Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A mountain by any other name


There is a saying that words have meaning but names have power. Whether the power resides in the name itself or in the power to confer a name is a significant matter, especially if the name is controversial, and changing a name almost always is.

At this writing a bill is making its way through Congress to change the name of North Palisade, a 14,242-foot Sierra Nevada peak near Big Pine, Calif., to Brower Palisade, in honor of the great environmental activist David Brower, who died in 2000 at the age of 88. Brower, one of the 20th century's greatest and most effective defenders of the integrity of the earth and its environmental quality, could be cantankerous, stubborn and divisive, and he sometimes made critics out of his natural allies. But there is no question that naming a great peak to honor the man and the environmental values he embodied is a fitting tribute, especially in this time of global warming and increasing pollution of water, air and land.

I have a deep admiration for David Brower and like the sound of the name Brower Palisade, but many mountaineers and residents of the east side of the Sierra Nevada view North Palisade (the fourth highest point in California) as an icon of history and tradition. They do not approve of the name change and do not appreciate the fact that California Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both liberals and from the Bay Area, introduced the bill without any local hearings on the conservative east side. They are not going to roll over and allow the name change without a fight, a fuss and a furor.

And I don't blame them.

And I don't believe David Brower would blame them either. He would likely encourage them to fight for their own environment, and the power of a name is part of that environment. Brower would likely be pleased that his admirers want to name a peak for him, but it is questionable whether he would approve the high-handed, politically based process. And, since he climbed North Palisade in 1933, it could be argued that he liked the name just the way it is.

And doesn't the U.S. Senate have more pressing matters at the moment?

Great mountains, including North Palisade, have had their names changed before. North Palisade was originally named in 1864. In 1879 it was renamed Dusy's Peak after a local rancher/photographer. In 1895 it became Jordan Peak to honor the president of Stanford University. And in 1903 it resumed its original name, which it still has but will have to fight to keep. Using the word "original" is done in full awareness that the indigenous people of California likely had a different name for the peak long before the English language invaded the state.

The highest point in North America is known as Mount McKinley to much of the world, but to climbers and Alaskans it is called "Denali," the original Athabascan name, meaning "The Great One." For a couple of years in the late 1880s it was known as Densmore's Mountain after a gold prospector, but, as so often happens, political/economic considerations intervened and Bill Dickey, a gold prospector, managed to give it the name McKinley. Though McKinley had never been to Alaska, he was a presidential candidate who supported the gold standard. McKinley's opponent, William Jennings Bryan, supported the silver standard. Naming the mountain had nothing to do with honoring McKinley, or, for that matter, the mountain, but, rather was a bit of PR to keep the price of gold higher than silver. The state of Alaska officially recognizes the name Denali, as do most climbers and virtually all local citizens.

The highest point on earth is commonly known as Mount Everest, named by the British in 1857 after Sir George Everest, who first established the height of his namesake mountain. Most people don't know that the highest point on earth has been called Sagarmatha on the Nepalese side of the mountain and Chomolungma on the Tibeten side for many centuries, and is known as such today by local citizens in both places.

The obscure U.S. Board on Geographic Names is responsible for the place names used by the federal government, including all the names of peaks, rivers, streams, hills, islands, passes and even ditches. The board's guidelines discourage name changes, especially "high mountain peaks," and preference of names is to be given to "present-day local usage whenever possible." Only Congress can override the decisions of the Board on Geographic Names and change the name of North Palisade, and that's where the California senators and the Brower Palisade bill enter. It is impossible to decipher all the political machinations driving this obscure and emotionally charged (among both supporters and detractors) bill, but the name of Brower is the gold standard among environmental activists at high levels of American politics. At this writing I would bet the bill will pass, and if it does, Brower Palisade will still be known as North Palisade among locals on the east side of the Sierra and by many mountaineers.

Glen Dawson, 96, was a friend of Brower's, climbed with him and fought in World War II with him. He summed it up best in a quote from Mike Anton in the Los Angeles Times: "I feel a certain personal debt to David Brower. I'm not going to take a (public) position. But I am puzzled: Of all the peaks out there, why did they choose North Palisade?"

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