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Labor of love goes to heart of wild places


I'm out of pocket this month in a big way, watching all kinds of world-class athletes compete in the Winter Olympics. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. This is the perfect place for someone like me with a short attention span: lots of people, accents, sports, venues and news. Its like sitting next to my husband while he channel surfs.

And in the grand, gazillion-dollar Olympic scheme of things, the little tan-and-blue book in everyone's press packets here at the Winter Games is easy to overlook. It can't be redeemed for a free drink or foot massage or a T-shirt. It doesn't even have a famous athlete insisting that you can't live without it.

So what good is it? Plenty. "Land That We Love" is a $20,000 labor of love by the outdoors community and the four government agencies that manage the outdoors. The subtitle explains it all: "Americans Talk About America's Public Lands." It came together a year ago, as representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Utah Parks Department began planning for a visitors center in Salt Lake City.

"We were working on the text for a display when we realized we were trying to tell the public how great public lands are, and we realized land managers are always telling the public," says project manager Stephanie Gomes of the Forest Service. "We decided we wanted the public to tell everyone why public lands are great."

So the planners stepped outside their bureaucratic cocoons to solicit contributions from real people. They got back 26 poems, reflections and history lessons.

"These were heartfelt contributions. People were honored to be included," Gomes says. (For a free copy, you can send an e-mail to sgomes@fs.fed.us or send a request for "Land That We Love" to Stephanie Gomes, U.S. Forest Service, 125 South State St., Room 8207, Salt Lake City, UT 84138. )

I asked several of the authors for permission to publish their reflections work in this space. The first piece, "The Outdoorsman," was written by Brady Udall.

Born and raised in the Indian country of northern Arizona, Udall has published stories in GQ, Story and The Paris Review. A James Michener Fellow, he won the Playboy fiction contest while a graduate student at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. He was born into the political Udall Arizona clan (his great-uncles are former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and the late congressman Morris Udall) and teaches at Southern Illinois University. Here are his thoughts:

"I am not much of an outdoorsman. I don't have a great sense of direction and I'm lousy with a compass.

"I'm an enthusiastic hiker. I would hike to China if the opportunity presented itself, but I tend to walk too fast, with my head down and my shoulders hunched.

"If I happen to be wearing a backpack, I complain the whole way about how it's killing my shoulders. Usually I find a way to get where I'm going, but it takes me much longer than it might take someone who, say, has a sense of direction and knows how to use a compass.

"I like to hunt, but I'm a lousy shot. I can't sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time. And I can't track; I couldn't track a bulldozer with an oil leak. When it comes time to stalk my quarry, to tread softly through the brush, I usually manage to sound like a herd of wild pigs.

"On the water, I am almost worthless. I can paddle a canoe like nobody's business, but never in the direction I want it to go. I don't know how to sail or row and I've been in enough kayaks to know that I should never get into another kayak.

"Fishing? Forget it. I can't fish.

"I'm not one for gear. All the tents and sleeping bags I've ever owned were bought at Wal-Mart. I don't like flashlights and refuse to eat anything that's been freeze-dried. I prefer long johns and work boots and am annoyed by people in Gore-Tex and fleece. The only canteen I own is the old dented aluminum Boy Scout type that has begun to rust so badly it turns the water a bright orange. Yes, I was once a Boy Scout, but I rarely come prepared.

"I'm always forgetting the matches, the toilet papers, the food, something. Once, on a camping trips in Glacier National Park, the tent I had in my backpack turned out not to be a tent at all, but a nylon sack filled with old newspapers. My buddy and I spent a frosty night sleeping under the [newspaper's] sports and leisure sections.

"If you held a gun to my head, I couldn't tell you the difference between a fir and a pine. I know next to nothing about wildflowers, weeds, clouds, butterflies, insects. Are gophers and prairie dogs the same thing? Don't ask me? I have no idea. I know a lot about salamanders and newts, but only because I had to do a report on them in junior high.

"I fancy myself an amateur geologist, but when push comes to shove I have a hard time remembering which rock is igneous, which sedimentary, which metamorphic.

"No, I am not much of an outdoorsman. But I love the outdoors. I love walking in the woods. I love gliding down a river in a canoe or watching a coyote trot across a meadow at dusk. I love the smell of fresh sap in the spring and the bugle of an elk sounding out over snow-muffled trees. I love the empty desert, the clarity of the light, the deep shadows, the sky too blue for words.

"I cannot imagine what it might be like if there were not wild places where people - even incompetent outdoors people like me - could go to lose themselves in the elemental world. We are nourished by the beauty and silence of such places. We are made better by them. They give us something we lack. We need such places, all of us, even the amateurs and bumblers and fools, even those who like me, don't deserve such loveliness, such mystery, such grace."

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