1. Let’s begin with the hair follicles of Mr. Henry David Thoreau. You know the guy: he built a shack at Walden Pond, planted beans, read some books, communed with woodchucks and thunderstorms. His beard was sort of odd—most images I’ve seen show him with an Amish-style chinstrap—but I’ve put him on the list anyway. You’ve got to put Henry on the list.
2. Next comes John Muir, California’s iconic conservationist. His beard’s reputation is well established, so I will restrain my praise. I like to picture the two of them—the beard and the man—rambling for weeks on end in the High Sierra. When night falls they wrap themselves up and hunker down, sheltering one another. They carry no tent. No sleeping bag, either.
3. Walt Whitman once wrote, “I think I could turn and live with the animals.” Does he mean the squirrels and chickadees and hornets nesting six inches beneath his Adam’s apple? Surely his beard was a home, an ecosystem, a multifarious world teeming with life, like the world described in his poems.
4. Sorry friends, no beard on the original gaga-for-nature president, Teddy Roosevelt, just a ‘stache, but one so important to American conservation that it deserves a brief mention. Sometimes, when I’m drifting off to sleep, when dreams are close, I see it creeping over the lands it dearly loved, a bristly caterpillar crossing the Great Plains, ascending the Rockies, inching through the Yosemite Valley, heading westward toward the setting sun.
5. Let it be known that a list of such discernment and penetrating insight as the one you are now reading doesn’t just magically assemble itself while the list-maker is guzzling beer on a Friday night. Did Bob Marshall—Adirondack peak bagger, founder of the Wilderness Society—even have a beard? His is not a famous face, so I had to do some research. While clean-shaven much of the time, Bobby’s chin got busy in the back country. Points awarded for bushiness, twiggyness, and it being longer than the hair atop his head.
6. The facial hair of our most cantankerous nature writer, Edward Abbey, aka Cactus Ed, aka Dr. Scraggly, is yet another example of beard-man hybridization—and of spirit, too. When I’ve sat too long at the computer, when I sense my soul withering and puckering and curling at the edges, I listen for the voice behind the pelage. It’s full of piss and vinegar and sandstone and desert sky and adoration of all things wild, free, uncut, unkempt.
7. By now you’ve probably noticed that there’s something missing from this list. Here’s the problem: most women don’t grow beards, ample or otherwise. I studied damn near fifty photos of Rachel Carson—shots from all angles, in all types of light—and never once in her life, whether as a young marine biologist or as a grandmotherly hawk-saving badass, did she sport even the wispiest of goatees. The same can be said for Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mary Austin, Mary Oliver, Ann Zwinger, Annie Dillard, and countless other forceful, tender, inspiring humans. So, in solidarity with these heroes of mine, and to emphasize that it is not the beard but rather the beating heart that loves our sweet blessed earth, I hereby sharpen my razor and lather my jaw. After many months of slow growth, yes, the day has at last arrived to shave the sucker off.
What about the countless beardless indigenous forcefully moved in order to make way for bearded European immigrants to create a conservation movement?
You surely did not mean to be so harsh,
But omitted good old George Perkins Marsh.
And if TR’s mustache rates your menu,
Give some credit to pal Gifford Pinchot.
While no whiskers ever adorned her neck,
Please remember climber Annie Smith Peck.
I could continue till glaciers grace Hell,
But leave you with furry Gerald Durrell.
If anyone belongs on this list it’s John Burroughs, whose beard was once and should still be even more iconic than his friend Muir’s though perhaps never quite as reknowned as that of Whitman’s, the friend and muse he’s most closely associated with.
A most obvious candidate is Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize poet, author, teacher, Zen master and model for living in harmony here on our home Turtle Island.
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