My Dad was born in 1890 and his outlook toward nature and natural resources was typical of his generation. Although he was an outdoorsman and a rancher, college graduate and a reader who spent his whole life in rural Montana, his concept of ecology was a fantasy. Nature was infinite, inexhaustible, renewing faster than humans could ever use up. It was like suggesting there was another Western United States off the coast of California. Well, if you grew up before the age of automobiles, I’m sure it seemed obvious. I think even the residual romance of this vision of infinite nature died in me the moment I saw the sluggish gray sludge that was the Charles River running through Cambridge in the 1970s. (Classic nyuk-nyuk of the time: “The Charles doesn’t have a bottom, it just gets thicker as it goes down.”)
And in 1988, Smokey the Bear was incinerated in Yellowstone Park. Well, the Smokey I grew up with, who had his most low-key anniversary ever, his 70th, last August 4th. He remains, however, an eternal triumph of marketing. Wish Woodsy Owl had done a tenth as well.
If Davey Crockett killed him a bear [or was that killed in a bar?] when he was only three, Smokey was Davey incarnated as a bruin. His appearance was a blast of lucky genius. Adult male bear in loose jeans and ranger cap — macho. Add shirt and shoes — turns creepy.
And speaking of nature fantasies, the primordial target — bigger than earthquakes, even outflanking floods — is fire. Myth after myth confirm that controlling flames is humanity’s original step up outta da mud. And because uncontrolled fire seems to destroy everything it touches and can kill you, it must be a key enemy. And the best kind — a conquered enemy. Except when it ain’t.
Tamping down runaway fires in cities was such a thumping success that taking it beyond the streets must have seemed a no-brainer. Then and now, the message should have been: “Don’t be an idiot with your cigarette butts and campfires. Douse the hell out of them every time.” But Smokey had to have the most hairy-chested message ever — prevent forest fires. (The “9 out of 10″ thing, though saner, was an obvious misfire.)
The so-called conquest of the wilderness had more hold on my imagination as a youngster. Though I was a skeptic, or at least a dissident. Nature was everywhere around, while I was an introvert, a houseplant, a certified perv who didn’t even enjoy camping. Nonetheless, indoorsman me knew that legend and anecdote (what we now call “truthiness”) had far too much to do with the average person’s understanding of the nature of nature. Hell, wolves and wild fires had a role, goddammit. But I never have been able to tolerate Hill ‘n’ Forest Romantics, either.
The enormous Yellowstone fires of ’88 were a turning point. Trust me, kids, sad but true, the place looked more perfect — an idealized portrait of itself — before those blazes wiped out forests all over. And Smokey looked like a fire-stompin’ nutjob.Quashing every wildfire you could was unnatural and dangerous.
So I don’t miss the old Smokey and his outdated message. Not a landscape to strive for. Besides, there are other vistas we should be seeking.Beyond depressing that research and publicized study have failed to convince people about the urgency of climate change corrections.
Maybe most discouraging of all is that the messages might fail because they don’t suggest defeating some sort of enemy.
Hey, Smokey, doff that ranger hat, put on a green stocking cap and get crackin’ with your repositioned world-famous mug:
“Only You Can Prevent Climate Catastrophe”