In 1995, when we first asked Marc Reisner to write an article for High Country News, we didn't know what to expect (HCN, 3/20/95: The fight for reclamation). Would the man who had changed how America thought about dams and reservoirs accept suggestions from an editor of a small paper in a small town in western Colorado?
We need not have worried.
Reisner may have written Cadillac Desert: The American
West and its Disappearing Water, and thereby shown that
his pen was more powerful than the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and
the Western congressional delegation. But when we told him his
first draft needed changes, he rewrote immediately, without
complaint. He was a professional and a craftsman, but he was more
than that, and it showed in his life after Cadillac
With its publication in 1986,
Marc could have spent his professional life repeating the themes of
federal waste, environmental destruction, and inhuman treatment of
Indians. He had brought those subjects to life, and educated tens
of millions of people.
But however much he may
have loved rivers, Marc Reisner was incapable of drifting, either
professionally or with the prevailing ideological current. When
some rice farmers in California convinced him that they could
create migratory bird habitat, he became their public ally (HCN,
10/27/97: Deconstructing the age of dams). If it would help the
birds, Marc was willing to modify the party line that he himself
had helped create about growing rice in an arid
Very few people work as freelance
writers, because it is such hard work. Marc made his living that
way, not because he was a masochist, but because - and I'm guessing
here - he would not make what he saw as a larger sacrifice. He
would not subject himself to the bureaucracy and the ideological
constraints of working for any of the outfits that would have loved
to have him. He would serve on boards, he would be a visiting
professor, he would raise money to save wildlife, but he wouldn't
join a staff.
So to remain independent, he
hustled to earn a living while saving fish and creating bird
habitat. When cancer struck, and he decided that in addition to
doing good, family obligations required him to also do well, he
entered water marketing in the frank hope of making a lot of money
while advancing conservation. I'm sure he knew what some of his
fellow environmentalists would say. And he may even have cared. But
not enough to stop him from doing what he had decided he should do.
Marc Reisner was 51 when he died. His death is a
terrible loss, because he was that most valuable of beings: a
person who thought for himself and followed his own counsel. And,
thereby, he acted as a leader for many of us.
send our condolences to his wife, Lawrie Mott, who is a biochemist
with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and his two daughters,
Ruthie and Margot.