Discover more from Taking Bearings
The Untrammeled Beach: Taking Bearings (The Field Trip) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #11
Some anecdotes about origins.
A few prefatory words
I’m so glad you have found Taking Bearings. If you are not already a subscriber, please sign up for a weekly issue, and if you want to know my plan behind this newsletter, you can read The Inaugural Issue.
If you know someone else who might enjoy this, please spread the word: forward the email, share the link, post on social media. I’d love to increase the readership.
This week we return to The Field Trip. And I'm thinking about past moments that touch on origins. Read on!
A Rough Start
When I was still an undergraduate, I joined the American Society for Environmental History. Eventually, at its regular meetings, I made close friends and good memories; however, my first ASEH meeting started rocky.
I was presenting some of my dissertation research—mostly about a protest hike by conservationists in 1958—on a panel who included a commenter whose career had been as an environmentalist. Retired then, he had done good work over many years and considered himself something of a historian by virtue of having lived so much history.
But as a young graduate student, I had been mildly critical in my account of environmentalists. (If you don't know, this is what graduate students mainly do: they criticize.) I do not recall being either unfair or particularly brutal. But this was 2000, and we were all in the midst of criticizing the idea of wilderness and the shortsightedness of environmentalists in their campaigns to protect it.
When it came time to deliver his comments, this august man rebuked my analysis, or me; it was hard to tell which. This was one of my first professional presentations, and I felt chastened and put in my place and a bit flattened.
When the ordeal ended, I sat for a moment trying to collect myself, stuffing my bag with papers and notes and frustrations.
Then, an elderly woman came up to me and said, “You made a mistake.” Oh no, I fretted, here we go again. “David Brower [the Sierra Club Executive Director at the time] wasn’t on the hike. We invited him, but he couldn’t make it. I’m Polly Dyer.” My eyes widened. Dyer had organized the protest hike I had just presented on. She then handed me a few relevant materials, thanked me, and walked on. That meeting changed the tenor of my experience. I (mostly) forgot about the cranky, self-centered man and remembered the kind, generous woman.
Within the Northwest conservation community, Polly Dyer looms large. But much of the public, even within the environmental community, has never heard about her. However, Dyer is responsible for something many people do know; they just don’t realize it originated with her.
Dyer loved wild places, and the Olympic Peninsula held a special place for her. She enjoyed hiking Olympic National Park’s forests and beaches and sharing this amazing place with others in conservation.
In the 1950s, the wilderness movement built momentum. Howard Zahniser, the Executive Secretary of the Wilderness Society, tried drafting legislation that would protect wild areas, but he struggled with how to precisely define “wilderness.” On a trip to Seattle, Zahniser met with Dyer. She enthused about the Pacific Coast stretch of Olympic National Park, describing it as “untrammeled.” The word struck a chord in Zahniser’s nimble mind, and he adopted it as his definition for wilderness.
Zahniser knew from firsthand experience that none of those characteristics would have been accurate. "Untrammeled" meant to Zahniser a place where nature dominated. It may have been altered, even damaged, by grazing or mining, but it might heal in time.
The dictionary says untrammeled means unconfined.
I like to think of it as “not bound up.”
The 1958 Olympic Beach Hike
The beach that so inspired Dyer had been the subject of the research I’d shared at the meeting, although I hadn't learned the unntrammeled backstory yet.
I was writing a dissertation about Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent conservationist, who, in 1958 led a hike along that wild Pacific coast with others, including Dyer and Zahniser, who loved untrammeled places. The National Park Service, along with Olympic Peninsula boosters, were considering building a road that would skirt close to the beach and increase tourist traffic to local communities.
Douglas and the others objected to a road disturbing the quiet solitude of a wilderness beach. And when a Supreme Court Justice leads a three-day “walking national town meeting,” as Dyer characterized it, journalists and the public take notice. This was Douglas’s gift: bringing important attention to conservation crises at a time when few avenues existed to debate such proposals within governing structures. Eventually legislation and new rules changed that, but that day of reckoning lay in the future.
After three days on the trail, Douglas walked off Rialto Beach only to meet two counterprotesters: a father and son. The adult headed Washington’s automobile association and favored driving along the coast to walking a rugged beach. The duo held signs that spoke great volumes:
We own this park, too. We want a shore line road.
Fifty million U.S. auto owners and their families like scenery, too!
Super Highways for 47 states but primitive areas for us.
Bird watcher go home.
Justice Douglas disagreed mildly and wished those two had joined the hike. It 1958 was not 2022, so Twitter contretemps and performative combat did not erupt. Still, this confrontation, captured on film and in newsprint, helped make the hike and protest newsworthy and legitimate. Dyer crowed about how the protesters made their day!
I learned about this hike in 1998 or 1999, and it helped make Douglas an appealing subject for my dissertation and later book. I researched the event in archives and newspapers and other accounts where they existed. I wrote a book chapter that included a bit on the hike. Then, I wrote the dissertation. After that, the 1958 Olympic Beach was a key part to an academic article. Then, of course, it appeared in my book on Douglas. I spoke about it several times after that first time in the presence of the esteemed conservationist who disliked my approach and Dyer. I’ve even written an op-ed where this episode is featured centrally.
But I did not walk on the beach until 2019.
Late one morning in early June, I turned off the highway in Forks, Washington, and wound down a road between the Sol Duc and Bogachiel Rivers until they merged into the Quillayute that spilled into the Pacific Ocean at La Push.
The sun shone brightly. But the coast in early June is not a warm place, and big trees hug the shore with shade. Pale driftwood and some standing dead trees starkly contrasted with the dark green conifers lined up just beyond the beach. I realized, there in the chill shadows, that I walked through the scene of 1958. I imagined Douglas and Dyer and Zahniser and that young boy holding signs next to his father.
When I retrace historical footsteps, the past reverberates across decades.
At the beach that day, the tide was powerful, and mist floated above the tideline. Rocks and islands rose offshore. The beach was dark, hard, loud, not soft or serene.
But, without question, lovely and untrammeled.
In reconstructing the story of the Douglas hike, I read many, many sources over the years. The most complete version I tell is in my book The Environmental Justice: William O. Douglas and American Conservation. For Zahniser's use of untrammeled, see Mark Harvey, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act. Polly Dyer appears in a chapter of Dee Arntz's Extraordinary Women Conservationists of Washington: Mothers of Nature (unfortunately, there are numerous minor factual errors in the account).
In May 2014, on the 75th anniversary of Justice Douglas's appointment to the Supreme Court, I spoke at the Court—one of the highlights of my career. I slightly reworked that speech into this article, which offers an overview of his conservation career (and my thinking on it):
As a reminder, for those in the Seattle area, I have a book signing on October 20th at Third Place Books at the Lake Forest Park store. I hope to see you there:
Adam M. Sowards presents 'Making America's Public Lands' and 'An Open Pit Visible from the Moon' | Third Place Books — www.thirdplacebooks.com What makes wilderness wild? What does America have to do with it?
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week, we return to the Columbia Basin and my reflections on an old novel that will help bring alive last week's issue.
As always, thank you for reading and please share.