Still crazy after all these years?

Who wrote that song title? Paul Simon?

I was off rabble rousing in the ‘hood last night. My neighborhood activist group is organizing itself to save a 300 acre chunk of the Boise Front. The last big piece (and I say last big chance) of undeveloped property adjacent to the city core. We were trying to come up with a name for the land we are trying to rescue – something that would appeal to folks all across the valley, not just those who use the front everyday for recreation or those who live next door to this wildness. I was reminded of the quote from Wallace Stegner: “geography of hope.”

So, I came home, grabbed my copy of Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, read all the stuff I had highlighted over the years, told myself not to weep, and then dug around until I found this little essay which I had written seven years ago. Here goes:

April 23, 2001
HY355-01 Western American History

OPINION PAPER
WALLACE STEGNER: WILDERNESS & PARKS

My View
As I sit down to finish this paper tonight, I look out the window at a landscape few people have the opportunity to behold. “Few” should be defined as a relative percentage of the national population. Directly in front of me in remarkable bas relief is the Boise Front, foothills of pale spring green and desert beige, with snow still resting in the crevices on the slopes that face me. The sun is setting behind me and behind the majestic Owyhee Mountains.

Sparkling with the intense light of the sun’s last rays, the windows of the foothills homes shine back at me as if made of the finest copper or gold. I can barely make out the outline of the Owyhees because they are behind a blue-gray haze of smog. I make a point of checking these views on a regular basis. First, to bookend my days with grace and gratitude and, then, to remind myself to tread lightly on the planet.

From my vantage point the city is crawling up the hill. At $400,000 per lot, you would think the crawl up the hillsides would be gradual, say, like the Ice Age. Unfortunately, it has been underway for a mere 40 years, not 40,000. I’ve watched an entire foothill be removed to make room for a modern concrete office building, which ironically holds workers who pride themselves on riding their bicycles to work. And, yes, the parking lot is full of cars.

Up the road a short distance the sage and bitterbrush skin of the land has been peeled back to reveal a clay, and sometimes, sandy flesh. The native Arrowleaf Balsamroot will be bulldozed. The wound will be salved with asphalt and concrete curbs and plants from the wet side of Oregon. The developers and bankers will make lots of money. The homebuyers willingly agree to pay huge sums for the right to live there.

The Plea: Stegner’s Views on Wilderness and Parks

Wallace Stegner, in his Wilderness Letter of 1960 said, “one means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. He goes on: “…the wilderness gave us our hope and our excitement, and the hope and the excitement can be passed on to newer Americans, Americans who never saw any phase of the frontier. But, only so long as we keep the remainder of our wild as a reserve and a promise—a sort of wilderness bank.”

“…We need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce.” Stegner writes about the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. “ Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in High Mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well.”

And he continues so eloquently: “Save a piece of the country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it can simply sit and look and take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there…. A part of the geography of hope.”

The people of this city are facing a referendum for a tax levy to save some open space in these foothills. The opening bid: $10 million.

Mea culpa and my position
In 1959 my house was one of the first to be built, high on the first ridge with an almost perfect 360-degree view of this valley and the foothills that back it up. I can step 50 feet from my front door and be standing in the tall grass of the foothills. My dog can run straight on the 12 miles direct to the top of Schaefer Butte with coyotes and fox and cougars to keep her company. And yes, I will gladly pay more than just my share to keep a piece of the countryside undeveloped. Yes, there is a road to the ski hill, and I use it. But does the community and our society as a whole feel a need to preserve a small part of these foothills, keep some of them apart for spiritual refreshment? I am not sure they have the willingness to do so.

Are we willing to keep any part of the foothills as a “wilderness bank” to offer those who never saw any phase of the frontier a chance to do so? How integral are the Foothills to making Boise, Boise? That there even has to be a vote on it tells the tale. Private land ownership and its accompanying development rights are sacred in this part of the country. The person who owns the land has a right to develop it, and to enjoy the capital gain from doing so. For over forty years, this has been the argument the city council and county commissioners have used to defend the rights of developers to keep trudging up the hill with bricks and mortar and asphalt and Anderson windows. And for all those years, the people of the valley keep buying the homes and moving in. Including me.

Tonight the media is rife with discussions of whether or not we open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drill for oil to keep the nation on its wheels. It appears the squeaky wheel may get the grease it wants. The current administration holds the oil more important than the refuge. If we can’t and won’t preserve a piece of the planet that doubles as our backyard (the Foothills), why on earth would we want to keep a place thousands of miles from here as a wilderness reserve, a genetic bank and beauty spot?

Will our physical desire to maintain our comfortable lifestyle overrule our spiritual (and some say esoteric) needs to have a wilderness bank and place to escape the shrillness of our society? It appears our society may be perilously close to the end of Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope”.