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.


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