The Rocky Mountain Land Library

Journey of an Idea
by Tom Wylie

The Landscape of Home
A Rocky Mountain Land Series Reader

Edited by JEFF LEE
With JOHN CALDERAZZO, SUEELLEN CAMPBELL & DAVID WAAG
Illustrations by EVAN CANTOR
Johnson Books/Rocky Mountain Land Library, $17.00 paper, ISBN 978-1-55566-393-1

“We don’t know how to do it, but let’s just start.” This is a statement of courage by people who set out to make reality out of a dream, especially when the dream is bigger than they are. Yet people do it all the time and we don’t think too much about it. Even so, close encounters with life stories in this vein can astonish. As you get beyond the audacity of it, you discover dedication and tenacity at work.

I have been a regular attendee of the Rocky Mountain Land Series programs at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado. Simply put, the series is a forum for authors, books, and readers on land and community, primarily in the American West, but occasionally going beyond the region. It is presented by the Tattered Cover in association with the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

The Landscape of Home: A Rocky Mountain Land Series Reader was published in late 2006 to celebrate the first five years of the series, which had presented more than 200 book talks and workshops since the fall of 2001.

The Landscape of Home includes readings from 25 of the books, organized into six sections: “Revisiting Western Roots,” “Living in the West,” “Working the Land,” “Moving Across the Landscape,” “Looking for More,” and “Seeking Balance.” The book is probably not for those who walk up to the rim of the Grand Canyon, give it a quick look, and leave. For the rest of us, it is our kind of book. The editors selected well; every piece is a good read.

In my conversations with Jeff Lee, host of the Land Series and director of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, I have come to see another aspect of celebration in The Landscape of Home that goes beyond the series. In its modest but masterful way the book is also a milestone celebration on the journey of an idea from dream to reality—the library itself.

The seed was planted in 1991. Jeff was a bookseller and his wife, Ann Martin, was a graphic artist. They both worked for the Tattered Cover. In their preparation for a book-buying trip to the London Book Fair that year, Ann learned of a place called St. Deiniol’s Library in the village of Hawarden in Wales. It is an independent residential library: bed, board, and books. They made arrangements to stay at the library for two or three nights before going on to the book fair in London. It seems odd, doesn’t it? Staying overnight at a library and taking some of your meals there.

William E. Gladstone, four times prime minister of England in the second half of the 19th century, founded St. Deiniol’s. His personal library exceeded 30,000 volumes, and in his old age Gladstone arranged to make his books available to all readers and scholars. He envisioned a library for the pursuit of learning in a country “home” where readers could stay, with time to think and write in a congenial setting. His vision was realized, and the library now houses in excess of 200,000 volumes on theology, history, philosophy, classics, art, and literature.

Ann thought about how they could do something like St. Deiniol’s back home. Unlike Gladstone, they didn’t have the money to endow such a library. Books, however, were no problem. There are more than 15,000 books crammed into their duplex, most in boxes. The idea of a residential library had been planted in their minds. It did not wither.

Jeff’s interest in books began at a young age, as it does with most readers. There were frequent visits to the library in Meriden, Connecticut, with his father. His early interest was history. At Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, he took a degree in geology with a biology concentration. He was spending considerable time reading outside his classroom requirements and also hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon he realized that he had no an aptitude for science, but something else was emerging while he was at the university. He began to connect land and learning. He also began to accumulate books.

Out of college after a year of factory work, in 1981 Jeff came to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Lakewood, Colorado. Within a year he found an ideal situation: revising maps with the topographic maps group. He was in the field 12 months a year in the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West, moving from place to place with the seasons: north in the summers, south in the winters. Most of his work done in isolated towns without bookstores or libraries, places like Hanksville and Green River, Utah; Lovelock, Nevada; Leadore, Idaho. He brought books along but found bookstores when and where he could, buying books about the places where he worked, adding to his library. He remembers buying a “lode” of good books in Reno, Nevada, including Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land, still among his favorites. The books began to take up a lot of room in his USGS truck each time he changed locations.

Jeff was finding the authentic West in his reading and in his own nomadic exploration. The authentic West was not and is not the romanticized West our culture has created. That is the premise of Stewart L. Udall’s The Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West, one of the books presented in the Rocky Mountain Land Series. Udall is the writer the editors chose to open The Landscape of Home. His piece is “The Wild West Masquerade,” a synopsis of the origins and perpetuation of the “mythic” Old West. Udall quotes Larry McMurtry: “The romance of the West is so powerful you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.” Well, the Rocky Mountain Land Series and The Landscape of Home are swimming against the current and doing so quite admirably for those not blinded by the bent-truth legends. I could say, “blinded by the myth,” but I am not convinced that the romanticized West is really the mythic West. The true West is the myth we ought to live by.

Ultimately, what had seemed ideal about Jeff’s fieldwork began to show flaws. Always on the move, he realized he could not put down roots. In 1986 he quit the USGS, returned to Denver, and found a job at the Tattered Cover in its first location on Second Avenue in Cherry Creek North, and was soon involved in the store’s move to the First Avenue location. There his book collecting took a quantum leap. He began to acquire books about the land and people’s relationship to it.

He and Ann Martin were both working at the Tattered Cover when they met, and still are. They married in 1991, the same year they discovered St. Deiniol’s. The residential library idea lingered, incubating. In the meantime, not long after they returned from England, they started a mail-order business and put out their Stonecrop book catalog for natural history books. Jeff changed to a job at Tattered Cover’s book warehouse so he would have more flexibility to pursue this new project. Stonecrop was more than a catalog; it included author interviews and short essays by writers. Jeff and Ann liked the concept and stuck with it for three years, but could never quite turn the financial corner. They learned that the bookselling business is marginal, at best.

As Stonecrop was going down, Jeff developing his idea of what the residential library should be. “That was really the start of it,” he says. Jeff and Ann began talking to a lot of people with different backgrounds relevant to land and people’s connection to the land. As they felt their way along, the feedback they received was positive. One of the biggest steps in establishing the Land Library would be finding a physical site for it. It was crucial, but would take time and money. The advice they got was to keep working on the site search, but also start launching outreach programs that matched their mission of creating a greater awareness of the land.

The Rocky Mountain Land Series was the first program launched, a partnership that fit well with the Tattered Cover’s own programs. Joyce Meskis, owner of the bookstore, gave Jeff the support he needed. Almost all of their events occur at the LoDo (lower downtown) Tattered Cover, a second store added in 1994. Other Land Library programs followed: Conversations on the Land, Artists and Naturalists in the Classroom, and the Salida Residency Program. Most recently, the Publishing Program was launched with The Landscape of Home.

The theme of the book is captured by the William Stafford quotation in Jeff Lee’s introduction: “The greatest ownership of all is to look around and understand.” What a marvelous insight!

A book is, among other things, a child of its limitations. One should read and enjoy The Landscape of Home for what it is: a small (193 pages) commemorative collection of very good writing selected from books presented at bookstore readings and discussions over a five-year period. It is not intended to be a complete cross section of its genre. The limitations of the book are artifacts of the book business. What and who are included in the Land Series depend on the books being published, which authors are on book promotion tours, and the supply of authors living close enough to Denver to make the trip.

The book includes but a fraction of the knowing and understanding each of the writers possesses about “home” in the American West. And all their knowing is but a small fraction of the West’s full body of knowledge. The Landscape of Home sets before the reader a “sampler appetizer tray” as it were, each piece different but excellent. It whets the appetite for more. To give a sense of the writing in the book, what better way than the “sampler” method?

I’ve just seen 2,000 pounds of buffalo do a standing high jump of six feet. (Dale Lott, from American Bison: A Natural History)

I decided to follow a single ghostly voice in Colorado, to walk in Harriet’s footsteps, to see what she saw ninety years ago, to contemplate what she remembered and what has changed. (Ann Ronald on Harriet Fish Backus, the “Tomboy Bride,” from GhostWest: Reflections Past and Present)

An observation can provide information, foster knowledge, or evoke wisdom, depending on what the observer brings to the encounter. So it is that the grasshoppers have taught me, among other things, the nature and value of nothing. (Jeffrey Lockwood, from Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving)

“My Mom was great. When I was about 11 years old, I wanted a horse. But instead of just giving me one she gave me a broodmare, told me to find a stud horse and breed her, so that’s what I did. She knew I’d have to care for that mare during her pregnancy, then raise the colt. Only after all that, once I had a relationship with it, would I be able to ride. …” (Gary Ferguson quoting ranger Cavan Fitzsimmons, from Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone)

Our house burned down in 1976. … Long about then, the government said the mines had to have so many lady miners per male miners. The boss at the Bear already knew me from loading up coal, so he hired me. I became the first woman coal miner at the Bear. (Caroline Arlen relating the oral history of Mabel Lyke, from Colorado Mining Stories: Hazards, Heroics, and Humor)

The sun dance songs have a hymn-like harmony. Many of them begin very softly, build caressingly, to finally kick in, the eagle whistles joining. I fall asleep to them rising and falling. (Merrilll Gilfillan, from Rivers and Birds)

These samples are seemingly unrelated, but like strands in the web of life, they are drawn from interconnected parts of the western landscape and heritage.

There is a practical need to understand the land on which we live and to understand our relationship to it. There is also the almost ineffable need to understand what we are truly part of. These two things are what the Land Library is all about. Because they are viable, the dream for the library is also viable. Jeff feels they have done a good job of moving forward with very little money. That so many people have given their encouragement and active support to it underscores its vitality and authenticity.

Partnerships have helped. The Land Library, including the book projects, has so far relied largely on volunteer effort and nonmonetary donations. The donated work of the editors of The Landscape of Home, and of the authors and publishers, made it possible for all royalties to benefit the Land Library and its goals. When the Tattered Cover moved from Cherry Creek North to its new location on Colfax Avenue, the store donated enough bookcases to shelve the library’s books and a substantial quantity of its future acquisitions. As funding is developed, Jeff expects to put more financial support into programs that need it.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is still seeking a suitable location. The idea continues to evolve, but the vision is this: a place where people can come and use the books, but that also ties people directly to the land in its physical setting, in an area of diverse ecosystems. It will be a residential library, a place to work, to study, and to gather in learning. Lodging and meals will support the library users. One component will involve writers and other library users in local community programs.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library derives its name from its location in the Rocky Mountains, not from any intent to focus only on this region. The American West is one major theme, but the library will go well beyond that. One of the dreams is that it will become a magnet for people from around the world who have an interest in the land and people’s relationship to it. Big dreams, to be sure, but the idea born in Jeff Lee and Ann Martin’s visit to St. Deiniol’s in Wales moves steadily forward. As Alexander Smith wrote in Dreamthorp, “A man does not plant a tree for himself; he plants it for posterity.”

The Rocky Mountain Land Library is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to encourage a greater awareness of the land. For information contact Jeff Lee at (303) 436-9219, extension 2729 or jeff@landlibrary.org, or visit the website at www.landlibrary.org.

WRITER: Tom Wylie is a writer and former National Park Service ranger and biologist. He lives in Centennial, CO.

From The Bloomsbury Review March/April 2007

Note: For an update as of 3/09/2012 read “Rocky Mountain Land Library: Nature Lovers’ Collection Of 30,000 Books Boxed Up, Readied For Permanent Home” at The Huffington Post.

This entry was posted in General, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.