A SENSE OF PLACE
A Personal Odyssey of Local Discovery
I was born and raised in Challis, Idaho. Challis lies in the middle of a vast series of mountain ranges and is bordered to the north and west by the Idaho Batholith, a land that was once called the Idaho Primitive Area and later became the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in honor of Frank Church, who fought hard to make the Central Idaho Wilderness Act a reality. I tentatively explored the dry hills near town as a boy and took my first plane ride into the Flying “B” along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River to visit family at five. The wide-open spaces around home called out to me, but then there was school, work and all the distractions of modern life and exploring these natural spaces in earnest never occurred. After high school I enrolled at the University of Idaho where I studied political science. In 1980 I applied for and was accepted to work as a legislative intern for Senator James McClure. Little did I know that this legislative opportunity would lead me closer and not farther away from home and the natural spaces that define it.
My first impression of Washington D.C. was an olfactory one; the Capitol building smelled like paper money. The place was a hive of activity. Like an ant pile underground corridors connected monolithic structures. Miniature trains transported people to and fro and there where elevators, some reserved only for the congressmen and women, to lift them upwards and downwards. I gave tours of the Capitol building to visiting VIP’s. I enjoyed learning the history, appreciating the artwork and sharing it. I shied away from and found no joy in dredging up “political facts” to share with the senator’s constituents. It was an election year, perhaps one of the most pivotal in US history. Senator Frank Church lost his bid for re-election and Ronald Reagan was elected president. The tide turned red. I heard former Idaho governor Cecil Andrus describe at a Frank Church Wilderness Symposium how the work that was done to create the Central Idaho Wilderness Act, (Andrus at the time was serving as President Carter’s Secretary of the Interior), continued right up to the last minute before Reagan was sworn in as the new president. Andrus and others knew if the act wasn’t signed into law it might never be.
I went to Washington in 1980 knowing very little about Idaho politics in general and even less about the specifics of the Central Idaho Wilderness Act, but I “knew” the land that was to become the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Many of my family had worked and lived within the boundaries of what became the “Church”. My great grandparents, Will & Mae Sullivan worked as the Little Creek guards in the 1940’s. A great, great uncle, Ted Dellen, died trying to cross the Middle Fork during spring run-off in the early 1900’s. His body was recovered and is buried just downstream from the mouth of Survey Creek on the Middle Fork. My great uncle Bill Sullivan Jr. managed the Flying “B” Ranch in the 1960’s. My relatives had stories to tell and I was all ears. I made these stories my own and I took this generational sense of place with me to Washington.
Senator McClure let me take his place at the Central Idaho Wilderness Act conference committee. A conference committee is a committee of the Congress appointed by the House of Representatives and Senate to resolve disagreements on a particular bill. Conference committees can be extremely contentious and this one was no exception. I did not understand sitting in this small room amid obviously impassioned men and women why they were fighting so hard to pass or not to pass legislation on land that seemed so far removed from their stories. These politicians did not share stories of places that had become integral parts of their lives and that motivated them to set aside similar places to inspire others, instead they offered facts and figures to make claims for or against more or less land to be included in the act. I didn’t understand. They were using their heads instead of their hearts to conserve land.
I left Washington disillusioned. I went there wanting to become a politician and I returned not knowing where to go, what to do or who to become. I drifted for a number of years. I explored the river bottom that meanders through Round Valley. I walked the dry hills of home and I traveled to Italy and other parts of Europe in search of self. I returned to the University of Idaho in 1988 to further my education and in 1988 I began my first season working for the Challis National Forest at Indian Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area.
As I look back at my life’s course it seems destiny played a hand in my working in the “Church”; that I was destined to realize what benefit open, undeveloped land offers and to share this understanding with others. Perhaps when I attended that conference committee in 1980 I vowed to understand the passion behind the legislation?
I enjoyed my new job at Indian Creek. I enjoyed relative solitude early spring and late fall. Solitude gave me time to explore and discover the land around me and the quiet necessary to begin listening to and turning off the internal dialogue. I had no tv, radio or computer. As my appreciation for the Middle Fork’s wild land grew, so did my appreciation of the works of poets and writers who shared their relationship with wild places, Gary Snyder in particular.
“Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
Placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
In space and time:…”
…taken from Snyder’s poem Riprap
I’m a social animal; I love interacting with others and my job at Indian Creek brought me into contact with people from all over the US and world. I felt impelled to share my understanding of what a trip down the Middle Fork could offer and overtime developed a “break the bubble” talk to convey my newfound sense of place. Most of the people who came to visit the “Church” did so unaware of the opportunity a Middle Fork float trip had to offer. For many, a trip down the Middle Fork was “the thing to do”. They brought a bubble of the outside world with them and floated down the river encased within and not venturing out. It was an invisible bubble to be sure, but it insulated them from the greater, untrammeled wildness without. We are social animals who enjoy each other’s company, who tend to stay within the “safe” confines of folk , fire and the familiar. I recommended the river recreationists break the bubble to explore the area alone. I urged the boaters to be aware of the greater impact they had on the “Church” by traveling there by plane and with outfitters who cater to their every need. I encouraged them to take the experience they gained from a trip through the “Church” back with them to the places they call home. I urged them to appreciate the natural processes occurring where they spend most of their time. As an urban species we crave the wide-open spaces of the wilds. We are unconsciously drawn to them and when we are unaware of the consequences of our need for breathing space and how we choose to visit these last remaining refuges; we can love them to death. If we jump start the process of reconnecting with the green, viable ecosystems still remaining and take the experience back home and start appreciating the wildness where we live, then we can make more livable the spaces we inhabit and reduce our need for those wild areas we’ve set aside. Visiting an apparently wild place like the “Church” requires that we walk within its confines as a deer or cougar does, with attention and skill, to do otherwise increases the impact we have on the land and de-values the experience.
“I don’t know.”
I still remember the deliberate, careful and considerate way Vincent Ponzo responded to a question put to him by a boater. Vincent worked with me at Indian Creek as an American Indian interpreter. Shoshone was his first language. It was through Vincent that I gained my first experience of a living/breathing Native American culture, the Shoshone-Bannock culture. It was difficult at times to relate to him and his way of communicating, but the more I tried the better able I became. I had become proficient at knowing the names of the birds, trees, ungulates, fish and flowers people would see as they traveled down river. I had done my best to educate the visitors in the traditional Western European way, but here was a local understanding thousands of years deep; an understanding gained from living and experiencing a place, not one based on learning words and repeating them. Many people refused to take the time to adapt themselves to Vincent and his way. They wanted to “know” the Middle Fork in the way they had become accustomed to know places. Vincent taught me the significance of not knowing. There is real value in approaching life in the spirit of “not knowing”. Not knowing opens us to heightened awareness and guides us to a keener sense of being: the water, the trees, the flowers, the water flowing, the sky…
I left Indian Creek in 2006 with a deep sense of place. It remains and sustains. Is it true that “in wilderness is our salvation”, or are these last remaining wild places just playgrounds? Maybe another, broader conference committee needs convened, wherein indigenous people from all places meet to consider a world wildness act-a courageous act of exploring the deepest possible relationship we can have with apparently wild places and those, less apparently wild places we call home.
Since leaving Indian Creek and my work with the US Forest Service, I have taken the advice I gave to the boaters to heart and I am transforming the place I call home-making it more life sustaining. These past five years I have gardened. My maternal grandfather was an avid gardener and his example quickened a latent desire of my own to someday also become one. Several, long-time friends, who share a mutual love of gardening equally inspired me to someday work the soil and their examples still resonate in the work I do. If I were to define the type of gardening I do, then I would most probably call it biodynamic perma-culture. I mulch extensively using leaves collected by the city workers in the fall. I use biodynamic preparations in our compost piles and garden. I allow plants to go to seed and then I allow some of the volunteers to grow. The volunteers have a certain vitality. It is as if they adapt to our particular biosphere. Their presence also give the garden a wild aspect that delights and enables me to see that I am a co-creator. The forces that are in play in the garden are also forces that are in play within me. Birds, reptiles, insects and mammals of all shapes and sizes seek refuge in our garden. I tend the garden and the garden tends me. I no longer feel the need to escape to a more apparently wild place to recharge. I can stay at home and do the same.
Every spring wins me over and the spring of 2006 was no exception. I went looking for shed antlers like I did most springs at Indian Creek. I loved walking the steep hills, narrow creek bottoms full of willow, hawthorn, dogwood and service berry. The tree covered north slopes were damp, steep and full of surprises: buried elk carcasses, nesting raptors, bears, cougars and early evening…the hermit thrush’s flute-like serenade. I had found many elk and mule deer antlers over the years, but this year I found a full-curled Rocky Mountain ram’s head. I’d come full circle. I knew when I found the ram’s head that my decision to leave Indian Creek was a good one. Life was calling and it was time to venture on. At the time I didn’t know that I was being called to garden and to practice what I was preaching, but here I am.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
Live along some distant day into the answer.”
Rainer Maria Rilke