The Gazette at, uh, 40

Karen Chamberlain With Mike Moore

Photo of Karen Chamberlain with Mike Moore by Bob Chamberlain

I’m still getting used to this idea of a 40th-anniversary celebration for a publication that spent around 20 of those 40 years in a deep coma (we all thought it was dead). Can we really say that a publication, which lived for only one decade, then pulled a Rip Van Winkle, actually rose up and lived again?

Well, I think we can — as Mountain Gazette founder Mike Moore said in the first issue in 1972, “Why not?” Especially since refounder M. John Fayhee very deliberately set out to resurrect and carry forward the old publication, rather than just start up a new one with the old name. He scoured the West to scrounge up the aging survivors like me from the Seventies publication, while also looking for new young blood to seduce into the indulgence of speaking from the heart about things you love, an indulgence that ruins you forever for the practice of what passes for journalism today in publications that actually pay serious money, where you’re just supposed to paw through the hearts and minds of others and keep yourself out of it.

Now Fayhee, the Natty Bumppo of this expedition, has asked those of this band of brothers and sisters who were actually alive and writing in 1972 to give some personal reflections on Then and Now and what went Inbetween. He also asked us to keep it to around 800 words, which is an unusual Mountain Gazette request, but understandable, since otherwise this issue might weigh too much for the average reader to handle unaided. And he also asked us to try to avoid the usual reflective funk about how everything has been really going to hell on our watch.

In 1972, I personally was in further retreat from the world, living in a shack six miles by ski from the mountain town to which I had retreated six years previous. That sounds depressing, but it really wasn’t. My retreat was, as Conrad said in “Lord Jim,” “in good order,” and it was also a pretty nice shack — although ultimately a little small (16’ x 20’) after our daughter joined my partner and me and our young son. It offered a mix of 19th and 20th century living; we had to haul water from a nearby spring, the toilet was about a hundred feet due east and the bathtub was a big bowl that also served as my partner’s bread-rising bowl (no baths on bread day). But we had electricity for the long nights, the windows faced south and gathered a lot of sun, and it was an easy place to warm up with a wood stove, which I kept fueled by strapping myself into the snowshoes and a rope harness on sunny afternoons and going up on the nearby hillsides to haul down a matched pair of dead-standing aspen.

It was in fact a pretty cushy life — a civilized life, there six miles beyond the plowed-out part of civilization. I was ostensibly there to write — and did, some, first for the Skiers’ Gazette, then when the name and mission changed toward the ambiguous, for the Mountain Gazette. But mostly, I guess I was there to stare at the wall or out the window and think, or go out and ski around and think, because that’s mostly what I did. Think about the world I was retreating from.

There where civilization and nature coexisted and contended in an often delicate balance — that was where I began to distinguish between “the world” and “the earth.” There’s this planet here, which we are on; that’s the earth. And we are one very successful species in a thin layer of what geologists call “fluff,” life, spreading over the restless rock and wind and water of the planet, and what we do as a species is create worlds that we superimpose over the earth. Our worlds are imagined and partially executed reorganizations of the earth and its fluff of life to make the earth more accommodating to ourselves and our needs and desires.

There are, as I see it, only two ways to look at the past forty years both positively and sort of intelligently. One is to say, wow, we have sure gotten adept at turning the earth into a world. This isn’t just a matter of the technological changes of recent decades (like this device on which I not only “write” but also store my brain). The world we are still making has also essentially permeated what passed for relatively untouched “nature” in places where most of us Gazetteers like to hang out; everything is subdivided into units by use, and all of it is being overlaid by information about it. We have wolves again, here and there, but most of them have radio collars to keep someone informed about where they are, what they’re up to — just as most of us voluntarily carry a variation on the radio collar that keeps someone else informed about where we are, what we’re up to. There’s really no putting things back; there’s just going forward.

A second way to look at the past forty years is to say that today we know a hell of a lot more than we did in 1972 about what we are doing to the earth in this process of creatively laying a world over the earth. And also what we are undoing for the earth. We may be gradually turning ourselves into a reflexive species — a species that thinks more inclusively about what we are doing and undoing while we are in the process of doing it. And even before we start doing it.

So today — much more so than in 1972 — there is a tension between our increasing knowledge of how to manipulate the earth into serving our world vision, and our increasing knowledge of what happens to the earth when we so manipulate it. Never mind that the hard-charging manipulators have dominated the politics and economics of the past forty years; they have not achieved their goal of silencing the reflexive voice always posing the obnoxious questions: Do we really know what we are doing? Couldn’t we think this through a little further?

Exploring and resolving the tension there, between those two competing cultural drives, may be the work of the next forty years — 2050 is the current long-range planning horizon for most governments and agencies that have no choice but to keep on doing, but with a growing awareness of what we are doing. And undoing. And that exploration doesn’t all have to be “scientific” and data-driven; it’ll be a lot more accessible if a lot of it is anecdotal. Sometimes we get that in the Gazette. I just hope the Gazette doesn’t fall into another 20-year Rip Van Winkle, either due to being too serious or too superfluous.

George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter: A Memory More Like a Dream” and “Dragons in Paradise: On the Edge Between Civilization and Sanity.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

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