Ode to Place
The Case for Conservation
I did not know Senator Frank Church, but several years ago I did spend one afternoon talking with his wife, Bethine. She was a lovely lady: smart, thoughtful, warm, someone who sends you a handwritten thank you note for visiting, even though she was the host.
I had gone there to talk to her about her late husband, a man who, as a Democrat in the staunchly Republican state of Idaho—then and now—was reelected three times, serving a total of 24 years in the Senate (1956-1980). While Church focused much of his time in the Senate on foreign affairs, perhaps his most profound mark on America was his work in conservation. Church sponsored two bills that have had and will have effects long after any of our lives: the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Late in his senatorial career, Church was also instrumental in employing the former law to protect an enormous swath of the Northern Rockies—2.4 million acres—which now bears his name: the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness.
Most people in the U.S. have not seen this place, nor will they. It is rugged, distant, sometimes forbidding. But they should; a place like the Frank Church Wilderness changes people.
I suspect that most of us have a place, maybe two or three, that forms his character as much as parents and friends do. For me, that was Africa—I lived there as a child—and the Frank Church Wilderness. I have spent a good chunk of my adult life in the latter—guiding people down the rivers that run through it on their way to the Pacific.
I’ve often wondered what it is about wild places that is so compelling?
For one, entering a place like the Frank Church Wilderness demands giving up control—control of everything—which is sometimes exactly what we need. It is to enter a world in which the scale of time and physical dimension dwarfs anything we are familiar with. The Middle Fork of the Salmon drainage, for instance, which runs through the heart of the wilderness area, is estimated to be 2 million years old. People have been in that area for perhaps 8,500 years—which means for 1,991,500 years—life, death, change, and growth moved along swimmingly in that canyon without even an inkling of us.
I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times: men and women—forces in finance or politics or the arts—enter a place like that with swagger and hubris. But within a day or two, they have shed all that. They are humbled and awed by the scale of things. Rather than the stars of their own universe, they become observers, happy extras in a much bigger drama.
Then there is the beauty. Places in the natural world for which we feel affinity are often deemed “beautiful.” But what exactly makes them beautiful, and why does that resonate with us? What makes a cliff band more beautiful than the face of a skyscraper?
For me, the beauty resides in simplicity. The natural world is stripped down to basics: rocks, trees, soil, water, life, death. There are no human constructs like politics, money, or social stratification overlaid on it, constructs that can complicate our experience.
Some people equate simplicity with stasis. But spending time in wild places, one can’t help but sense he is in the real action of the world, that—albeit impossible—you are witnessing evolution at play. It is raw life unspooling, and there is a beauty in that.
After reading Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species,” Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s first naturalists said: “The development theory implies a greater vital force in Nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation.”
For anyone looking for religion in nature, there it is. And this from a guy who worked in a pencil factory.
That the Middle Fork of the Salmon has been snaking through the Idaho Batholith—an enormous granitic mass—for 2 million years and will likely be doing the same for another 2 million years is somehow comforting. It places us right in the middle of a seemingly endless arc of time. Some might consider that a sad blip of existence. I find it reassuring for some reason, that life carries on, even if it is not mine, nor my kids’, nor their kids’. It is a reality that imparts structure and stability to our otherwise mercurial existence in the civilized world.
Finally, there is the indifference. Go to a place like the Frank Church Wilderness and one can’t help but feel its indifference to human machinations of wish and whimsy. There are no judgements, prejudices; there is absolutely no subjectiveness in the natural world. It just is. And that is refreshing.
The irony of that indifference is not lost on me. Our connection to place wouldn’t be as deep without our human experiences there. I can’t go around a corner of the Middle Fork without thinking of a friend, a guest, something that happened—good or bad—in the past. They are all ghosts now. Some have died, others have moved on to different lives, others have just vanished. It is true, as Thomas Wolfe famously titled one of his novels, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” However, sometimes a place can evoke memories and senses such that the very essence of past experience can feel real—as if it were still happening. It is fleeting, but it’s undeniable.
Several years ago, I was on the big island of Hawaii running along a beach. When the sand ended in a rocky outcrop, I followed a trail inland and found myself in big open fields of tall dry grass and thorny trees. The air was drier than it was on the water. There were no houses, just an expanse of open land. I can’t explain it logically, but something about the smell of the grass and trees, the texture of the air, the spread of land in front of me—the feel of that place—conjured for me a very different time and place. I suddenly felt exactly as if I were in Kenya as a child—on the wide plains—a place I loved dearly and had lived as a 10-year-old decades earlier. It was so real and true to my memory; I just wanted to keep going, to hold that feeling a little bit longer. Every day I went back to that place, and I got the same rush of memory, that same feeling of connection. It was like a drug I couldn’t get enough of. When I ran back down to the beach each day, the feeling vaporized.
That deep yearning reminds me of a passage from another book, “The Sheltering Sky,” by Paul Bowles. In it, Kit is recalling something her husband, Port, had said before he knew he was dying of typhoid fever:
“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Yes, it’s a bit of a morbid sentiment. But as people go through life, they reach a tipping point when those thoughts enter their minds unbidden. I can’t say it’s unhealthy, just unsettling. But if you gird yourself for it, it can also be exhilarating: to look at things as if it were the last time you were going to see them.
Senator Church lived a relatively short life, only 60 years. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1984. On that warm afternoon having tea with his wife, I realized that Frank Church had understood the poignancy that resides at the intersection of our mortality and the exquisite beauty of a limitless natural world. Bethine recalled to me her husband’s dying, which was a protracted affair. Just a few weeks before his death, though, he was told that the River of No Return Wilderness would be named in his honor as the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. He said to his wife of 37 years, and friend for many more: “It was worth dying so long for.”