‘Death is stingless indeed and as beautiful as life’
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 deceased.
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 friend.
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 harmony."
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.
In 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.
Michael Frome is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Port Washington, Wisconsin, and his most recent book is Greenspeak: 50 Years of Environmental Muckraking and Advocacy.