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For a writer or an artist to become an advocate for nature, he or she must first stumble into some connection to that vast world of energies and ecologies. Because I was brought up in a remote rural district, instead of having kids to play with, I had to entertain myself by exploring the forest surrounding our farm, observing the dozens of bird species and occasional deer, fox, or bobcat; sometimes hunting, sometimes gathering plants that I could sell to herb buyers for a few pennies, and camping out alone for several days at a time. Heavy logging was going on in the nearby hills. Even as a boy I was deeply troubled by the destruction of the forests and the careless way that hunting, both of waterfowl and deer, was conducted.

At fifteen, I got into the higher mountains of the Cascade Range in Washington State, starting with the ridges and high meadows around the snow-covered volcano called Mt. St. Helens, or Luwit, a 3,000-meter peak just north of the Columbia River. Here is what I discovered back then, and finally chose to write about in my recent book, Danger on Peaks:

Climbing the Mountain

Reaching the summit, I thought—West Coast snow peaks are too much! They are too far above the surrounding lands, there is a break between, they are in a different world. If you want to get a view of the world you live in, climb a little rocky mountain with a neat small peak. The big snow peaks pierce the realm of clouds and cranes, rest in the zone of five-colored banners and writhing crackling dragons in veils of ragged mist and frost-crystals, of pure transparency in blue.

Mt. St. Helens’ summit is smooth and broad, a place to nap, to sit and write, watch what’s higher in the sky, or do a little dance. Whatever the numbers say, snow peaks are always far higher than the highest airplanes ever get. I made my petition to the perfect shapely mountain, “Please help this life.” When I tried to look over and down to the world below, there was nothing there.

And then we grouped up to descend. The afternoon snow was perfect for glissade, and leaning on our stocks we slid and skid between cracks and thumps into soft snow, dodged lava slabs, got into the open snowfield slopes, and almost flew to the soft pumice slopes below. Coming down is so fast. Still high, we walked the three-mile dirt road back to the lake.

Atomic Dawn

The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945.

Spirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley, and news came slow. Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn’t appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early the morning of the 14th, I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the American scientist quoted saying “nothing will grow there again for seventy years.” The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest smell, and the big tree shadows; my feet in thin moccasins feeling the ground, and my heart still one with the snow peak mountain at my back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself something like “By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I swear I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.”

The statement in that 1945 newspaper saying that nature would be blighted for decades to come outraged me almost as much as the destruction of innocent human life. I was already a youthful conservationist/environmentalist, and after that I went on to be active in the anti-war movement as a student, and struggled against the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the time it seemed as though these efforts were naive and hopeless, but we persevered

During my university years I was studying the philosophies and religions of the world. I learned that the most important single ethical teaching of the Buddhist tradition is nonviolence toward all of nature, ahimsa. This seemed absolutely right to me. In the Abrahamic religions, “Thou shalt not kill” applies only to human beings. In socialist thought as well, human beings are all-important, and with the “labor theory of value” it is as though organic nature contributes nothing of worth. Later it came to me that “green plants doing photosynthesis are the ultimate working class.” Nature creates the first level of value, labor the second.

Then I read translations of Buddhist texts from India and China. The Dao De Jing and the Zhuang-zi texts helped broaden my view. I read the Lun yü—the Confucian “Analects”—and saw how the Master called for Etiquette in regard to nature, as well as human society. These studies brought me to the thought that almost all of later “high civilization” has been a type of social organization that alienates humans from their own biological and spiritual heritage.

While I was laboring in the forests most of my fellow loggers were Native Americans of the Wasco and Wishram tribes of Eastern Oregon. From them I learned that it was possible to be a hunter and a fisherman with a deep spiritual attitude of gratitude and nonviolence.

Eventually I re-entered college as a graduate student in East Asian languages at the University of California at Berkeley, and finally got a chance to go to East Asia. I lived for a while in a Zen practice hall in Kyoto and studied with a Zen teacher in the Rinzai (Chinese Linji) tradition. I took the precepts under my teacher, who told me that “Of all the precepts, the First Precept is most important and contains the others: Ahimsa, Non-harming, Cause the Least Possible Harm.” To live with that precept is a challenge. He once said to me, “How do you not harm a fence? How would you save a ghost?”

I lived in Japan for ten years, partly in the monastery but also in my own little house, and supported myself by teaching English conversation to Japanese company people. I asked my adult students, “Why are you so intent on learning English?” They answered, “Because we intend to extend our economic influence worldwide, and English is the international language.” I didn’t take them seriously. Today that company, Matsushita Electric, is worldwide.

In my spare time I hiked in the local mountains, learned East Asian plants and birds, and started seriously reading scientific books on ecology and biology. All those essays analyzing food chains and food webs—this was a science, I realized, dealing with energy exchange and the natural hierarchies of various living systems. “When energy passes through a system, it tends to organize that system,” someone wrote. It finally came to me that this was about “eating each other,” almost as a sacrament. I wrote my first truly ecological poem, which explores the essential qualities of human foods:

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