in the definition. The Wilderness Act (with the word “untrammeled” left in place) was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, our 36th president, on September 3, 1964. The value of having such a place, so defined, continues to be debated among Americans with different interests. 

During the Wilderness Act’s drafting process, another letter arrived on Zahniser’s desk from F.S. Baker, a forester at U.C. Berkeley, dated January 2, 1946.  Baker accuses Zahniser (and the Wilderness Society of which Zanhiser was a leader) of being elitist in their dedication to keeping pristine wildernesses in perpetuity (HZ 63), and, in a further letter, Baker delineates the types of people who, he feels, desire this kind of wilderness: the “solitary minded,” the “man-against-nature fellows,” and a breed “who go in search of the strange and unusual” (HZ 67).  In other words, there are those who merely want to take walks, those who want recreation, including hunting and fishing, and those who want something more, like Edward Abbey, who wants the chance to confront immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description.  To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself (DS 6).

The bullets fly back and forth even between those who love nature.  Here’s an example:—on his first day in office, March 2, 2016, Ryan Zinke, upon being appointed Secretary of the Interior by The Donald, our 44th president, an insensitive bore if there ever was one, signed an order overturning a ban on the use of lead ammunition on wildlife refuges, a policy implemented on the last day of the Obama administration by former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.  This might have been a symbolic act on the part of the new administration because of the outright hatred between members of our current political parties.  You wrote, in Civil Disobedience, that the government, “which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it” (PT 75).  We’ve reached a point where our government is dysfunctional, and our culture is in hyper-transformation.

But back to the invisible (as well as quite literal) bullets flying in the wilderness.  I read opinion articles in favor, opinion articles against, and balanced articles on the subject of the ban on lead bullets and the promotion of “green” (safe or, at least, less-damaging-to-the-environment-type) bullets.  A lot of this is not going to make any sense to you, and I know you are off the grid and don’t have a computer, but I am going to reference these articles with their links to what we call the internet for your future access.  

As reported in The Hill by Timothy Cama, Ashe’s policy banned the use of lead ammunition and lead in fishing tackle on all the federal wildlife refuges that allow hunting or fishing.  The ban was meant to help prevent plants and animals from being poisoned by lead left on the ground or in the water but hunting and fishing advocacy groups condemned the policy an outright ban on their activities. 

The overall situation of green versus lead bullets, like all situations that you look at closely, is a complex one. On one side there are the Second Amendment fanatics and certain hunting groups and, on the other side, environmentalists and health scientists.  At Patriot Update, Jim Yardley claims that: (1) those wanting to ban are “pandering to rabid environmentalists”; (2) the cost to shift ammunition to copper alloys could cost about $20 million, a 300% increase from current costs, and will raise electronics and house wiring costs; (3) a loss of jobs in the lead industry; (4) green ammo doesn’t kill any better.  Perry Chiarmonte, a Fox News contributor insists that lead bullets have: (1) no effect on environment and are not a hazard; (2) that green bullets costs hunters more; (3) quotes the National Rifle Association that it is “restrictive legislation”; (4) hunters would have to reset guns.  And there is more of the same, except that there’s a “Catch 22” (says Michael Bastsch, in The Daily Caller, and his use of this expression implies there’s a dilemma because of conflicting conditions), because the U.S. Army doesn’t want armor-piercing bullets in the public domain, while the State of California has a ban in place against lead bullets at a time when green bullets are hard to obtain.

The environmentalists are of a completely different attitude, and they posit an alternative interpretation of the data.  Lori Ann Burd, writing for Oregon Live claims that lead bullets are: (1) toxic to humans; (2) poison wildlife; (3) the largest source of man-placed lead in the environment—3,000 metric tons of lead fired randomly into the wilderness and 80,000 metric tons of lead fired in shooting ranges—all a health hazard; (4) argues against the rise in retail costs, claiming that costs will come down; (5) green bullets have as good or better ballistics.   Laura Geggel, writing for Live Science, reports: (1) toxicity of spent ammo eaten by animals that forage; spent ammo eaten from dead prey; (2) lead gets in water supply; (3) bald eagle, our national bird, and condors, an endangered species, are threatened; (4) 10-20 million non-target animals, dead, along with 2 million ducks dead from ingesting pellets. An article posted at the Humane Society website explains that: (1) animals at every level of the food chain are effected; (2) no safe level of lead for humans.

I remembered that Edward Gibbon included lead poisoning as one of several causes for the fall of the Roman Empire, so I investigated this.  Thomas Sumner reports in Science Mag that lead levels ingested from the drinking water running through the lead pipes of Roman houses didn’t rise to a level high enough to be alarmed about.   The Romans also made use of lead in their cooking utensils and added lead to their food for flavor.  Still, Roman skeletal remains don’t contain half of the lead isotopes that exist in our bones today.  Edward Gibbon’s prose in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is known for its ironic tone, and from what I’ve told you, you can see that mankind is never going to get the lead out and do something about cleaning up the mess it is making. 

All factions arguing over lead bullets insist they want there to be wilderness.  They are not arguing over exploiting the wilderness for private profit, only how far to go with lead bullets.  The argument gets bogged down in all the usual philosophical considerations.  What is “wilderness?”  How do you experience “wilderness?”  Is “wilderness” within us or without?”  So, there are a lot of intangibles to be debated, and I doubt there is a definitive answer to be given, because the problem evolves with each new dialectic.  We have the New Gods of Olympus in the White House and the Old Gods in the tree roots, and now the Old Gods are the New Gods, and the New Gods are the old.  We all agree we want something called Wilderness, some to play in, some to work in, some to commune with,—and, for others, just some to piss on and exploit.

I’ve sat and meditated on a falling leaf in the Rockies, felled giant cedars in the rainforest of Alaska, planted trees on the moonscape of Mt. Saint Helen after she erupted, camped and fished in the Sierras, and simply meandered along the bank of the Yakima River by Peoples’ Pond.  I like it all.  For me, this lead-bullets-in-the-wilderness-thing is a matter of esthetics.  Does it make sense to continually shoot bullets, three or four or more metric tons, year after year, forever, into the woods?  Take the Climate Change controversy; let’s say we aren’t the cause of climate change with our industrial footprint; does that mean we aren’t trashing the planet?  We all know there won’t be anything like the wilderness that was, until after the next ice age.  I doubt being on my knees can be considered a stance, but I pray that we will keep some of what wilderness is left. It would be nice to keep some of it, don’t you think?


In all humility,




From the desk of Henry David Thoreau: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA


My Dear Jampa,

The cabin you mention that I’m snug in is, of course, a pine coffin.  I hear you through the noosphere and offer my sincere condolences on your plight.  Many of the items you mention, home wiring, electronics, the internet thing, I am familiar with through overhearing ghosts chattering. “Isotopes” still baffle me, but this is all incidental to what seems perennial in our discussions.  

I was reading Zahniser’s article, “Threat to Wild Lands” (HZ 135), and I came across a reference to Antæus, and it triggered an association with what you were saying about the new gods becoming the old gods and the old, the new.  Hercules fought Antæus as his eleventh labor. Antæus was born from Gaia, and his source of strength was the earth;—so, as long as he was touching the earth, he could not be defeated.  Hercules lifted him off the ground,—creating a gap,—and squeezed the life out of him.  The Olympians represent the Modern Age, our scientific prowess,—and, as we explore these new realms, we sever the connection to our Ancient Source.  As my new friend Abbey keeps harping, “Now is the time for some serious monkey-wrenching!”


As ever, Henry





DS – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968.

JM – The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LXXX, No. CCCCLXXVIII, Boston, 1897.

SO – Sigurd F. Olson, The Meaning of Wilderness, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1928-73.

PT – Henry David Thoreau, The Portable Thoreau, Penguin Books, New York, 2012.

HZ – Howard Zahniser, The Wilderness Writings of Howard Zahniser,  

University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2014.



Michael Bastasch, “California Officially Bans Hunters from Using Lead Bullets,” April 9, 2015.  http://dailycaller.com/201504/09/california-officially-bans-hunters-from-using-lead-bullets/

Lori Ann Burd, “Banning Lead Bullets Is Necessary,” Feb. 28, 2015.  www.oregonlive.comopinion/…/02baning_lead_bullets_is_necess .html

Timothy Cama, “Interior Secretary Repeals Ban on Lead Ammunition,” March 2, 2017. http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/322058-interior-secretary-repeals-ban-on-lead-ammunition

Perry Chiaramonte, “End of the Line for the Lead Bullet?”  December 21, 2013.  www.foxnews.com/…/end-line-for-lead-bullet-regulations- bans-force

Laura Geggel, “Eating Metal: Why Repeal of the Lead Bullet Ban Is Bad for Health,” March 7, 2017.  www.livescience.com/…administration-overturns-lead-bullet-ban.html

The Humane Society, “Lead Ammunition: Toxic to Wildlife,” 2017.

www.humanesociety.org/issues/campaigns/wildlife_abuse/toxic- lead

Thomas Sumner, “Did Lead Poisoning Bring Down Ancient Rome?,” April, 2014.  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/04/scienceshot-did-lead-poisoning-bring-down-ancient-rome

Jim Yardley, “‘Green’ Bullets Will Take ‘Green’ Out of Americans’ Pockets,” Dec. 22, 2013.  http://patriotupdate.com/green-bullets-will-take-green-americans-pockets-2/