It's a bitter cold November night here at 9,000 feet along my stretch of the Continental Divide in southwestern Colorado. The coyotes are barking right under my bedroom window, the elk bugled at sunset for more than an hour, and the bald eagle who makes his home in my hay barn every other winter arrived back from wherever it is he summers these days. The thermometer is edging toward the crosshatch that says zero and the only thing on the floor between my body and the wood stove is a pile of new books about places--some of them even wilder than this--and the creatures who inhabit them.
The Amazon, Canada's Northwest Passage, Mono Lake, the Mississippi River, Mt. Ktaadn, the Arctic Circle, the Colorado River, America's wetlands, the Mexican Sierra, the Pacific Ocean floor. And this is only a short list, the smallest sampling of the landscapes these books investigate, discover, revisit, revere. Another list, even longer, forms in my head as I read them, a list less celebratory and more urgent of all the plants, animals and cultures who are vanishing from these landscapes at a staggering rate: the Sonoran pronghorn, the woodland caribou, the Florida panther, the Stellar sea lion, the western prairie fringed orchid, the black-footed ferret, the Hawaiian stilt, the whooping crane, the California condor, the manatee, the bone cave harvestman, the Coffin Indians, and Mexico's Tarahumara, to name only a few. One out of every four of the 30 million species on Earth may be extinct by 2050, a staggering 300 lost species per day.
Our first responsibility to the land is to know it, to gain knowledge of what is precious in it, to allow the land itself to move us toward a lifestyle that sustains rather than annihilates whole species, whole cultures, whole landscapes and, ultimately, ourselves. The books in front of me are filled with heartbreakingly beautiful photographs and good words written by the people who have been asking us for years to pay attention--Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Wallace Stegner, Gretel Ehrlich and a hundred more--and now they are demanding it. Know this place, they say, and this one and this one; know it and love it, for in an instant it will be gone.
My favorite book in the stack is one called Northwest Passage, which combines Robert Ketchum's light-loving mind-bending photographs of our continent's northernmost wilderness with Barry Lopez's honest words about our relationship to it.
Because mankind can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive. He must learn restraint. He must derive some other, wiser way of behaving toward the land. Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that for centuries he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer.
We need wild places because they teach us how to surrender to something larger than ourselves, the way we must learn to surrender in love or in our work if we are to be successful at our lives. The land is our truest mirror, reflecting our image to us every time we open our eyes and look outside. It knows more about us than we know about ourselves. If we alter it beyond recognition, we relinquish our access to the place we have come from, to all that we have been in the past and all that we were meant to become. The books in front of me remind me of my responsibility to the land, remind me that acting on its behalf is acting on my own, remind me of the deep pleasure that informed action always brings.
"In a simple bow from the waist before the nest of a horned lark," Lopez writes, "you are able to stake your life, again, in what you dream."
Outside my window a moon--two days past full--is rising and making the headwaters of the Rio Grande sparkle like it is daytime and I understand for the hundredth time this week how much I need this wildness around me, how everything inside of me would go freeze-dried and hopeless without it. I also understand that at any moment a decision could be made by any number of people--most who have never even seen this land--to tame it and sell it, to take it away. Inside, next to the wood stove, one of the last 17 red wolves stares at me from the pages of The Company We Keep and I want to say, "Buy this book." I want to say, "Buy all of them." Find out which 300 species we will lose today, which 300 we will lose tomorrow. Find out what's wild inside you. Hurry! Change the world! Change your life!
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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY NORTHWEST PASSAGE photographs by Robert Glenn Ketchum with commentary by Barry Lopez. (Aperture: $45, 212 pp.)
BIG SKY COUNTRY: The Best of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho. Photographs by Michael Melford with an introduction by William Kittredge. (Rizzoli: $60, 176 pp.)
CALL OF THE RIVER: Writings and Photographs selected and edited by Page Stegner. (Harcourt Brace: $19.95, 99 pp.)
A HISTORY OF MOUNTAIN CLIMBING by Roger Frison-Roche and Sylvain Jouty. (Flammarion: $45, 335 pp.)
SAVING THE OCEANS general editor Joseph MacInnis. (Firefly/World Wildlife Fund: $40, 180 pp.)
STORM OVER MONO: The Mono Lake Battle and the California Water Future by John Hart. California: $29.95, 210 pp.)
UNDERWATER WILDERNESS: Life in America's National Marine Sanctuaries and Reserves by Charles Seaborn. (Roberts Rinehart Publishers: $29.95, 192 pp.)
THE COMPANY WE KEEP by
Doug Chadwick. (National Geographic : $xx, xxpp.)
And Bear in Mind:
THE NATURE COMPANY GUIDES: Weather by William J. Burroughs, Bob Crowder, Ted Robertson, Eleanor Vallier-Talbot, Richard Whitaker. (Time Life Books: 288 pp.)
THE WORLD OF THE WOLF by Candace Savage. (Sierra Club: $27.50, 114 pp.)
ORCA: Visions of the Killer Whale by Peter Knudtson. (Sierra Club Books: $27.50, 110 pp.)