Most folks, I’m sure, have long forgotten him. But sometimes a story or happening stirs up the memory pot and it all comes rushing back to the fore.
An e-mail note from a longtime friend in Pennsylvania’s north country served as the stirring post for me in this bucket of memories.
It helped matters – a lot – that I just happened to be working on the Standard-speaker’s night Associated Press wire desk at the time. The job then and now, I think, revolves around selecting the key state, national and international news articles that ought to be in next morning’s edition, given their overall importance to the readership.
Among the news stories running on the AP wire that evening in 1997 was the obituary of singer John Denver, who had died when his private aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay, Calif.
Denver – the son of an Air Force fighter pilot – had many hit songs through his lengthy career and life. One constant in his work, though, was this: Denver often sang about the land – wild and natural land.
Veteran Pennsylvania conservationist and advocate for things wild and free, Ed Zygmunt, wrote this in response to a note I had shared with him and other friends: “This story brings to mind the lyrics from one of my all-time favorite songs, ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver: ‘More people, more scars upon the land’," Denver sang.
Here’s the note I wrote to which Ed responded: “As all of you know, I've been railing about the evils of sprawl development for a long time, as in decades. Well, it is true that I now live in a sprawl development. I cannot tell if Mountain Home [Idaho] is now a bedroom town for Boise (50 miles) or is simply growing to feed its own maw. In any case, I crossed paths yesterday with the real estate pro who worked with me to find my new home. Nice fellow. But as we're talking, he notes, with pride in his voice, that the 100-acre sagebrush steppe land across the main drag will be bulldozed starting next spring for more sprawl development. I didn't have the chutzpah to tell him that just days before I had spotted and photographed real live Sage Grouse on that same land.
“Little wonder that our natural heritage continues sliding down.”
Spend time out-of-doors and sooner, rather than later, you’ll see one of the scars upon the land that Denver sang about. Yes, Colorado, is a far hike from Pennsylvania, but the scars always have one thing in common: They degrade and destroy habitat needed by our natural heritage.
In my many years of transiting the Pennsylvania countryside between Hazleton and the suburbs of Wilmington, Del., on the way to Air Force Reserve duty at an air base in coastal Virginia, I passed many such scars: New roads, new subdivisions, new fast-food fry pits, new parking lots, new turf farms, etc. They all had this in common (and still do): Each meant wrecking a natural area to make way for human progress.
Twenty years before Denver’s passing, while I was cub reporting for an Idaho weekly newspaper that today is long gone, the editor-publisher swooped into the tiny newsroom and proclaimed that singer Elvis Presley had just died. The date was Aug. 16, 1977 and I was just months away from starting my career in the Air Force.
Elvis sang about love and having a good time, but he didn’t sing about the land, as Denver did.
Our diminishing natural heritage needs more defenders and advocates in the mold of Denver.