The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness
The end came for Jane, and so for us, at the edge of spring, when the leaves of the
north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green. A color she said
always reminded her of a certain crayon in the old Crayola 64 boxes she had as a kid –
one labeled simply “yellow green” - a clumsy name with no hint of the promise it held,
which was like an early thought of summer before summer gets quickened by the sun. I
was struck by how easily, how routinely she made such connections, coupling little
shards of nature she found as an adult to some encounter when she was young. For her,
then, wild country was a way in – a means of inciting the sweet startle of childhood.
Over our twenty-five years together, I came to learn such magic, too.
But with her death on the Kopka River I was suddenly senseless, trying to
remember how it all works. I’d find myself in some early memory of my own, when
nature was first nudging my heart. But the memory was brittle, like a great creature gone
extinct, surviving only in some museum exhibit – a Java tiger, an Atlas bear. Something
formerly amazing, but now just a stiff swatch of fur propped up behind a pane of glass.
And I doubted the world could spin out something so compelling ever again.
* * * *
We were born at the back forty of the baby boom, in the corn and the rust; Jane in
the farm country of southern Indiana, me in the blue collar bricks and smokestacks of the
north. Like a million other kids, we ended up squeezing our halcyon days out of loose
meanderings through flutters of nature – city parks and stray wood lots, cattail marshes
and hedge rows and creek banks. Living spring through fall with wind-tossed hair and
Only later did we come to realize the extent to which we’d been wandering in
jagged, reckless times - times when nature was going to ruin. As I was climbing up sugar
maples along the sidewalks of South Bend, Indiana, forty-five minutes to the west, near
the town of Gary, U.S. Steel was every day dumping seventy-five tons of oil, ammonia,
mercury, phenols, and cyanide into the Calumet River. Before long it started catching
fire. Women living near that river, mostly poor African-American women, were in the
1960’s and 70’s giving birth to babies deformed by mercury poisoning. Meanwhile their
husbands and brothers and fathers and sons were coming home every day from working
at the steel plants, stopping in some worn patch of grass outside the back door to spit dark
spatters of coke dust.
By 1964 my brother and I could be found knotting hickory sticks into toy boats
with pieces of string, then tossing them into lines of ditch water sheeted with DDT. To
this day I can recall that certain sweet, heavy tang that hung in the air every spring - the
smell of dioxin and phenols – some of it coming from the corn fields around town, more
still oozing from the boat channels to the southeast, where we sometimes went
Meanwhile, north of where we lived, at a Dow plant in Midland, Michigan, those same chemicals were being mixed with jet fuel, poured into fifty-five gallon drums, and shipped to Viet Nam as agent orange.
Down in the southern part of the state, where Jane lived, nature wasn’t faring all
that much better. During her senior year of high school, Secretary of Agriculture Earl
Butz arrived at her family’s farm, announcing to the Stewarts and their neighbors that the
time had come to plant “fence row to fence row.” It would take just two years for the last
corners of mystery and modest disorder in that part of rural Indiana – those fabled
Midwestern hedgerows, final holdouts for the fox and hooded warbler and raccoon – to
all but disappear, plowed under to make way for still more corn and soybeans. One day
out with Jane’s dad on a slow drive around the farm, I listened to him tell how the
wildlife he’d hunted as a boy to put food on the table had nearly vanished. Turkeys,
opossums, game birds. Mostly gone.
“Get big,” Earl Butz said to him in 1973. “Or get out.”
* * * *
Foremost on our minds in those years was the hope that the last of America’s big,
unfettered landscapes might help us sustain the open-heartedness of youth; that
encounters with the wild might yield some measure of light we could use to clarify a path
through adulthood. We figured there were still lots of places where such things could
happen: in the hickory hills of the Appalachians, or the jack pine of the North Woods. In
the ice-blasted granite crags of northern New England, or the big redwoods of the West Coast. And if not there, then surely in the sagebrush deserts and aspen forests, the fastdancing
rivers and wind-blasted peaks of the Rockies.
A lot of our optimism was fed by the fact that, despite the brutal assault on nature
going on when we were young – indeed, maybe because of it – there’d come on its heels
an unqualified explosion of green reverie. We were eight years old when Congress passed
the Wilderness Act – enshrining the hugely radical idea that land had intrinsic worth
beyond what humans could extract from it – doing so with a unanimous vote in the
Senate and only a single dissent in the House. Six years later U.S. Senator Gaylord
Nelson unfurled Earth Day, drawing some twenty million people into the nation’s streets
and parks to show a little love for the home planet. Soon Richard Nixon would establish
the Environmental Protection Agency; and not long afterward, put his signing pen to the
Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Protection Act.
By the time we entered high school in 1970, the outdoor education movement was
exploding, along with hundreds of adventure programs like the National Outdoor
Leadership School and Outward Bound. And from Oregon to North Carolina, California
to Tennessee, thousands of young back-to-the-landers were running for the hills with
copies of the Whole Earth Catalog or Bradford Angier’s We Like it Wild stuffed into their
packs, about to run out a stupendously naïve, utterly spectacular quest to find some way
to live closer to ground. All of it playing against a soundtrack of Canned Heat “going up
the country,” Marvin Gaye, with his melancholy lament for the state of the planet in
Mercy Mercy Me, Neil Young, droning in that eerie falsetto about mother nature being on
run in the nineteen seventies.
* * * *
Curiously, thirty years before we were born, another Hoosier from South Bend, a
young beat poet named Kenneth Rexroth, took a good look around the Midwest and
shook his head. There was nothing left in the way of mythology, he grumbled. Nothing to
take the place “of the gods and goddesses and heroes and demigods of the ancient world.”
With the curl and whim of that gone from our lives, Rexroth suggested, what we were
mostly left with was a conspicuous, gnawing hunger to consume. What’s more, he said, if
imagination was ever to really flower again, if we wanted stories powerful enough to
keep us awake, it would mean reimagining our connections to nature.
Rexroth wasn’t trying to bring back Apollo and Hermes and Dionysus; just
pushing for the return of minds big enough, boisterous and generous and unruly enough
to imagine them in the first place. Minds intrigued enough to midwife new versions of
everything from technology to art, scholarship to love.
“See life steadily,” he advised. “See it whole.” Let the years be paced by the
comings and goings of the seasons. What’s more, learn to see that each of these seasons
lives in all the others – winter in the blooms of summer, spring in the fading leaves of
fall. Rexroth was fond of telling a tale from childhood, when he befriended a ninety
year-old Native American man named Billy Sunlight, living in a chicken coop at the edge
of a wood lot near Rexroth’s grandmother’s home on the Elkhart River. The old man took
a shine to the boy, guiding him on outings to watch otters swimming in the river,
gathering herbs, teaching him the Potawatomie names of animals and birds and woodland flowers. One day he came calling on Billy, only to open the door to his chicken coop and
find the old man dead in his bunk, his hands crossed over his chest and a “luminous” look
on his face. Rexroth later wrote that he wasn’t afraid, that Billy had talked about his death
with him and it seemed just as it should be. Even so, as the weeks and months went by
sometimes Rexroth got terribly lonely, ended up crying for his old friend. “But not
because he was dead, really. Only because he was gone from me and from the woods we
He was about seven then – a boy who’d lost a summer friend, one who’d
made it all the way to ninety. I was a middle-aged man, one who’d lost my wife and
best friend of twenty-five years to a cold, dark river not two weeks past her fiftieth
birthday. And yet from where I stand now, the difference seems one of degree. For
me, as for that little boy, the lingering nut of the ache was in the fact that she was
gone not just from me, but from the wild country we came to love.
My redemption would come in the form of a last request Jane made years
before, asking me if she died, to scatter her ashes in her five favorite wilderness
areas. And so I did. Five treks to five unshackled landscapes. At first, the journeys
broke my heart. Later they helped me piece it together again. In the end these
journeys would bring me back to nature again, to wilderness. To the lilting beauty of
unkempt places – places powerful enough to woo the hearts not only of the young
but of anyone willing to put down the search for meaning for a little while and just
float in the sensations of being alive.
Reprinted from The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness by Gary Ferguson by permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright (c) Gary Ferguson, 2014.