“I am glad that I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Of all the wise and wonderful things that Aldo Leopold had to say in “A Sand County Almanac,” those are the words that have stayed with me since I first read it nearly 50 years ago. Even then, in my callow youth, I thought I understood right away what Leopold was talking about.
Growing up in Montana, one cannot avoid being touched by the wildness. Whether we spend all our waking moments scheming about when and where the next adventure in the hills or on the river will be, or whether we bide most of our time in town, our lives here have always been affected by the natural world that surrounds us. On a piece of ground as vast, varied and sparsely populated as Montana, there’s no way around it.
I know few people in this part of the world, city-bound or not, who do not stop in their tracks to gaze skyward when a noisy skein of geese passes overhead, or crane their necks in a moving car to catch a glimpse of an osprey nest or a red-tailed hawk soaring, or stop during their daily toils to gaze at a herd of elk grazing the slopes above town. After all, it is that natural world that has for generations shaped our communities, our economies, our social lives, our leisure, a healthy hunk of our political discourse and our imaginations. And it is that beautiful, wild, natural world around us that many believe sets our home apart.
For those fortunate enough to have been born here or to have found a home in this place later in life, the land provides generously with mystery, joy, physical challenge, refuge and solace.
If you grew up here, it is easy to hark back to the “good old days” and rue their loss. Perhaps you remember when the rivers weren’t crowded and you could get permission to hunt or fish almost anywhere with a simple knock on a door. Back then, you could camp where you pleased, cook over an open fire any old place, keep a limit of trout without an iota of guilt and find a good chicken-fried steak with cream gravy in any greasy spoon in the state.
If you became a Montanan more recently, the “good old days” may be the days before fishing outfitters began to show up west of the Divide, or the days before local columnists committed sacrilege and actually mentioned the “skwala hatch,” destroying a well-kept secret and causing crowds of fly casters to rush to the heretofore uncrowded rivers. Or, maybe the line between the “good” past and the “not so good” present is delineated by the time between when you built your house and the date someone else built on the hill above you.
Whatever the case, it is easy now to look at the great river valleys, the mountains and grassy plains of our state and despair at all we have lost or are about to lose. The faces of our communities and the lands that surround them continue to change before our eyes. The demands we make of our natural surroundings increase while the capacity of nature to meet those demands dwindles. Most of us, in some way, daily demonstrate our blindness to the insults we inflict on the air, water, land and living things.
It is easy to think that the sky is falling and there is nothing we can do about it.
But when I start thinking that way, I have to stop myself and remember it is only a little over 40 years since that first Earth Day celebration, when all across the country, folks reawakened to the notion that we are stewards of this Earth that blesses us so richly. And I have to remind myself of all the things that have happened since then that demonstrate a commitment to better protect the vital wildness of this natural world that sustains us.
I am talking about wild nature from the most magnificent of the towering redwoods that stand guard in the fog of the Northern California coast, to salamanders that haunt the damp dark woods of New Hampshire, to fairy shrimp that suddenly appear after drenching rains fill a pothole on a sandstone rimrock in eastern Montana, and of course everything else that lives and breathes on this planet by the grace of clean air, clean water and rich, productive soil.
Sometimes, when I begin to feel particularly pessimistic about the future of this old Earth, I pull out the box of letters I have saved over the years from readers kind enough to share a memory or thought about what it means to live amid such beauty and wild abundance. One of those letters, written two decades ago now, is from friend Janet, who wrote to me about her regular visits to Missoula’s North Hills.
“Every time I go to these hills, I find evidence of God’s grace, whether it be in the joyful song of the returning meadowlark, the shiny, yellow sweetness of the first buttercups, or the spectacular view of the other grand mountains that surround Missoula.”
Those words remind me that, regardless of what one’s religious inclinations may be, our human connection with the natural world goes way beyond the business of providing for our physical needs, and does indeed provide for our spiritual health in equal or greater measure.
Last weekend’s Earth Day and this Earth Week have prompted me to reflect on all this and to feel a renewed sense of gratitude to all who get up every morning to work tirelessly to protect those blank spots on the map, the waters that run through them, and the plants and animals that live upon them, enriching us all in the process.
In the foreword to “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold wrote: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.”
I don’t believe that.
I think we all need a little of that wildness in our lives and our souls.
Every day should be Earth Day.
And, by the way, next week, April 28 to May 5, is Missoula’s 21st annual Bike Walk Bus Week. It’s a good thing.
Greg Tollefson is a freelance Missoula writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.