For 60 years, J. David Love explored the West's geology

 

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears field ecologist, my then-husband and I were posted to a Forest Service work center 50 miles southwest of Cody, Wyoming, where the road ends in the remote Absaroka Range. Our only human neighbors were the absentee owners of a nearby ranch, and for a few weeks, a raucous bunch of field geologists camped like gypsies.

 

 

Their chief was a tall, animated fellow with a shock of white hair, ruddy skin, and twinkling blue eyes. He led by example, not by dress or manner. When the geologists gathered around their campfire at night to trade tales about the day's fieldwork, his was the voice that commanded attention: His questions were thoughtful, his observations wide-ranging and insightful, the breadth of his knowledge inspiring, and his jokes - dreadful.

 

 

His name was J. David Love, and I learned later that he was the West's pre-eminent field geologist, a man who devoted his life to traipsing the most difficult landscapes of the Rocky Mountains in order to unravel their stories. I didn't see Love again until two years later, when he and a colleague came to Cody for another mapping project and camped on my front lawn. We spent a couple of evenings swapping stories about geology and field ecology, and became friends.

 

 

David Love was born in 1913 in Riverton, Wyo., the closest town to his family's scrubland ranch, which he liked to say was 100 miles from wood, water and women. The ranch is so isolated that it gives its name to a USGS quadrangle map.

 

 

He went to college at the University of Wyoming, and then to Yale for his Ph.D. For his thesis research, he picked a 500-square-mile area of Wyoming's Absaroka mountains, at that time a literal blank spot on the map of the West. What he learned in crawling up and over those steep-walled ridges and broad, windswept plateaus would revolutionize our understanding of an entire geologic period, the Tertiary.

 

 

During World War II, he mapped and mined vanadium used in shipbuilding. In the early 1950s, he discovered major uranium deposits in sight of his family's ranch. But David Love's greatest work was parsing out the geologic history of the Teton Range and by extension, that of the entire Rocky Mountains. Beginning in 1934, when he was an undergraduate, he spent over six decades exploring every bump and wrinkle and ridge around Jackson Hole with a rock hammer, figuring out how that complex, glorious landscape came to be.

 

 

His life could, and did, fill a book, Rising from the Plains, written by New Yorker writer John McPhee as the part of a Pulitzer-prize-winning series on the geology of North America.

 

 

I don't think his thirst for knowledge was ever quenched. "Why do the bull elk and bighorn rams - only the males - never the females, mind you, gather before mating season to eat dirt on that shale outcrop above the Gros Ventre River?" he once asked me. "Were they missing some mineral they need for their sexual prowess, and if so, what was it?"

 

 

He believed in the value of scientific knowledge as a route to the understanding of and passion for Western landscapes. He grieved about environmental damage, from the destruction of the watershed of his family's ranch by uranium mining, to the plumes that spew pollution miles downwind of coal-fired power plants.

 

 

He treated me like a colleague even when I was a beginner and he had 40 years of field experience; he cheered me on when I left science for writing; he believed in me when I did not. You have a gift, he'd say when I faltered, use it. Generosity combined with a challenge was characteristic of David Love.

 

 

He passed up the chance to make millions from his uranium discoveries, preferring to practice science for a government salary; he sidestepped promotions, preferring to stay in the field where the real work was. He delivered hundreds of talks and donated the honorariums to environmental organizations. When he and his wife, Jane, also a geologist, sold their summer place in Jackson Hole, they gave an acre of the property to build affordable housing.

 

 

David Love died Aug. 23, at age 89. His family plans to trek to a remote site in the Absaroka Range to scatter his ashes. Next summer, I hope to return to those high, windswept plateaus to sit with David one last time. Then I'll go back to my writing, unraveling the stories of the landscapes he taught me to know and love.

 

Susan Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a writer and naturalist in Salida, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]