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Martin Litton, force of nature. An appreciation.

Uploaded: Dec 17, 2014
Obscured within a mother lode of trivia that makes up the daily data deluge, I almost missed the fact that the earth lost one of its giants recently. Ironically, it was a social media post from my longtime friend (and First Kiss, truth be known and TMI be damned) Mindy, who knew him from the river-running company he founded and she helps manage. Martin Litton proceeded to that Great Wilderness Beyond on December 2nd, at 97. He was the mortal embodiment of Seuss' Lorax:

"I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I'm asking you, sir, at the top if my lungs"-
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
"What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"

A native Californian, Litton spoke for the rivers, too, and the canyons and mountains ? indeed for the concept of wilderness as a finite, irreplaceable and intrinsically precious resource. He knew it was under constant, conscious and unconscious pressure from all the Thneed-makers:

"Look, Lorax," I said." There's no cause for alarm.
I chopped just one tree. I am doing no harm.
I'm being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed.
A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!
? The Lorax said, "Sir! You are crazy with greed."

His activism started early. In college at UCLA, he founded a group to resist CalTrans' plans to carve roadways through the southern Sierra ? namely Kearsarge Pass in the King's Canyon back country. They were largely successful, although I'm told the route remains on the agency's drawing boards.

Litton fought in World War II as a glider pilot in Europe, a particularly risky and demanding assignment. He became an environmental journalist upon his return, joining the ranks of luminaries like Wallace Stegner, Marc Reisner and Edward Abbey, who fiercely defended the American wild West, and espoused Nature's inherent value.

He was travel editor at Sunset Magazine in the 1950s and '60s, but his real calling was advocacy. Litton and David Brower were allies and both were sometime Board members of the Sierra Club. Litton tired of the inclusive, bottom-up processes of the latter, however ? they slowed him down. He was pivotal in defeating Disney's proposed ski resort in the Mineral King region of the Sierra.

In that fight, he rubbed shoulders with Justice William O. Douglas, another noted conservationist. The Mineral King project was the occasion for a noteworthy Supreme Court case (Sierra Club v. Morton), in which Douglas dissented in his famous "should trees have standing (to sue)" opinion. Nobody remembers what Potter Stewart wrote for the majority, but any law student can recall Douglas' powerful conception that nature has its own protectable interests: "The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes - ? who are dependent on it ? The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."

Although he was also a central figure in the creation of the gorgeous Redwoods National Park in our far northstate, rivers were Litton's biggest passion -- especially the Colorado, through the Grand Canyon and upstream. He and Brower consistently battled the Army Corps of Engineers ? winning some (like a massive proposed edifice within the national park), and losing some (Glen Canyon Dam, in particular). The latter remains a very sore subject among environmentalists, and appears to be confirming fears of rapid silting-in behind it from its four unruly tributary rivers.

Litton was a bold, imposing and irascible presence. Mindy recalls meeting and dining with him: "Words truly escaped me in the face of Martin's presence. I am lucky to have known him?" Recognizing that when the wild places go, they're gone forever, there was very little compromise in his approaches. They were full-on assaults. "When you compromise, you lose. When you compromise nature, it's gone. It is damaged, and you never get anything back. Ever." Another admirer opined "he was cantankerous and combative -- but it was always for The Cause. People say 'rest-in-peace' but he won't. He'd hate that."

Litton continued to run the Colorado well into his 90s, in the wooden dories he preferred over inflatables. His favorite boat was dubbed The Sequoia. He continued to act as guardian of rivers and redwoods, right to the end.

"The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance...
? as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I'll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word...'UNLESS.'"

The Grand Canyon, and indeed all our natural wild wonders are under daily assault, whether from so-called extreme bungee jumpers in the Arches of Utah, or huckster 'developers' who build cheap-thrill/see-through walkways over the void, and want to run gondolas into the abyss from just beyond Park boundaries.

"Unless," indeed. We owe a deep debt to Martin Litton, and Brower, Douglas and many other departing members of the Greatest Generation. Who will step-in and fill the chasm left by his passing? Perhaps we can't be Litton, but we can care enough to appreciate and honor his considerable legacy in our own lives. In small ways, everyone can plant a truffula tree:

"The word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It's not.
SO... Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back."
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Cholo, a resident of Pleasanton Middle School,
on Dec 18, 2014 at 3:03 pm


Posted by Derek, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 19, 2014 at 3:58 pm

We need a million more Litton's and a million less Koch brothers.
Litton was never afraid to speak his mind, to hurt feelings, to step on toes that needed crushing. Today all we get is mamby-pamby diplomats.

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