Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game


My friend Scott is the manager for a sheet-metal processing plant in Cicero, Ill. His products are shipped around the country. The coiled steel he fashions comes from steel mills around the world.

Last week as we filled our bellies with cold spring water in a remote wilderness canyon in Utah, Scott described the process of slitting sheet steel into fractions of an inch. The topic seemed incongruous to the setting, but it describes two parts of Scott’s life that convene at regular intervals – business and nature.

Scott has made pilgrimages to the West for more than 30 years to join me on wilderness trips. We have backpacked through many of the major mountain ranges in Colorado and have explored dozens of canyons throughout southwestern Utah.

Wild nature provides a dramatic counterpoint to Scott’s urban life, and he exults in the beauty of wilderness in what he calls “God’s pure creation.” He can’t find this depth of experience or landscapes of equal intensity anywhere else he knows. The public lands of the West provide a measure of salvation and renewal that are, for him, of immeasurable value.

On every trip, I witness Scott’s shift from the studied, mechanical efficiency he has mastered to a quieter, more contemplative demeanor. He is not the master of a canyon or a mountain peak like he is the master of his sheet-metal plant, and in that difference emerges reflections on humility and awe for what cannot be controlled, for the self-willed landscapes of the West that we tread enraptured by raw, natural beauty.

Emerging from our trips exhausted, his legs bearing the scratches and welts of every briar and bramble we encountered, Scott beams with the afterglow of sun, with a vitality born of renewed assurance in his physical strength and endurance and with a spiritual depth that is unquantifiable.

On the flip side, Scott’s work in Cicero provides real goods for the economy. He is part of the American working class that labors long and industriously to keep the wheels turning. A cog in the great wheel of the industrial culture, Scott offers a rare perspective for me, a writer, who deals mostly with abstract notions and rarely with concrete material things.

Scott allows that he is rare among his peers in Chicago, few of whom would venture West other than to look over the rim of the Grand Canyon or perhaps spend a night or two in a lodge at Yellowstone. Still, the wild landscapes of the West stand out as places of renewal to people like Scott whose life demands require antidotes to stress.

I think of Scott during this election cycle because the public lands he so values and appreciates are at risk, not just because of resource development, but because of the very real danger of conversion from public to private ownership.

If you listen to the undercurrent from the ideologues of the Republican Party, the conversion I’m talking about would begin by placing federal lands under state authority, purportedly for stronger local and regional control. From there public lands management would be up to the states, removing our national treasures from Congressional oversight.

In Utah, for example, the political power is not geared toward conserving canyon complexes like the one where Scott found soul nourishment last week. Utah legislators are notorious for favoring development at any expense, which is an extension of the Mormon entitlement granted by Providence.

This is the tradition of Mitt Romney’s faith. While it hasn’t made headlines yet, the conversion of public lands to private is on the Republican agenda, and not just in Utah. This kind of transference would amount to a tectonic shift in land stewardship, inviting a free-for-all orgy of exploitation of the Commons, of our public lands.

Scott understands the value of wilderness through a deeply personal relationship that’s not only about enrichment for his soul, but as a counterpoint to his industrial labors. This is where the currents of business and nature intersect with a balance of things and emotions, of material and spirit, of mutual needs wrapped in an individual who contributes to one world and receives from another.

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