Andersen: A man of peace and nature

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

John Denver died in a plane crash on Oct. 12, 1997. He was 53.

I note that date every time I lead one of my Aspen culture tours through the John Denver Sanctuary, a beautiful, amphitheater-like park along the Roaring Fork River.

I’m reflecting on John because his Aspenglow Fund last week pledged a generous gift to Huts for Vets, the nonprofit I founded two years ago. John would have appreciated Huts for Vets because it offers veterans a peaceful respite and healing opportunities by taking them into the wilderness at the 10th Mountain Division huts.

John’s posthumous donation realizes two of his dreams for humanity — realization of peace and love of natural beauty. By immersing war veterans in wilderness, Huts for Vets soothes the psychological and emotional trauma of the institutional violence they’ve endured.

Years ago, during the Cold War, John sang a duet with Russian singer and songwriter Alexander Gradsky. The song — “What Are We Making Weapons For?” — cries out for universal peace. The chorus speaks to it poetically:

“What are we making weapons for? / Why keep on feeding the war machine? / We take it right out of the mouths of our babies / Take it away from the hands of the poor / Tell me, what are we making weapons for?”

John was a great poet. He expressed deep resonance with the natural world through an emotional connection that was visceral and passionate. These feelings are emoted in many of John’s most popular ballads, where he channeled his passion through his voice with potent effect.

“John was a tireless voice for the environment,” EcoFlight pilot Bruce Gordon wrote in his latest “Captain’s Log” blog. Bruce and John enjoyed a brotherly love, and Bruce’s work defending the natural world was fully in sync with John’s spiritual bond with nature.

“John was a voice for the future,” Bruce wrote, “and it was a voice that carried far and wide due to his fame and his voice.”

EcoFlight’s student program, Flight Across America, educates young adults by giving them a bird’s-eye view of landscapes they would not experience otherwise. Seen from the air, things on the ground — like resource extraction — can become clearer and more distinctly in focus.

Flight Across America is dedicated to John, for whom a locally produced documentary is currently under production.

“The filming,” Bruce wrote in a recent interview, “filled me with nostalgia and also an exuberance and enthusiasm to keep on keeping on and raise awareness wherever and whenever possible. In John Denver, we lost not only a great aviator and a great friend but a voice for the environment.”

But that voice carries on. It is heard in dozens of John’s songs, many of their lyrics etched on huge boulders at the sanctuary in Aspen — words that reflect his life experiences. These lyrics are heard in the minds and hearts of those who share John’s sensitivity to peace and nature.

Thanks to the Aspenglow Fund, peace and nature will be felt by war veterans looking for solace, quiet, safety and beauty in the natural world. Where war is described as a place of no beauty, the wilderness at our doorsteps is resplendent with it.

Wilderness provides a dynamic life system that is our deepest source. As a species, we lived in wilderness a thousand times longer than we have lived in fast-paced, industrialized civilization. These wild lands, which John and Bruce championed together, are repositories not only of biodiversity and habitat but of health, vitality and healing.

Exploring wilderness equates with exploring our deepest memories, and from those shared memories comes mutuality. The source that gives succor to myriad animals, fish and insects is the same source of origin for all of humanity. Life is the link.

John Denver knew this innately, which is why nature figures so prominently in many of his ballads. For John, nature was a connective energy between us and all of existence, a healing balm and a source of spirituality.

John Denver died when his plane plummeted from the sky, but his spirit still soars, touching other spirits with words of healing and acts of love that live beyond him so that others may live in peace.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at