Let’s face it: the nexus of American nature writing resides in the mountains. To have hiked at a mile high—at least, but preferably twice that—and written about it is almost a required endeavor. Gary Ferguson has done this and more. He’s bona fide; he’ll make a good spokesperson. His trail-essay books come out of the tradition of an author-guide leading readers into wild areas for delight and instruction. Reading his Walking Down the Wild: A Journey through the Yellowstone Rockies or Through the Woods: A Journey through America’s Forests, for example, is like walking with a really smart companion who’s generous with his knowledge and patient with his listeners. And then there’s the ridiculous beauty of it all, the state of mind and body that approaches, as Ferguson slyly names it, “terminal bliss.” But of course where there’s bliss, despair resides as well. Both are waves that rise and fall, each doing damage in its own way.
What follows here is less a conversation than a spoken tableau from the previous century that introduces Gary Ferguson while perhaps shedding a little light on how we’ve gotten into such an environmental mess that our attention must be shifted to identifying what might still be around to save in twenty-five years or so. For the future of Earth’s current biomes, it’s too late.
Gary Ferguson: “Ultimately it was . . . images that I gathered as a child, that strange stewpot of fantasy and Kodachrome, that would direct much of my adult life. It was these images that drove me to study environmental science, that led me into my first job as a naturalist, that sent me running wide-eyed and open-mouthed up and down the Rocky Mountains for the last ten years, finally ending up on the doorstep of Yellowstone—one of the last truly wild places in America. . . . [This] same region that scientists have long proclaimed the ‘largest essentially intact temperate ecosystem in the world’ has literally dozens of separate identified threats to its integrity—a fact that in 1988 led the Wilderness Society to place Yellowstone Park on its list of the ten most endangered national parks in America.”
Milton Friedman, free-market maven, explaining that if Yellowstone is to continue as a wild place, it should be privatized: “[Current admission] charges do not cover the whole costs. If the public wants this kind of an activity enough to pay for it, private enterprises will have every incentive to provide such parks.”
Ferguson: “If history has any bearing on the future at all, it suggests that all lands not properly managed or protected now will be lost or severely degraded in the decades to come. How much longer can we ignore the ticking clock? How good will we become at squelching the notion that the passion and spirit of the land that nursed us for so much of our history was something of real value? For politicians who believe that federal lands ought to be little more than profit grounds for extractive industry, it’s as if it’s still 1880, and we’re all sixteen years old. . . . Collectively, they seem to be proving Tocqueville right. ‘I know of no country,’ he wrote of America in 1835, ‘where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.’”
Ronald Reagan, actor and president, opposing expansion of Redwood National Park: “You know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”
Ferguson: “The clear, gentle waters of Dry Creek are running through a fantasyscape of cornices and finely sculpted ice. Huddles of buff-colored rock pillars line much of the creek, most wearing derbies or top hats fashioned from the purest, whitest mounds of snow. The mature trees are thick, but in the full wash of sunlight they lend a stately rather than a somber look to the canyon. . . . I’ve always wanted to spend a winter night like John Muir did, snuggled in the deep cavities that lie beneath the branches of old conifers. I find a fir that fits the bill perfectly, and what’s more, offers an incredible view of Tom Miner Basin and Paradise Valley to the east and the immense, heroic-looking peaks of the Absarokas beyond. I build a small fire at the edge of my tree cave, have a bite to eat and a cup of tea, and settle back to wait for the rising of the moon.”
Lee Iacocca, CEO of Ford and Chrysler, opposing the 1970 Clean Air Act: “We’ve got to pause and ask ourselves: How much clean air do we need?”
Ferguson: “In another two miles, after a steep climb along a small cascade of icy water, the trail breaks out into the grand sweep of meadows that make up Abundance Basin. Getting to this point on the Stillwater Trail is a passage of sorts; from here you can almost feel the heart of the Beartooths—in the pulse of water dancing past mats of phlox and forget-me-nots, in the rise of subalpine fir, in the sudden chill that creeps down from the high plateaus with the setting sun.”
James Watt, Reagan’s Interior Secretary—selected by Time magazine as one of American history’s top ten worst cabinet members—explaining his premise and policies: (1) “My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.” (2) “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”
Tocqueville: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
Ferguson: “On our better days, as a culture we seem unwilling to give up entirely on the old notion that human personality is scoured and shaped, and ultimately made bright again, by the earth underfoot. That promise—though it may in one generation be slight, in another, brilliant—will no doubt continue to energize the struggle to imagine a richer, more layered vision of nature appropriate to modern times. . . . In the meantime, winds continue to rage and blizzards howl. Stray thoughts come to rest on this peak or that, feast and grow strong, run down the mountains fast and free as wolves.”
Gary Ferguson’s excerpts are taken from Walking Down the Wild: A Journey Through the Yellowstone Rockies (Simon & Shuster, 1993) and The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind (W.W. Norton, 2004).
Tocqueville on Americans and money is from The Tocqueville Reader (Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2002).
The Friedman quote is from Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago, 1962).
The three politicians’ quips are all over the internet and, as far as I can tell, not apocryphal.