Mountain Madness, Armageddon Thoughts on the High Peaks

"... you feel like you're gliding down the highway when in fact you're slip-slidin' away." Paul Simon

I'm on the most beautiful mountaintop in the southern Appalachians and I'm depressed. I'm having deep Armageddon daydreams.

Hiking will do that. Especially when in a wooded canopy for an hour or more at a stretch, with little visual stimulation to occupy the mind. What will the mind do? Mine, today, is thinking about the end. Not just my end: THE END. When will it come, what will it be like?

Jane and I left the car at Carver's Gap, at 5600 feet one of the highest roads in Dixie. We're hiking south on the treasured Appalachian Trail, on our way to the summit of Roan Mountain, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. This mountain is justly famed for its prodigious fields of rhododendron, all ablaze in May. We're here in late September, on a stunning afternoon. The mountain chill is definitely in the air, but we don't notice on the way up.

What's got me in my gloom is the stillness. There are few birds to see or hear, and thousands of dead trees. I read an article just a few weeks ago about Virginia's Mount Rogers and all the dead trees there, killed presumably by the pollution riding the jet stream from the midwest, raining down on these high peaks. The gist of the article was that while the death of the trees was undeniable, the exact reason or reasons why were still under active debate. Was it natural causes, perhaps, or combinations of ice storms, insects, and pollution? Scientists were unable to say for sure. So, the cure was nowhere in sight. As a friend who read the same article said, "the bullet has already left the gun," meaning that whatever was killing the trees was still actively at work on increasingly lower elevations and no remediation was even being begun.

If insects were killing the trees, did we have a cure? More likely, if pollution was killing the trees, did we have a plan for stopping it? In other words, would the widespread knowledge and acceptance that airborne pollutants from cars and power plants of the midwest ever cause us to make societal changes which would reduce them? No. Our society is building roads and factories and cars as fast or faster than ever before. We're building like there's no tomorrow. Is there no tomorrow?

Environmental destruction is nothing new for our species. Ninety nine percent of the Appalachian's forests have been cut at least once already, leaving ugly scars which took years to reforest. But this devastation is potentially much worse. This is a poisoning so pervasive that the forests might never recover, never being a relative term to the life-span of human existence.

We already know the rate of worldwide extinctions today is unprecedented on earth since the dinosaurs "bought the farm." These dinosaurs had a length tenure here, much greater than ours, yet they ceased to exist by some inexplicable cause. When will it be our turn for demise?

Sure, we're a resilient species, the most populous mammal on the planet (Yes, we overtook the brown rat several years ago.). We live at the highest and lowest, hottest and coolest, most hostile places of any species. We've shown amazing resourcefulness to rebound from disaster and plague, from war and famine and pestilence. Yet I think we're still vulnerable. So I wonder what will get us.

Will shrinking oil resources wreak havoc, when our farmers can't use more BTU's to grow our food than the food produces itself, and production worldwide plummets, leaving us all hungry?

Will global warming cause the oceans to rise a few inches, inundating our populous low-lying coasts and making storms devastating beyond all belief and precedence? Will hoards fleeing the flooded cities put impossible burdens on those of us who live inland?

Will a plague worse than AIDS take lives by the hundreds of millions?

Will international tensions on a shrinking world cause the dreaded nuclear winter, where enough nuclear bombs lift enough deadly particulate into the atmosphere to block the sun and bring year-long cold? With our species being is the most susceptible of all to radiation poisoning, will we radiate ourselves into oblivion?

With the time span for adding a new billion residents to the planet continues to shrink, the end cannot be too far distant.

I reach a viewpoint and scan the distant green blanketed mountains. A few points of orange and yellow, crimson and gold peek through the emerald, heralding the onset of autumn. Stunning! To the south and east, the mist which gives the Great Smokies to the south their name dances on the treetops. But to the north, a horizontal band of filth paints the sky. It is easy here to see the band of pollution drifting in, white below but with an iridescent yellow to purple layer above, the color of a bruise. Today's pollution, statistically speaking, is worse than yesterday's. Tomorrow's will be worse than today's. And so on, seemingly forever. Poison in the sky.

They say the first step towards an addict's recovery is recognition. "I am an alcoholic." Our species must say, "We're in trouble," before steps can be taken globally which will reverse the trouble. We're nowhere close.

So as we lumber towards the end of the second millennium since Christ, we face an uncertain future. Peruse statistics on population growth, on energy consumption, on global species extinction, on any measure of the health of our little spaceship earth floating in the void, and you'll see we're in for big trouble. My imagination, today, while my body is climbing this grand mountain, cannot possibly envision a plausible scenario by which our species will see the beginning of the third.

I rest, waiting for Jane to catch up. We sit together near the summit on a large open field of grass. The sun shines brightly, benignly, throwing light produced by its continuous hydrogen explosion, emitted 9 minutes earlier and 93 million miles away. My skin prickles under the intensity.

Humans won't see the year 3000, I'm convinced. How much damage we will do to the earth when we go down is the only question that remains, at least in my mind. For the sake of those species with which we share our spaceship, I hope the answer is "minimal." We owe them, the "less intelligent species" that have learned to live in harmony with the planet, at least that.