Dear Future Humans:
Today is September 30, 2017. My name is Dan Haas, and I am sitting in a field of grass atop Alander Mountain, thinking of you.
This afternoon, my view shows me the inside of a cloud. But on a clear day atop Alander, I can see the Taconic ridge flowing south towards the New York-Massachusetts-Connecticut border, the Harlem Valley twisting below, Catskills on the western horizon … the most beautiful view on the planet. Sure — beautiful to me, but when was beauty ever objective? To catch the gist of a place, you must know it well, and I’ve lived at the foot of this mountain for twenty-nine years, enough decades to climb every trail up Alander, bushwhack twice to its crest, spend many nights in the old fire-watcher’s cabin just below the summit. I backpacked in one January afternoon, but a cabin filled with other hikers surprised me. I slept on the snow outside, and dreamed of a bright fireplace. One summer day I climbed to the cabin with my daughter. Four and a half miles is a long way for a four year old, and I made the added mistake of telling her that rattlesnakes were common up here — so she walked in fear, snakes under every stone! Years later some friends and I came upon several coiled together on stones, soaking up sun, thick as my forearm.
Seen from my house, Alander today is … cloud-wrapped and invisible, On a clear early-autumn day, it’s dusky green from base to peak — 2,239 feet above sea level. It slopes gently up from the valley. The woods that cover it disappear only at the very top, allowing grass to grow there, and ancient schist to face the sun. From the valley it resembles (to quote my sister-in-law) “A woman laying down all covered with broccoli.”
Here, from my Alander vantage point, I can predict the future. A hundred years from now:
* The old will wish they were young.
* Children will surprise their parents
* People will talk about themselves more intently than they listen to someone else talk
* People will fight without remembering the reason they fought in the first place
* Sorrow and joy will mark every life
I’m a seer!
But mostly, I think about the vastness of what I don’t know. My guesses are filled with fear.
Prophecies of doom punctuate history, but does that mean I’m wrong now? I live in an America where power transfers without violence, the one war we’re fighting now kills about .0000004 % of the population each year, and millions of people take for granted comforts and physical health unimaginable in past centuries. It’s an era of peace and stability, where most of humanity seems gripped by pervasive fear and anxiety. Dystopian stories are the fall-back choice for writers and film-makers, anti-anxiety drugs are almost fashionable, and the media serves a daily soup of darkness and pessimism.
Are we whining, or do we all sniff danger coming, unable to quite trace its shape? I see clues, as I wander Alander and its South Taconic neighbors. In January this year, I hiked Alander’s base on an afternoon when temperatures reached seventy degrees, and warm sunshine covered the shadeless ground. The ’17 spring “greenup” arrived at least a week and a half early, according to my sense of the seasons, and my memory of these mountains goes back only to the late eighties. I’m unsure of the health of the hemlock trees that cover Taconic ravines in deep shadow. An invasive insect, the wooly adelgid, burrows into the bark and cuts off the trees’ food supply; this creature can’t survive bitter cold, but …
I first went backpacking in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the 1970s, climbing cool, shrouded ravines drained by bubbling streams. When I returned there a few years ago, the shadows were gone and I could walk for a mile or more through dense stands of dead trees, bare-branched hemlocks leaning like gray ghosts over the water. There, winter temperatures are too warm to halt the adelgid invasion.
For now, our winters are a barrier. But if the Taconic hemlocks die, if you never glimpse the separate world they create, the dimness and chill of a deep hollow, how will you know what you’ve lost? A hundred years ago, chestnuts were a dominant Taconics tree, but all I’ve ever beheld are the stubborn, shrub-high stragglers rising from old roots. I can’t truly mourn what I never knew. You may never know the beauty you’ve lost — even if the Taconic seasons fade and blur away. Will you know the delicate green of the mountains in May, their almost-neon vividness on a bright day? The cool winds that sometimes blow in summer, or mornings when a dirt trail chills bare feet? Will autumn light astonish you if the sugar maples and ashes and hickories and oaks migrate north and leave October mountainsides dull? Will you lose snow? Will winters bring nothing but rain against gray trees, no white pillows sealing off the earth, muffling sound, blurring lines, sparkling and gleaming when the sun re-arrives?
A few months ago, President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. Magazine articles detail the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf — within 100 years — which would raise sea levels by ten feet worldwide. Last month was the second warmest April on record, worldwide. I could list hundreds of similar examples, but I wonder: what do your headlines say?
I’m frightened for my planet. I imagine millions fleeing drought, or flooded coastlines, or nations near the equator left unlivable by heat. I imagine nations driven to massive wars. I imagine hunger and disease on a scale never before seen. I imagine collapse: economic and social systems giving way, cultures ruled by warlords and death. The question that’s hovered over the human race for a long time now — can we survive the world we’ve created? — might be answered in this twenty-first century. How much sudden change can an ecosystem bear?
For unimaginable spans of years, animals absorbed sunlight, died, and transformed beneath the earth into oil and coal and gas. Along with my fellow first world citizens, I’m busy burning those millenniums of stored energy, in the space of decades. That ancient energy fuels my car, and heats my house, and brings me food from faraway places, and flew me to California to see my son this past summer. It can’t last. I’m trying to connect my home to a solar farm. I drive a low-emissions Subaru. I’m the media chair for the local chapter of an organization that lobbies Congress to put a tax on carbon emissions. I’m trying to eat less meat, and only locally raised. In the face of the dangers that I believe in, these actions seem paltry, but they’re the best I can do without ripping my life apart.
You don’t exist. Not yet. But the fibers of what you’ll become run through the present day. As I sit here atop Alander, molecules, cells, DNA travel towards the years of your birth and growth. People are making decisions that will create more events and decisions, and one day shape the eyes that might read these words.
I’ll be gone. I turned sixty a few months ago, and last year was diagnosed with Parkinsons’s disease, which renders my future less certain. For now I’m free to explore the mountains I love. Not long ago, hiking near Sage’s Ravine, I noticed a sign for Paradise Lane, a trail that, after twenty-nine years of scouting this small corner of the Earth, I’ve never hiked.
I’ll die with many Taconic hollows, ridge-tops, pools and places unvisited. I hope you — some of you, anyway —take a long walk through these mountains, and learn to love them too. I hope you find joy here. Your present will quickly become your past, and before long, someone else’s history. I’ll vanish in the chaos of lost time, but every word I spoke, every plan I followed through on, every aspiration I realized, and those I did not, in some fashion created the world you dream in, strive in, stagger through and maybe master. Maybe all my forebodings will prove false – maybe you live in a world of peace, where wise actions averted disaster, where humankind continues to slowly and grudgingly unite, where the beauty I recognize remains. One thing I know: I don’t know. But my wish is that you’re well, in a world that meets your needs, built to last.