Travels in The Greater Yellowstone: Jack Turner’s power of insightful observation

By on January 10, 2018

“Some artists so completely capture the essence of a place and make it their own that to imagine the place or hold it in the mind’s eye of memory is to see it distilled through their art. We are not free to do otherwise: it dominates our inner vision.” – Jackson Hole writer Jack Turner

How odd it is that millions of people in the world today would feel themselves extremely lucky to hear a wolf howl because of its rareness, and yet there are a garden variety of locals who, for no reason at all, consider it a high point in their lives to try and extinguish the sound.

Why? Because they can.

Jackson Hole resident Jack Turner, in his book Travels In The Greater Yellowstone, reminded us why we should awake every morning counting our blessings that we’re not navigating rush-hour traffic, working in boxy towers of tinted glass and eking out a humdrum existence like the suburban character in Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Babbitt.

I can never get enough of Turner’s perspective.

A legendary professional mountaineer and retired college professor, he over the years has escorted readers to the edges of many symbolic precipices in thinking about a home that many of us take for granted. Whereas 99 percent of civilized humanity is coping with severe natural sensorial depletion every day, ours is a constant stimulating aesthetic of abundance.

In my humble opinion, one of the best American nature books of the last quarter century is Turner’s The Abstract Wild that really set the stage for a series of reflections by other writers on what the human relationship to the natural world is. He worries about Greater Yellowstone’s rapid industrialization— not by timber and mining interests, but real estate and recreation, trying to monetize as much of the land, private and public, as possible.

And his greatest worry is that developers, especially newcomers who fail to understand what makes Greater Yellowstone unique, will in their own haste to turn a buck, not realize they are transforming this ecosystem into a place that mirrors the characterless cities they fled.

Turner’s prose is part John McPheeesque travelogue, Olaus Murie field guide, Edward Abbeyan environmental essay, and, like all of his previous works, rich in metaphysical reflection about the essential stuff that should matter most in one’s average lifespan of roughly 75 years.

Many outsiders have been mere voyeurs when coming to Yellowstone — writing guns for hire. The beauty of Turner’s perspective is that he’s an insider, and by making the Greater Yellowstone feel exotic for people who have never graced it, he re-opens our eyes.

His lens is shaped by several distinct vantages visited with friends: Blacktail Butte, which is part of Yellowstone’s “Serengeti” of wildlife; opening day of fishing on the Firehole River; the airy climber’s lair in alpine tundra; the South Fork of the Shoshone River; the now embattled Wyoming Range; the inner Wind Rivers; the emerald surface of Green River Lakes; Red Rock Lakes; and Christmas at Old Faithful. He adds wolves, grizzly bears, whitebark pine trees and cutthroat trout to those stages.

“What I sought in these travels was much more personal, my own reckoning of how this place where I’ve lived most of my life is doing, whether its soul is indeed intact, as authorities and experts would have it, or unraveling,” he writes.

He does not sit in judgment. In fact, following his reference to the famous sign that for decades adorned the top of Teton Pass — “Yonder lies Jackson Hole, last of the Old West — he writes:

“Right! Land of the trophy log house, hivelike motel rooms for the worker bees, the stretch Hummer, the Gulfstream jet, miles of irrigation ditches, roads, trails, and fences, a slew of golf courses, two ski areas, the largest building in Wyoming, thirty thousand people a day milling about town in summer, gridlock on the streets, the five dollar latte, the arnica oil massage. And yet …. what an interesting collection of people! The reclusive billionaires and the ski bums, the traditional Republican ranchers and a thriving Latino community, a slew of misfit writers and hundreds of nonprofit organizations.”

He notes: “This is my favorite place in the world” and then proceeds to journey across millions of acres with a narrative flair and appreciation for the West that other gifted wordsmiths could only envy. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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