« Return to this article

Know the West

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.