Meditational rant on the word "pristine"


This morning my local radio station aired an ad which referred to the natural environments of California's North Coast. It was for an outdoor store; listeners were encouraged to enjoy our regions river, beaches and pristine mountain tops.

This really gets my goat. I've been on most of those mountain tops over the past 35 years and I can tell you that I have never been on one that fit the proper definition of the word pristine. Here is that definition:     pris·tine (pr s t n , pr -st n ). adj. 1. a. Remaining in a pure state; uncorrupted by civilization. b. Remaining free from dirt or decay; clean.

Every one of the mountaintops I've been on had dirt on them....if only on the surface of snow. Many had and have the remains of old fire lookouts; most have sticks or piles of rocks erected by prior climbers; some have prayer seats constructed by indigenous folks.

The misuse of the term "pristine" is, of course, not limited to mountaintops. I've heard it used, for example, time and again to describe Northwest California's Salmon River. While that river remains one of the least disturbed in California it has been subjected to major alteration during the mining era, major clearcutting and road building during the rape and pillage era (aka the 50s, 60s and 70s) and to assaults and insults at the hands of  so-called "recreational" miners and "recreational" boaters (not to mention legal and illegal fisherpersons) during the present, post-modern era. The Cal Salmon remains a wonderful river but even Wooley Creek - the major tributary which since 1964 has been mostly protected as part of the Marble Mountain Wilderness - is not pristine.   

What is it about the word "pristine" and whence comes the pervasive compulsion to misuse it? I suspect the explanation involves a combination of desire and denial. We WANT our favorite places to be pristine and we are in denial about the fact that our use of these places (not to mention past uses) have rendered them less than pristine. On the darker side there is the desire to distinguish our place from other places and to convince others (especially members of Congress and donors to conservation campaigns) that our special place is better than the special places of others.   

Of course the term pristine has antonyms. They include:  injured, hurt, spoiled, dented, scratched, smashed, broken, impaired, marred, beat-up.  I could use any of those words to confidently (but not completely) describe the Cal Salmon River as well as many beautiful mountaintops.

Back in 1975 I stood on the summit of Denali. It was wonderful to be on the summit of The Great One but, like most famous mountaintops, the summit was definitely not pristine. 

Let's face it folks: there are no pristine places.

The good news is that these are our places. We can treat them with the respect they deserve; we can preserve, protect and restore them. The fact that these special places are not pristine need not hinder our appreciation of the earth's myriad special places or our love of the places especially special to us. 

We can  become part of our special places and they can become part of us. The term pristine has no relevance to this relationship.


A great rant
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Apr 30, 2010 10:52 AM

    "Amen" to this rant about the misuse of the word "pristine." There are no "pristine" places, but something in the human psyche craves them, and so the market delivers.

    Several years ago, I was driving from Gunnison to Crested Butte, and a real-estate sign caught my eye. A ranch was for sale, and the sign said it had "pristine hay meadows."

    Sure the meadows were gorgeous -- emerald green beneath an azure sky with gray hills rising in back. But those meadows were the result of a lot of hard human labor, from grubbing sagebrush in the 19th century to irrigating in the 21st. Those meadows were as much a result of human construction as the pickup I was driving.

    "Pristine" also pops up often in the on-going local controversy about Christo's "Over the River" project. Opponents have said that the temporary suspension of translucent fabric panels over the Arkansas River will destroy the "pristine" valley between Salida and Canon City.

    That valley has a highway and a railroad. It is lined with old quarries and kilns. It has its fair share of tourist shops that sell everything from rocks to rafting trips.

    The corridor is still quite scenic, but it's about as pristine as Britney Spears.

    Felice is right. Let's quit worrying about whether places are "pristine" (with the implication that this makes them worth caring about) and instead respect them for what they are.

Jamal Lyksett
Jamal Lyksett
May 03, 2010 10:07 AM
The original post and reply are spot on. The notion that some places are "pristine" has become dangerous as we look for ways to secure them for now and for the future. Rather, being honest about our relationship with the places we love, recognizing both good and bad, helps encourage a more authentic understanding of what these places are and who we are. When we search, as Ed's reply points out, for "pristine" places we are following an urge toward what is "real," but in ignoring our previous and current encounters with these places we are only encounter something false.
Michael Kauffmann
Michael Kauffmann
Jun 09, 2010 10:03 AM
I enjoyed the rant in the comfort of my disheveled office but when in the wilds I still prefer to pretend that the environment is as it should be (at least from certain angles). Maybe that is my naiveté but it is what I need every once and a enhance my appreciation.