The world according to Bob
August 3, 2005
In the final weeks of Bob Lewis’ life, I interviewed him at his home near the North Star Nature Preserve. Being with Bob on his back porch amid the riparian ecosystem of the nearby Roaring Fork River was like sharing a park bench with a nature philosopher. His words flowed easily, and his ideas percolated through a background of bird chatter and the fluttering leaves of cottonwoods and aspens.Occasionally during his narratives, Bob would suddenly keen his attention to the forest around us. “Did you see that wren?” he would ask, or, “Listen to that robin.” His mind was a fervent fount of ideas, and his senses were always tuned to nature. Bob’s powers of observation were formidable right to the end, and he reveled in his contact with the natural world in the same way as did Thoreau and Muir.Following are snippets of thoughts Bob expressed on those sunny summer afternoons in the serenity of his back yard. They reflect his diverse interests, motivations and views on life. They sum up, albeit briefly, his legacy.Camping: When I was young, I became a scoutmaster, and every other weekend I took scouts into the high country of California, hiking and skiing. I loved camping, and I did it for most of my youth, and that’s how I was introduced to the outdoors.The ski troops: I enlisted in the 10th Mountain Division because they were ski troopers and that’s what I wanted to be. After training, we were sent to Kiska in the Aleutians, and I was assigned as a scout to reconnoiter Japanese positions. I climbed the mountain and saw all the machine gun nests. I was lucky they had pulled out three days before, or I’m sure I would have been shot.Finding Aspen: I first saw Aspen in 1942. I was in the 10th Mountain at Camp Hale and got away on a three-day pass. A bunch of us guys rode the Rio Grande Railroad and stayed the night in Glenwood. The other guys got quite smashed, but I didn’t, so I hitchhiked to Aspen early the next morning. Aspen was really down in the dumps, but I saw the ski hill and realized it was a place with a future.Home: In 1962, I was fishing the Roaring Fork River and caught some small trout, too small to take home, so I decided to have them for lunch. I came up from the river and saw this gorgeous property on an alluvial fan, with chokecherries, sedges, aspens, cottonwoods, blue spruce, serviceberries, engelmann spruce and ponderosa pines. I knew Jim Smith, the rancher who owned the land, and I asked him if he would sell me a couple of acres. This place has been a source of learning, enrichment and inspiration for me in everything I do. I’m so lucky to have this wonderful place.Conservation: Aldo Leopold said that if you teach people to understand nature, they will grow to love it, and if they love it, they will protect it.Activism: If you describe the facts of a problem well enough, the synergy of those facts will elicit in the mind of an intelligent person an idea of what to do about it. But unless something is done about it, it has no meaning – all the talk and pictures have no value. Facts have to inspire people to do things. The Maroon Bells: These mountains are about time and space. Space is occupied by the extremely gorgeous bell-shaped peaks and the lake at its base. It’s one of the most beautiful spaces in the world. The Bells are Matterhorn[like] peaks that have been gnawed by glaciers, and the valleys are U-shaped, also by glaciers. Time is exemplified by the Rocky Mountain upthrust and by the seasons and the cycles. The Bells are beautiful in any season. We come to accept the kind of beauty we have here, then we go away and we miss it, and when we return, we’re glad to be back. It’s a magical place.Independence Pass: The pass road was destroying four ecosystems – tundra, Krummholz, spruce-fir forest and riparian meadow. That started in the ’50s, when the road was enlarged. I went up there and took a lot of pictures of gravel and rocks pushed over the edge by the highway department. By walking over it and seeing the gravel fans covering over wildflowers, I thought this was crazy and that it should stop. The first work on the pass was done by children in my classes who came up and planted trees.Wilderness and wildness: I have tried to teach and proselytize and lobby for the wilderness and, especially, for wildness, because it can be found in your own back yard. I didn’t plant a single thing in my garden, and it’s all wild and beautiful. I don’t know how anything could be more beautiful than this.Teaching: I don’t think of myself so much as a conservationist; I think of myself more as a teacher and an enroller of other people, and I believe that we can make a difference. A lot of people are discouraged about the state of the world, but that doesn’t do any good. We have to believe in the concept of evolution and change. I want to discover things and show them to other people – a kind of show-and-tell. I get a lot of joy teaching because I’m able to share what I have learned.Leadership: Leadership is mostly about education.Nature: Nature doesn’t attract all people in the same way, but it has attracted me in a very special way. I love it so much that I want to do everything I can to make it grow well within the parameters of its genetic composition and the complexity of organisms.Happiness: To be happy in life is to share things with other people about nature.Wildwood School: In the ’60s, I got this idea to create a preschool like no other in the world. I didn’t want any straight planes or corners; I wanted the building to be organic, as nature is, with rounded hills and caves and nooks and crannies – places for children to go to learn about something specific. So I miniaturized a cave, and I miniaturized a seashore and a rainforest and a desert, and I called them learning nooks, or eco-nooks, because they represented different ecosystems. And that’s where the kids have learned by imagination, and it works.Braille Trail: I built the Braille Trail as an attempt to teach nature to blind people. Louis Braille was blind, and when he was a child, his brothers and sisters took him out into the woods and he felt with his hands all the different forms of nature. He could tell apart the plants by the feel of their leaves, and he touched and felt all the animals on the farm and knew they were his friends. He was like Thoreau and Muir, and he was blind.Social Change: The ’60s were a great thing for the world. Part of it was the sexual revolution, where people said, “We haven’t tried it, so let’s try it.” (laughter) Unfortunately, some people tried it too much. (more laughter) Aspen in the ’60s was a gorgeous place. It was so open and free. Today it’s less so because we don’t know each other in Aspen anymore.Ecology: In the ’60s and ’70s, Bob Craig and I created a summer field institute in Aspen for high school teachers. We provided hands-on experience led by some of the finest professors in the country. For eight weeks they would be in the field. We would start down low with the piñon/juniper forest, then move up to the aspen groves, then to the ponds, then to the streams, then to the spruce-fir forest and finally to the tundra. We spent a week in each place, and I was able to be on every trip and listen to those professors, and it made me realize how badly I wanted to go back to school. That’s the outgrowth of the Field Lab. Aspen Field Biological Lab: The lab is possibly my last project in the world – in this world. There is so much we don’t know about the north side of the Elk Range, so I want to bring the best biologists to Aspen and engage them in a program of field research which has never been done in Pitkin County. I want experts on trees and noxious weeds. I want experts on whirling disease in trout and wasting disease in deer. There are a lot of problems out there, but the biggest one is the spruce beetle – that’s going to be a tough one. The lab will be dedicated to applied biology, which is very important considering the major problems that exist in this Eden of Aspen. It will be a mini-Los Alamos, but instead of building a bomb, we will discover more about nature and about our own nature as human beings.