Thirty years ago this weekend, when I was sixteen, I climbed my first four thousand foot mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Whites were a very different place then. For one thing, you could drink the water from any mountain spring without needing any kind of purification; by 1978, giardia first started showing up in the Whites; and today you have to purify any water you drink, or risk giardiasis. For another thing, there were a lot fewer people on the trails back then; when my friend Will and I went hiking in the Whites in the late 1970’s, you could go a whole day without seeing another person, whereas today you’re lucky to go an hour without seeing another hiker. And for another thing, when you were up on a mountain top, you could generally see a lot farther then than you can today, because increasing pollution has cut visibility dramatically throughout New England.
It’s easy to lament, and wax nostalgic. But if you’re going to lament about what has been lost in the White Mountains since the 1970’s, why not go back further in time and lament the loss of the old-growth forests during the 19th century? Lamentation is all very fine, but it makes more sense to enjoy what we’ve got now, while we still have it, for as global climate change progresses, we’re going to lose all the rare arctic tundra plants that grow above the 5,000 foot line in the Whites; acid rain will continue to despoil the mountain tarns and streams; invasive insect species will decimate the forests even more than they have already. In this time of ecological crisis, lamentation seems like a luxury we can’t really afford.
One good thing about global climate change is that the warm-weather hiking season in the White Mountains has been extended by some weeks; it used to be that the winter hiking season began the weekend after Columbus Day. Maybe I’ll make a trip up there sometime soon, and enjoy the mountains before the weather changes.