In February Mitt Romney told a newspaper in Nevada that he doesn’t know “what the purpose is” of this country’s expansive public lands. I am feeling a bit retrospective today, on a birthday, as my life marches ahead towards middle age. I’m considering what I have, what I love, and what I want, and I feel like rambling on. Public lands, from the county to the Federal level, are at the heart of much of it. Public lands have captured my imagination, helped me to form my identity both as an individual and as a citizen, set me on a career path, and have been the nucleus of my ethic and morality. The times I have shared with others in the public wilderness have been among my most treasured, pulling from some core ancient humanity that still resides in my heart, but that usually is buried deep beneath the daily clatter of the small things that necessarily dominate life in modern society.
When I was a little boy, I liked to look at maps and copy them. I dreamt about going places with high mountains, sand and cactus, oceans, and wildlife. I played in a little hillside pasture with a creek at its base at the shore of the great maize sea that could swallow me whole. My family moved to a larger town when I was older, and I would get on my bike and ride far out of town, because the lack of open sky was too confining. I stumbled across the prairie, tucked away behind a thicket of plum in the middle of flat central Iowa farmland—bronze indiangrass in late summer and Silphium standing shoulders above the surrounding cornfields. It was a giant sigh for me, an island in the monotony that Pioneer and Monsanto have given us. I can remember renting Zelda for Nintendo as a child and getting lost, wandering forever through a repeating and coarsely pixilated landscape. I put down the video games shortly after discovering them, but real life hadn’t seemed so different, and maybe that’s at the heart of society’s detachment these days. But I had just found beauty in that small county park. It was a transition from 8-bit to the true discerning capability of the human eye. My mind has been painting the texture and color of that small fragment and others like it over the landscape ever since, simultaneously filling my heart with the emptiness of what’s lost and the hope for what we have to gain. That still fuels my ambition.
After graduating from high school, my friend Amir and I packed some camping gear, got into my Corolla, and headed into the American West. There is nothing like the automobile to propel you away, through the matrix of torn earth and dying towns and into the great wide open. There was snow on the Rocky Mountains, the void of complete silence at the base of big red rock at Escalante-Grand Staircase, a 93-degree night in Death Valley, palms and orchids tucked away in a desert oasis. There were monuments to millions of years of wind, rain, and ice stretching out to the limits of perception. There was vastness and complexity. Everything from the horizon to the plants and stones at our feet were new.
Freedom means different things for different people. I am convinced that for about 50% of people freedom is right to be an ass. Freedom was something I felt profoundly that summer, and I have sought to repeat it since as often as money will allow. I was looking back through old photos and thinking back through some old memories this morning. So many pictures are from public lands—so many happy moments. I asked Beth to marry me on top of a peak in a public wilderness, and our honeymoon was spent kayaking on a national lakeshore. For me, the open, public, and relatively wild lands are fundamental to America. They embody what we’ve always had, and what we might strive cultivate moving forward. In enumerating the things I wish for my descendents to see, the wonders of our public lands are my most sacred hope. How dim the world would be, if all we had were fake things we make for ourselves—the geometric and monochromatic landscapes, cul-de-sacs, and fenced pastures. Think of the art, the literature, and the innovation that have been inspired by public lands—are the poets to write about gas wells, clear-cuts, and pollution haze? What would the tenor be, and where would possibility reside? Are our children to find the spirit of what is wild on a computer monitor? I want our children to grow in a country where the land lives in people’s dreams. Selfishly, I want to walk the mountains as an old man, and I want to revisit the places I love with the people I love. I don’t know if life has a point (and I don’t care too much), but beauty and ugliness are both real, and I value possibility of beauty over profit.