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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Time Waits for No One

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Alston Chase brings up the point that humans do not live very long compared to boulders and rivers, and questions our capacity for stewardship of these ancient forces in our relatively brief lifetime.


CURWOOD: For all that we argue over how best to protect the land, individually we spend very little time on the planet. Even the longest-lived of us may only last 120 years on Earth, barely enough time for a river to shave a boulder. As writer Alston Chase points out, no matter how great our commitment, time will overtake us all.

CHASE: Is loving the Earth enough? The poet Gary Snyder observed that stewardship also requires faithfulness. Before we can take care of a place, he said, we must resolve to live on it 10,000 years.

But such commitment isn't easy. I know. Twenty-four years ago my wife Diana and I gave up our teaching jobs and went to live in an old log homestead in remote Montana, determined to stay there until we died. Our place had no telephone or electricity. The nearest town was 55 miles away and the closest neighbor 10. Alone, we enjoyed the company of wild animals who called this their home, and who always seemed surprised to find us among them.

But despite our intentions, eventually lack of money forced us to sell the ranch. And this disappointment, we learned, was not unique. Our predecessors, too, had planned to stay, but ultimately were forced to leave. In the 1920s this was a bustling ranch community. And earlier, Blackfoot Indians had pitched tipis near the coolie where homesteaders later built the cabin in which we lived. These successive generations breathed life into the land.

But one by one they died, were killed or driven out, got too old or went broke, and the land emptied. By the time we arrived only a handful remained. People come and go and only the earth endures. Returning recently I found that nearly everyone we had known there was gone, casualties of an economy which now has no use for those who live on the land. I wondered: who will be the stewards now?

I hiked into the canyon. Every pebble under my feet seemed exactly as it was in 1972, when our family scampered down the trail for the first time. Shadows of cliffs hung like curtains across the floodplain. I didn't want to leave. Stopping by the river I came on the grass-roofed hut belonging to an old trapper we had known named Scott Allen. It may half-buried in silt by a flood. The earth was slowly reclaiming his legacy. Scott had died more than a decade before, but his pots and pans stood by the stove as though he had just stepped outside for a minute.

CURWOOD: Alston Chase lives and writes in Montana. His most recent book, In A Dark Wood, is published by Houghton Mifflin.



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