Montana author tells Steamboat audience about the ‘desire and loyalty’ that fuel the power of wilderness
November 11, 2014
Steamboat Springs — The prolific author Gary Ferguson came to Steamboat Springs on Monday night to talk about his theory of human kind's spiritual connection to wilderness and to read from his latest book. "The Carry Home — Lessons from the American Wilderness,” is based on a five-segment journey to spread the ashes of his first wife, Jane, in the landscapes that were most sacred to her.
Ferguson lives in Red Lodge, Montana, just a short drive from the base of Beartooth Pass leading to perhaps the most dramatic entrance to Yellowstone National Park. He knows Yellowstone like few others; his 2003 book, "Hawk's Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone," is based on three months of hiking deep in the interior of the park.
Ferguson's approach to wilderness is analytical and profoundly personal. Ferguson told his audience how America had to overcome the deep-seated puritan "mythology that there is evil in unkempt lands," to finally embrace (with the help of indigenous Americans) the sanctity of wild places.
Reading from "The Carry Home," Ferguson described walking out his back door on a clear winter night and being swept away by watching the constellations "Orion and Libra come rolling over head."
"This is the power of wilderness," he said. "It is so important right now. It's important for scientific reasons and because of climate change. But those things really depend on a fuel — the commitment, desire, loyalty and husbandry fed by our love affair with wild places."
Wilderness is a source of the community, beauty and mystery that Ferguson said are essential to human beings.
The analytical side of Ferguson thinks that "treating land well is the cornerstone of American Democracy," and to make that point with his Steamboat audience, he shared the story of how landscape painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson influenced Congress in late 1871 to create the United States’ first national park.
It was the beginning of June 1871 that the federally-funded Hayden Geologic and Geographic Expedition, led by Ferdinand Hayden, mapped Yellowstone and returned to Washington, D.C., with photographs by Jackson and watercolor paintings by Moran that captured the imagination of both houses of Congress.
Soon after Hayden's return in December 1871, a bill to create a park out of an area measuring 55 by 65 miles at the headwaters of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers was introduced into both legislative houses. The law that protected Yellowstone was signed by March 1872.
Yet, it would be another 92 years before the federal government recognized the concept of wilderness. Ferguson said he was a boy of 8 growing up amid the corn fields of Indiana in August 1964, when America's Wilderness Act was passed in unanimity by the U.S. Senate and with just one dissenter in the House of Representatives.
"In 1964, nature was on the run," he said. "We were using (millions of) pounds of DDT in the eastern half of the U.S. In the spring, the smell of dioxin was in the corn and soy bean fields around Indiana."
"Outrage over those kinds of things fueled interest in the wilderness movement," Ferguson said. "The Wilderness Act was about what we were going to say to future generations."
As a youth, Ferguson already had his own dreams of escaping the Midwest for a taste of wilderness.
"I was 13 years old when I made plans to ride my Sears purple Stingray (style) bike to Colorado," Ferguson recalled.
He was crushed when his parents informed him that he wasn't going to Colorado on his own.
Eventually, Ferguson found his way west and pursued many wilderness expeditions including the tragic 2005 trip down a river in Ontario that claimed the life of Jane.
"The Carry Home" shares his most personal trip through the wilderness of grief and its resolution.