I was over 80 when I found myself in a college classroom with 20-year-olds, wondering how to bridge the age gap and teach them something useful about the conservation movement in America and my role in it.
I began by remarking that it
must be hard for them to believe that I was once their age. But it
was true, I assured them. And not only that: One day, they would be
my age — if they managed to stay alive long enough.
That is where I start my memoir, the story of my life’s
adventures, which I have lately completed and anticipate seeing in
print in a year. Yes, I expect to last at least another year, but
that isn’t the point. The point is that my involvement and
activism over the past 50 years have kept me alive, and even
optimistic. Working for wilderness and a wholesome environment, and
for peace and social justice, has been very good for me.
One of my early influences was reading The Autobiography
of Lincoln Steffens when I was in high school. Steffens
was the foremost of the muckrakers, the intrepid early 20th century
investigative journalists. A strong and principled reporter, he
exposed wrongdoers in American society. Even now, this book stands
above all others in the field of journalism. It teaches the student
to be resourceful, and not to flinch from reporting it like it is.
Later, as a journalist in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s,
I saw many stories that were not being covered but needed to be.
One evening, I listened to an impressive speech by Gaylord Nelson,
then a new Democratic senator from Wisconsin. Nelson warned that
the conservation of lakes, streams and other natural resources was
the nation’s most crucial domestic issue. But to find a
report of his remarks in the Washington Post, I had to look to the
bottom of the obituary page; it was buried under the names of the
That wasn’t right. I wanted the public to
hear stories like this. And I wanted to be a part of them, a part
of what was going on in a remarkable time, rich in landmark
legislation designed to protect wilderness, rivers, trails,
endangered plants and animals, and clean air and water.
Through perseverance and good fortune, I contributed many articles,
essays and columns on environmental topics to newspapers and
magazines over the years. I wrote books as well. I followed my
heroes, authors and editors who were activists, such as Paul
Brooks, Rachel Carson, Bernard DeVoto, Richard Neuberger, and
Wallace Stegner; and journalists such as John Oakes, who became
editor of the New York Times’ editorial page, and a good
It wasn’t easy; far from it. My critiques
of overcutting and clear-cutting in our public and private forests
led to my dismissal as a columnist for American Forests magazine. A
few years later, I was fired as conservation editor of Field &
Stream magazine, because I kept decrying the power and influence of
the logging, grazing, mining, hydropower and real estate industries
in the management of public lands. But I discovered that each time
one door closed to me, another door would open. I came to believe
that, in our democratic society, avenues of communication would
always be open.
The older I grew, the more I loved my
work. I found pleasure in digging deeper, and in learning through
research and reading. I found wisdom where I least expected it, as
in Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable: "News becomes
merely a new noise in the mind, briefly replacing the noise that
went before it and yielding to the noise that comes after it, so
that eventually everything blends into the same monotonous and
meaningless rumor. News? There is so much news that there is no
room left for the true tidings, the ‘Good News,’ THE
GREAT JOY ..."
In the last chapter of my memoir, I write
about walking alone with my thoughts, which turn to the ultimate
end of my life on earth. But I am not fearful, or filled with
foreboding — nothing like it. My season of harvest has
stimulated alertness, remembrance, and a comprehensive way of
viewing life. When I think of dying, I remember the words of my old
hero, John Muir:
"But let children walk with Nature, let
them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life,
their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows,
plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will
learn that death is stingless indeed and as beautiful as life, and
that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine
I think of my friend Sigurd Olson, and of how
he lived and died. He was robust in his youth, working as a teacher
and as a guide in the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota,
before becoming a writer and wilderness advocate.
1980, at the age of 80, he underwent an operation for cancer. He
was pretty weak for a while and walked with a cane. On a bright
January morning in 1982, he was feeling better. He went to his desk
and began typing: "A new adventure is coming up, and I’m sure
it will be a good one." Then he went snowshoeing, and suffered a
heart attack; he collapsed in the snow, and died soon after.
Today, I am more than three years older than he was then,
and I am plainly vulnerable. But I remember my encounter with those
young people in the classroom. I ended that talk with a round of
advice. I told those students: Do more than simply fight for the
preservation of the natural world. Cultivate friendships, I said,
and nourish a sense of humor. Be of good cheer. There is always
another adventure coming up.