Howard Zahniser played an important role in mid-twentieth century Adirondack wildlands conservation. His main culture heroes were three poets: Dante Aligheri, William Blake, and Henry David Thoreau.
Although Thoreau is not now widely known as a poet, that’s how he embarked on his rocky literary career that time would eventually secure. As Thoreau scholar Robert D. Richardson has noted: “The two years Thoreau spent at Walden Pond and the night he spent in the Concord jail are among the most familiar features of the American intellectual landscape.”
Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had bought, for a woodlot, the Walden Pond property on which Thoreau squatted for two years. Emerson sallied forth as Poet, with a capital P — or OP — for Orphic Poet. Emerson saw the career of the poet as like the role of Orpheus in Greek myth. Orpheus descends into the Underworld to re-emerge as the Bearer of Truth. Emerson’s Poet was supposed to stand at the core of society and speak forth oracles to give the world direction. It’s difficult to imagine such a poet’s role today.
The timing wasn’t even that great then. Emerson was contemporaneous with Louis Agassiz and was to champion the American Swiss biologist and geologist and his views in America. But Emerson championed Agassiz not in Emerson’s role as Poet, a role he early abandoned, but as a popular lecturer, eminent essayist, and philosopher.
Poetry proved to be at the utmost, trailing end of its influence as a venue for public discourse then. Our family’s Adirondack cabin Mateskared in Bakers Mills had similarly been at the trailing end of Adirondack subsistence agriculture and was destined to become a neighbor to wilderness. Modernist poet Ezra Pound—born late in Emerson’s century—completed university studies in the early 1900s. By then, American poetry had been reduced to the status of the lyric. Pound could not imagine the absurdity of an adult male career in America devoted to the lyric. He expatriated to Europe.
Poetry was headed full-tilt away from society’s core toward the peripheries. A. R. Ammons taught poetry writing at Cornell University starting in 1964. Born the son of North Carolina sharecroppers, he eventually held the Goldwin Smith Chair in Poetry at Cornell until retiring in 1998. Of his contemporary poets, Ammons probably most inherited the Emersonian tradition of poetic concerns. He titled one of his book-length poems Garbage. He locates this indicator phenomenon (an actual landfill he saw stand like a ziggurat along Interstate 95) at the urban edge of our inanely consumptive society:
… if I reap the peripheries will I get hardened seed and dried roughage, roughage like teasel and cattail and brush above snow in winter, pure design lifeless in a painted hold.
Henry Thoreau expatriated from poetry to prose and pictured Walden Pond — which lay at booming intellectual Concord’s periphery — as his oracle. Thoreau only figured out the career thing quite late in his comparatively short life. Eventually he seems to have decided his career constituted the keeping of his journal. For a writer, Thoreau’s was a fantastically devoted commitment, the taking of a solitary vow that has long haunted me. Today, however, Thoreau’s journals are key players in climate change studies in New England via phenology, the study of changes in the first annual plant bloomings and animal migrations. Thoreau observed and reported them faithfully for years.
Dante, Blake, and Thoreau: my father’s triumvirate of heroes is more consistent than first glance might suggest. Dante’s Comedy — only later was the mis-label “Divine” set to this great poem, supposing it religious allegory — has a wilderness subtheme. As Nicholas Kilmer and some other scholars read it, the poem has a markedly political drive as well.
Dante broke with literary and cultural tradition by adopting what he saw as vernacular Italian as his language of poetry. He also sets up a concept of the forest edge as a boundary between civilization and wildness. Blake prophetically railed against the heretical idolatry of elevating rationalism as a metaphysic. Thoreau fenced with human social foibles, trying to ferret out how wildness is somehow a tonic that promises no less than preservation of the world.
Dante, Blake, and Thoreau pioneer contemporary edge effects that time and literary tradition will, like madly whirling centripetal forces, reposition close to the axis or core of our cultural consciousness.
“I am beginning to realize that poetry was a big part of who your father was,” his biographer Mark Harvey told me. He had just read, in the library at Pennsylvania State University, my father’s late 1930s and early 1940s “Nature in Print” book review columns in Nature Magazine.
“Zahnie” as my father was known, read a lot of poetry. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published under the name Archibald Howard, combining his father’s and his own first names. Scientific Monthly published his long poem “America Grows Corn,” which was based on actual statistics of corn varieties and corn production in the United States. However, in the 1940s, Zahnie’s career would center on wilderness preservation.
Mateskared became a touchstone for his career interest. Indeed, the Adirondack Black River Wars occasioned his introduction to the region. With Paul Schaefer, he traveled the western Adirondacks building popular and political opposition to a series of dams projected for building on and flooding “forever wild” Forest Preserve lands. In the end, the dams were not to be built.
During summer vacations at Mateskared, at his writing table, Zahnie worked on several of the 66 drafts through which, over eight years, he shepherded the wording of the federal legislation. Five months after his death, the 1964 Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System that now protects 110 million acres of federal public lands in their wild state.
At his Mateskared writing table Zahnie could lean back and look out the double-hung cabin window at distant Crane Mountain. Who knows what thoughts its isolated granitic monolith inspired? Might one or two reside in that wilderness statute protecting “an enduring resource of wilderness?” The Wilderness Act called into question — revised, even — the very notion of the Myth of Progress against which William Blake and Henry Thoreau had railed.
Photo of Howard Zahniser at Mataskared, Crane Mtn in background.