What's the Colorado Idea?
Down on the Ground with Working Landscapes

            This column starts with a strange moment on Kenosha Pass. I’ve always loved that moment when you come around the curve at the top of Kenosha, and suddenly there’s South Park and the mountains that are the spine of Central Colorado, all the way south and west to wherever. To just say it’s “beautiful” avoids the challenge of really describing it, but it seems to have all of the attributes of the essential American West: it’s vast, it’s empty in the way of a promised land, it’s desolate in a way that both challenges and affirms the proud and lonely part of the human soul; it makes me think there is more and better than just beauty to seek on earth.

            But what surprised me, this time, was the perception that all I was seeing was the vastness, the emptiness and the desolation of it. That’s what I saw: vast, empty, desolate. That might partly be because it was early November. Even though it was a quintessential cloudless Colorado day, the aspen were all gray and quiet for the winter – “bare ruined choirs,” as Shakespeare so accurately put it – and despite the huge blue sky, brown was the dominant color.

            But I think a larger part of it stemmed from the fact that my partner and I were on our way back from a month in her home state of Wisconsin. She spent most of her childhood in Madison, which is to Wisconsin what Boulder is to Colorado, a separate reality. But in a real sense she grew up all over the state, working summers for her father who was a “circuit-riding playwright” for the University’s College of Agriculture.

            A playwright in the School of Agriculture? At that time – the 1950s, 60s and 70s – the University of Wisconsin was at the unraveling end of a conviction that “agriculture” should be something more than the thoroughly industrialized fencerow-to-fencerow land-mining operation that mistakes agriculture for agribusiness. Maryo’s father was one of the last faithful foot soldiers for “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s “Wisconsin Idea”: an update of the Jeffersonian vision that creating strong, intelligent, locally-sufficient communities was what America should be about. He was part of a cadre of artists, musicians and dancers traveling the state, encouraging the people to tell and sing their stories, paint their lives, articulate dramas grounded in their own culture.

            He was fighting a losing battle; the 20th century was basically about centralized topdown political economies warring for control of the world, and using food to control people who needed food was a central strategy; the masters wanted and bought fencerow-to-fencerow agri-industry; all that community stuff ceased to be a priority.

            But that is what Maryo grew up with: a state that had a big Idea associated with it, and her “sense of place” – what a place should be – was formed there, mostly in what’s called “the Driftless Zone,” the southern and western third of the state where some old granite hills split the ice sheet of the last glaciation, and spared a region of truly lovely rolling hills, now all covered with hardwoods, corn, cows and people. It’s what Ed Marston at this year’s Headwaters conference called “a working landscape” but it’s no less beautiful for that; it has its “confined animal” messes cranking out industrial meat and eggs to feed the world, but most of it looks not that far from the idea of communities feeding themselves and growing strong from the bottom up, not media-managed from the top down.

            Maryo and I talk about “place” and its importance often, sometimes sort of argue about it; and she has said that, while she has come to love much about Colorado in her two decades here, the mountains will never be her “place” in the way that part of Wisconsin is. And after a month there, seeing it through her eyes to whatever extent another person can – mostly in and around a cabin on the Wisconsin River where we did the working part of our vacation, but also out hiking and driving and visiting around the Driftless Zone – I came back looking at my own mountain landscapes, and my place in them, a little differently. Maybe a little more critically.

            I came to Colorado forty years ago, an Army dropout pretty indiscriminately disenchanted with most of the fruits of human activity, and I liked the vast, empty, desolate beauty I saw in the mountain landscapes precisely because it wasn’t everywhere cluttered with the busyness of man; west of Denver I could hold my metaphysical nose while driving through over-worked “working landscapes” like the Climax Mine on Fremont Pass or the upscale shake-‘n-bake-Swiss slum of the Vail valley, and I was soon enough back in the Colorado that wasn’t much marked by humankind, at least visibly.

            My austere contempt for all that busyness notwithstanding, of course, I still went to Safeway for all my food, and sent monthly checks off to Somewhere Else for the electricity and gas to keep my rented house warm (rent checks also often went Somewhere Else), and once I went to work for the college my paychecks came from Somewhere Else too – as opposed to when I was working in the local economy depending on people with full wallets who came here from Somewhere Else). Even when I shopped on Main Street in Gunnison, I was almost always buying things that came from Somewhere Else; the only difference between “buying local” and buying at the local Big Box was the probability that the dollar I spent would circulate through the town one more time before joining the general massive hemorrhage that is a mountain-town local economy – the equivalent of a bleeding patient for whom the treatment is not to stop the bleeding but to pump in enough additional blood to balance the loss.... More tourists, more skiers, more mines or second homes, and we’ll be able to send even more money Somewhere Else.

            In short, while it took me a while to realize and acknowledge it, I’ve been a remote and generally unconsulted part of a huge working landscape, a global working landscape, really, when I figure in my South American coffee, Middle East gasoline, Texas gas for heating and cooking, Canadian lumber, et cetera, et cetera – a working landscape identified by nothing like either the distant mountains of Colorado or the sweet hills of Wisconsin, just the up and down slopes of the charts and graphs of money at work beyond our control.

            To a certain extent, I guess, I traded real participation in my own life and the life of my times for the luxury of living in a way and a place that indulged me in believing I was above it all. The ultimate luxury, maybe – and an expensive one.

            I don’t want to convey the impression that rural Wisconsin is some kind of a utopian alternative. The people there all buy their food at the supermarket too, just like we do here, and they are as much captives of that charts-and-graphs working landscape as we are. Our last night in Wisconsin, checking our email in Sauk City with a Lake Louie draft at Charlie and Anne’s Neighborhood Bar (Free Wi-Fi), we couldn’t help overhearing a noisy sex-drugs-and-dead-from-drunk-driving conversation at the bar by a bunch of deadend postadolescents who had all grown up together and were learning that an industrial livelihood is not automatically a life. As sad and typical as anything you’d find nightly in Gunnison, Salida or any other hinterland town in America.

            But Wisconsin is still a place that has been associated with a Wisconsin Idea, and that is still at least dormant there in the working landscape of the Driftless Zone, under the coming winter of industrial civilization. Has Colorado ever had a Colorado Idea? Any original idea at all, that wasn’t crafted for it by the colonizers who have always run this global working landscape of the Grand Imperial Nation Idea?

            Colorado had seedlings from the Wisconsin Idea 120-130 years ago (“Kenosha” is a Wisconsin town); some of them, like Marston’s North Fork valley, are still struggling to grow in the shade of the Grand Imperial Nation Idea. There are still faded “Creamery” and “Butcher Shop” signs on old buildings in faded Colorado towns. Farmers’ markets are coming back, but they need more non-industrial farms. For the most part, the Grand Imperial R.R. was here when the people arrived, waiting with a full head of steam to carry us off to the future.

            A month in Wisconsin, seeing it with Fighting Bob Gard’s daughter who still has the Wisconsin Idea in the core of her being, her sense of place, made me envious – homesick in a way, for the Colorado of the Colorado Idea. Which I think maybe all of us intuit, “as through a glass darkly,” when we’re surprised, as on Kenosha, by our vast, empty, desolate but promising beauty. Maybe some of the beauty in it being the moment’s sure certainty that there might be more and better there than just the beauty.