Tom Watkins has left us, but his Western dream remains

  Tom Watkins, another pathfinder, has passed from the campfire circle.


"He was a strong, clear and important voice backed by a good old-fashioned Rooseveltian-Ickesian liberal heart," says Bozeman writer David Quammen. "Now we're all older and more alone again, as we knew we were when Ed Abbey died."


T.H. Watkins died last week from cancer at age 63, after being diagnosed just a handful of weeks earlier.


As a writer and teacher and concerned citizen and father and husband and consummate agitator - and true believer in representative democracy - the West was Tom's source and his beat.


While his contribution to Western literature is substantial - including The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, The Hungry Years, and The Great Depression: America in the 1930s - it is the reliability of his ongoing commentary that will be missed most.


From here in Bozeman, his pieces were heeded by the Clinton administration, by Republicans in Congress, by wonks in think tanks and leaders of major conservation organizations.


It is fitting, if not ironic, that one of the last significant stories Tom ever wrote was for the venerable National Geographic about the legacy of the 1872 hard-rock mining law. The longtime editor of the Wilderness Society magazine, Tom was no stranger to magazines.


A product of the Southern California desert, he was raised on the romantic image of the hard-rock miner who was eternally, it seemed, on the cusp of striking it rich. Prosperity in the West, Tom would say, has always been based on a fleeting promise.


As a young man, he was romanced by the history of mining, admitting that it wasn't until late in his career that he comprehended the profound implications of the industrial earthmoving which had replaced the pick and shovel. He saw the 1872 Mining Law as an emblem of obsolete frontier values.


"Leaving Nevada, I thought about those dead lakes shining in the desert sun, the dead birds I had seen in Spokane, the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines still leaking poisons into the West's water, the sprawling chemical filth of the flats below the Anaconda smelter stack, the blowouts that still corrupt rivers and water tables.


"At what ultimate cost, I finally wondered, have we held so fiercely to this antique (mining) law, dreaming the long dream of treasure that I once saluted with such enthusiasm?"


Today, Tom would tell us, the West is being sold a dream again, only this time it's not minerals being pulled from the ground but asphalt being laid across it.


In 1998, Tom finally came home to assume the newly created Wallace Stegner Chair of Western Studies at Montana State University.


Yet he had more humble ambitions - to live a quiet, peaceful life in semi-retirement at the foot of the Rockies, writing and traveling with his beloved wife, Joan, retracing the footsteps of Wallace Stegner for the Stegner biography he was compiling, and most importantly, reaching out a hand of encouragement to young people at a land-grant institution.


Tom believed that writing well was the foundation of personal understanding, that like native petroglyphs chiseled into stone, finely crafted words are pieces of humanity that never die.


Todd Wilkinson lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Todd Wilkinson