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“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?”

For some reason, of all the wise and wonderful things that Aldo Leopold had to say in “A Sand County Almanac”, those are the words that have stuck with me over the years.

I knew right away what he was talking about.

Each April, when Earth Day and Earth Week roll around, and, not by accident, I suspect, we also note with some gratitude the birthday of the visionary naturalist John Muir, Leopold’s words stir dreams and memories of wild places and the adventures found and shared there over more decades than I care to acknowledge sometimes.

Growing up in a place like Montana, it would be impossible to avoid, in some way or another, being touched or influenced by the wild land that surrounds us. Whether we spend all our waking moments scheming about where and when the next adventure in the hills or on the river is going to take place, or whether we bide all of our time in town and perhaps never even sling on a pack and start up a trail, our lives are affected by the natural world that surrounds us. On a piece of ground as vast and varied and sparsely populated as Montana is, there’s no way around it.

Who would not stop to make a ring around this magnificent pine tree? (Thank you Kristi DuBoise)

Who would not stop to make a ring around this magnificent pine tree? (Thank you Kristi DuBoise)

I know of few people in this part of the world, city-bound or not, who would not stop in their tracks on a street corner to look up in wonder at a skein of honking geese passing overhead, or crane their necks in a speeding car to catch a glimpse of an osprey nest or a red-tailed hawk soaring, or stop for a while to look at a herd of elk grazing the slopes above town. It is, after all, 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 has set us apart from much of the rest of this country and all those who so rarely have the opportunity to escape the concrete jungles and asphalt deserts of the built world.

For those of us lucky enough to have been born here, and for those fortunate enough to have found a home in this place later in life, the land has provided us all generously with adventure, joy, awe, solace and mystery.

If you did grow up here, it is easy to hark back to the “good old days” and rue the changes that have come to the land. Perhaps you remember when the rivers weren’t crowded and a simple knock on the door could get you permission to hunt or fish almost anywhere. Back then, you could camp where you pleased, you could cook over an open fire any old place, you could keep a limit of trout without an iota of guilt, and you really could find a good chicken-fried steak with cream gravy in almost any cafe in the state.

If you came more recently, the “good old days” may be the days before fishing outfitters began to show up west of the Continental 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 perhaps the line between the “good” past and the “not so good” present is delineated by the time between when you built your house on the hill and the date someone else built one on the hill above you.

Whatever the case, it is easy, now, to look out over our towns and our river valleys, our mountains and our state, and despair at all that we have lost, or are about to lose. The faces of our communities, and the lands that surround them are changing at a dizzying rate. Sometimes the whole landscape seems to be nothing but twenty-acre ranchettes and streamside palaces. The demands we make of our natural surroundings are increasing while the capacity of nature to meet those demands dwindles. It is real easy to think that the sky is falling, and there is nothing we can do about it.

When I start thinking that way, I have to stop to reflect for a moment on all that has happened since that first Earth Day was celebrated these 45 years ago now, that demonstrate our growing awareness of how fragile and vital that wildness that sustains us really is and the determination of so many to safeguard To do that, of course, I have to ignore, for the moment, the growing threats to the health and welfare of the natural world that appear from all fronts and proliferate like a cancer across the globe. That’s just for a moment, I hope you understand.

For that moment, I want to think about the people in our community and the people all over the world who so long ago realized that we humans were changing and contributing enormously to the degradation of the natural world upon which all life depends. And in coming to that realization, conservation moved from the shadows to the sunlight as a global imperative, and though we humans stumble and backslide and lose ground, the struggle to protect the natural world of which we are a part and on which we are totally dependent goes on every day in small ways and large.

All connected by the water

All connected by the water

And we can see the fruits of those labors and efforts at conservation everywhere we choose to look in Montana. Sometimes it is only the lack of change we need to notice, like the absence of the Allen Spur dam once proposed for the Yellowstone River. Or the continued absence of the long proposed and monumentally ill-conceived Tongue River Railroad knifing through the family farms and ranches of the Tongue River Valley, one of the last places where a little bit of the old West still exists in Montana amid a rich and beautiful landscape. The fact that there is no dam on the Yellowstone is due in large part to the efforts of people who recognized what could be lost and were determined to prevent it. The same goes for the Tongue River Railroad so far, but that shadow still hovers threateningly over southeastern Montana.

Closer to home, we see two great rivers once ravaged by the hand of man and the effects of hard rock mining and other careless and short-sighted uses of the land, now being brought back to life by the determined efforts of people and groups who would not be denied in their efforts.

The Big Blackfoot River has risen from the near-dead because of the hard work of so many groups that have rallied to the cause and it now serves as model for community conservation efforts. If memory serves, that effort all began with the formation of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and now has grown beyond that and has resulted in the highly-regarded collaborative organization known as the Blackfoot Challenge.

One of the benefits of healthy rivers, Slat's birthday trout!

One of the benefits of healthy rivers, Slats’ birthday trout!

Not too long ago, the Clark Fork River ran red with toxic sediment and flowed virtually lifeless to its confluence with the Big Blackfoot at the site of the former Milltown Dam. That dam is only a memory now, and every day, that river inches closer and closer to the healthy cold-water fishery it once was. The first group that comes to mind when one considers the slow and steady resurrection of the Clark Fork is the Clark Fork Coalition.

One of the other benefits .Ahhh...there he goes.

One of the other benefits .Ahhh…there he goes.

And here in our town, all one has to do is step outside and look toward the slopes around town or the river corridors through town to see and appreciate what people have had the vision and foresight to protect. The open slopes of Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, the South Hills and parts of the North Hills are testimony to the vision and commitment of the people of Missoula through the work of the Five Valleys Land Trust and other groups to assure that generations to come will continue to reap the benefits of ready access to the beauty and wonder of the natural world around them.

 

When I think about that landscape that huddles around our town, Missoula, I often think about a letter I got from friend Janet many years ago during the community-wide effort to acquire and protect Mount Jumbo. That was at a time when people still sent little notes to each other once in a while, complete with a stamp and everything, She wrote: “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.”

When I remember her words, I am reminded of the fact that Janet, and hundreds of other people around our community and state are working tirelessly to protect those “blank spots on the map”, the waters that run through them, and the plants and animals that live upon them, that have given shape and substance to all of our lives.

In the forward to “A Sand County Almanac”, Leopold suggests, “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 wilderness in our lives, and in our souls.

I feel the same way.

Earth Week, and every other week, too, are good times to remember that.

4 Comments

  1. well said, as always.

  2. Well said. I am a transplant but Montana has stolen my heart and soul.

  3. Pingback: How To Catch More & Bigger Trout Virtually Every Time You Go Fishing | 7Wins.eu

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