Sunday, May 12, 2013

Midnight Lightning versus What Really Matters

Midnight Lightning without the "bolt"
The other day it was announced that a key measure of climate change had passed a significant threshold. We are now enjoying an average of 400 PPM of C02 in the atmosphere, a level not seen since since the Pliocene and the highest since records starting being kept in 1958. The implications of this rapid change are sobering, not least for anyone concerned about the environment and the natural world. However any reactions on this topic from the climbing community seemed a faint whisper compared to the outrage that greeted a blog post from James Lucas in which he confessed to having erased the famous lightning bolt inscribed in chalk beside Midnight Lightning in Yosemite.

 In comments to his blog, James was called just about every name in the book, invited to commit numerous depraved acts, and of course threatened with physical violence. I am guessing that the majority of these internet bravos would be unable to leave the ground on said problem, let alone make good on their promises of bodily assault. The Supertopo forum was, predictably, full of bluster and sentimental rhapsodizing, and some sensible comments too. Perhaps the best was complimenting James as the "king of trolls" though I think his gesture constituted much more than that.

 Coming from the visual arts, I was impressed by two things. First the investment so many had in this symbol, an investment more typical of religious or political imagery and marked with the same rhetoric. Second, and perhaps more remarkable, was the fact that this symbol bore all the hallmarks of an old work of art with years of alteration, restoration, previous erasures and fill-ins, so much so in fact, that it is arguable that no authentic "original" Midnight Lightning Bolt actually exists anymore. In other words it became more a ritual intertwined with memory and history, made even more evocative by the recent death of John Bachar. The bolt had a kind of votive aspect, reinforced by the quasi-sacred status that Yosemite Valley holds in American climbing.

 In the 1950s the young artist Robert Rauschenburg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, a more senior and recognized painter. De Kooning supplied a drawing that was selected specifically for the purpose and which took Rauschenburg quite a lot of work to erase. Simultaneously an act of rejection and homage, the erasure of De Kooning's drawing both enhanced and undermined the aura of the work of art as an object. Ironically the erased drawing is in a museum in San Francisco, only a few hours drive from the Columbia Boulder.

 Now whether James was aware of this precedent or not, I find it a compelling parallel, this staging of a symbolic conflict between generations, one enacted by Bachar's generation in examples such as the drawing of the bolt and the iconic "Nose-in-a-day" photo, itself an image intended to respond to previous team images of previous decades and then replicated and parodied over the years. I think many climbers have an ambivalent feeling about this kind of myth making and preservation. On the one hand, they see the myths and symbols adding context and meaning to their actions. On the other, they have to acknowledge that the truth behind the symbols and legends is more complicated and messy than the stories and pictures convey.


 The kinds of erasures that bother me more than chalk marks on a boulder are the ones that come before the chalk is ever applied. For example, a recent video I saw opened with climbers preparing for their ascents by shoveling off a carpet of dirt, leaves, and lichen (in other words, an entire ecosystem) at the top of a problem, vigorous scrubbing with a wire brush, and boulder trundling. I suspect the video has been deleted at least in part because its makers realized that it sent the wrong message to land managers, the general public, and not least, other climbers who might regard these methods as legitimate when opening problems on public lands.

 I am not claiming innocence in these matters. I have used wire brushes and modified landings myself, trying always to minimize my impact, but recognizing its presence. Any serious climber has modified the natural state of a climb at some point, killing things, however small, to create a route. My point is not to single out individuals for blame but instead to suggest that climber outrage towards the erasure of a few grams of chalk is misplaced when our environment is under constant siege from human activity, including climbing. Even the air we breathe is being altered in ways that may ultimately prove fatal to entire regions and the species they support. Can climbers muster more sympathy towards the natural environments they visit and work towards a better understanding of them instead of continuing on a path of alteration, consumption and degradation?

 The bolt on Midnight Lightning was a symbol, a ghost even, of something long since gone away. Personally I find the erased boulder more compelling, as it evokes the time before the problem was climbed, when it was just a vision. But also its erasure also marks an absence, a sobering reminder of the transience and ephemerality at the heart of climbing, how passing time will reduce even the gigantic Columbia boulder to sand. Nature will come back in its own time and grow over our attempts to make our mark, and thank heaven for that.

Last weekend I saw this up on Flagstaff Mountain. With the aid of a pine cone and the abundant snow that was rapidly melting in the warm spring sunshine, I erased it in a few minutes and went on with my day.


Anonymous said...

Bullshit. It doesn't matter that is meant nothing to you or to James. It meant allot to many other people.

jriggedy said...

I also think there's something nice about seeing the ML boulder in the nude again. LHOOQ.