Untrammeled thoughts on wilderness, land, water, and civil rights at 50

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." It's September 3, 1964. On a portico at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson is signing the Wilderness Act, which has just been approved in the U.S. Senate 73 to 12 and in the House of Representatives 373 to 1. Republican and Democratic champions of the bill flank the president, who, at the same time, also signs the Land and Water Conservation Act, a bill to use royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to fund projects ranging from remote wildlife refuges to recreational parks in city centers. It has passed the House by acclamation on a voice vote and the Senate 92 to 1.

Noa Batle.jpgI was a child of this era, only four years old in 1964, but it is foreign to me. I think I would like to visit this country, but I know that "you can't go home again." There's no rewinding of the tape of history. And that's OK. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to live there.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in the summer of 1964, too, after the longest continuous debate in Senate history. Just four days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 23, 1963, Johnson had delivered his first address as president to a joint session of Congress. "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights," he said. "We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."

In March 1964, southern Democrats launched a filibuster when a civil rights bill, passed by the House, came to the Senate floor. The stonewalling lasted 60 days, including seven Saturdays, until a coalition of 44 Democrats and 29 Republicans voted for cloture, ending the filibuster. The Senate passed the bill nine days later. On July 2, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the House too, and was signed into law by President Johnson that same day.

Fifty years later, there are a lot of reasons to reconnect the dots between the Civil Rights Act, the Wilderness Act, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Friends of mine--Rue Mapp at Outdoor Afro, José González at Latino Outdoors, and Carolyn Finney, a professor at UC Berkeley and author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, among many others--are making these connections real in their work today. The arc of the history in which these three pieces of legislation represented signal turning points is long and still unfinished.

For me, a keyword in this history is "untrammeled." The word is at the center of the Wilderness Act, which states: "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."

The author of that passage, Howard Zahniser, had been searching for just the right word as he was drafting the act for the Wilderness Society. When a friend used "untrammeled" to describe the ocean, Zahniser liked it immediately. Some of his colleagues worried that the word was too poetic and would associate the act with the "daffodil" wing of the conservation movement. "Undisturbed" was better, they argued.

But according to biographer Mark Harvey, Zahniser "thought that 'undisturbed' was inaccurate, given that many proposed wilderness area had already been altered by mining, grazing, and other uses." Zahniser liked the capaciousness and flexibility of "untrammeled," which he took to mean "free, unbound, unhampered, unchecked."

"Unshackled" is another synonym. With "untrammeled," Zahniser reached deep into American ideas of freedom for a term that would liberate the land. In doing so, consciously or not, he also linked the wilderness ideal to the greatest battle for freedom in American history, the Civil War, and the next chapter, as President Johnson called it, the civil rights movement of his own times.

In The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics Since 1964, historian James Morton Turner argues that the Wilderness Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Civil Rights Act were also connected by a shared belief in what at the time was called the Great Society. The last 50 years have been hard on the Great Society and especially on the core idea that government plays a crucial role not only in guaranteeing our freedoms but also in providing for shared social goods, such as clean water and public lands.

I wouldn't want to go back to 1964. But I would like to visit that foreign country today to recover a few things we seem to have left behind. One is the historical complexity of "untrammeled," which has, unfortunately, come to mean something too close to "undisturbed," an idea too pure and simple for our times. The other is the understanding that the work of politics is the essential work of a creating a great society, which is always unfinished.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has been underused woefully for many years, will be shut down completely next year if it is not reauthorized by Congress. The Sacramento Bee published an op-ed today that I wrote with Graham Chisholm, the California coordinator for the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition. I have an interview with Rue Mapp and Carolyn Finney in the fall issue of Boom: A Journal of California. The photo above is by Noa Batle, an incoming freshman at UCLA, and is from the cover of that issue.

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