July 31, 2005
On the last full day of his life last week, Bob Lewis napped in a mountain meadow in Gothic, Colorado, nestled in the loving arms of Mother Nature. His dynamic life force left his body that night and rejoined the fount from which it sprang.Premonitions sound hokey, but when Bob returned to Aspen this spring from his winter migration to California, I immediately sensed his mortality. The cumulative quality of his manner spoke to a finality that he and I understood tacitly.I suggested that we do a series of interviews over the summer about the details of his life, and Bob responded with eagerness. He needed to tell his story.I interviewed Bob at his home, which combines a Japanese tea garden with a school, dormitory, nature center, film studio and biological research lab. This unique home environment mirrored Bob’s multidimensional interests, especially his lifelong delight in teaching. Bob loved nature with all his soul and was inextricably entwined with it. He was an earthy sensualist smitten by the flora and fauna around him. He fed foxes on his deck, studied aquatic insects in his backyard beaver ponds, observed birds in his riparian forest and built his home with aspen trees growing through the roof.During our interviews, we sat outdoors on an old sofa facing the forested heights of Richmond Ridge rising beyond the tall cottonwoods of the Roaring Fork River. From that sofa, I felt like part of the biosphere, and with Bob, I was privy to its rhythms and components.Bob began by describing his youth, and he showed me a map he was making to reconstruct his childhood neighborhood in St. Louis. Bob was recapturing his earliest memories, as if composing a final documentary of his life.Bob poured scotch into juice glasses and we sipped and talked until the tape ran out. Then he gave me a big bear hug and I rode off on my bicycle, thinking about all that he had done in his life and wondering whether I could ever achieve anything of such merit and scope.I first met Bob Lewis in 1980 in Crested Butte when he crossed the Elks in a show of support for Crested Butte’s battle against the mining giant AMAX. I was a journalist in Crested Butte then, and we hiked back to Aspen together over West Maroon Pass and became fast friends.On that hike, Bob identified the flora and fauna, compelled to share his knowledge of a place he loved. He stood on top of the pass and exulted at the beauty and the biological significance of wild places. The Elk Range was a major source of his passion, the foremost inspiration for his lifelong conservation ethic.All the years I knew Bob he wore khaki, a holdover from his days as a Boy Scouts leader and later as a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division. He clenched a gnarled pipe in his teeth and smiled through a sandy-colored mustache. There was a twinkle in his eyes that was both mirthful and knowing.On the last day of his life, Bob worked tirelessly on his final vision for the Aspen Field Biological Laboratory, in which he sought collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. As he rested in that meadow, I’m certain that his pulse and the earth’s rhythms met in sympathetic resonance.The change I recognized in Bob this spring was in the way gravity seemed to pull harder on his body, the way the twinkle in his eye became misted with emotion during his remembrances, the way his friendship deepened into a fatherly love.Bob’s unflagging devotion to nature translated that fatherly love into action that enlisted hundreds. His visionary activism will influence many thousands more as future generations benefit from his contributions. This was Bob’s gift to the world.Paul Andersen is grateful to have known a man who gave everything he had. His column runs on Mondays.
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