by Ian Burrow
This poem was published in the Feb. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.
I let my rifle hang as I reach up to try and slide my gloved finger up my forehead. I’m looking for that never-ending itch under my helmet. I don’t know why I bother. Habit maybe. I don’t know where my skin ends and my uniform begins; the sweating never stops. That’s what happens when the heat index hits 120 degrees Fahrenheit by the time the sun crests the horizon. The natural gas and oil refineries pump cloud after cloud into the sky. It’s the fact that the haze in the sky catches a glimpse of orange that I know the sun is making its climb again. That, and the heat. The heat is a pretty good indicator.
It’s range day. About once a week we make the two-hour trek off our little camp out into the designated tract of land both governments have deemed to be the ideal place for hard-charging, apple pie-eating, barrel-chested freedom fighters to get some trigger time. As I stand behind the firing line at “the range,” watching my soldiers shoot, trying to reach that itch, something clicks. This place sucks. I already knew that—we all did—but for the first time I came to that conclusion from a whole new perspective. There are no amber waves of grain here. There aren’t any purple mountain majesties. Spacious skies? Sure, if that means inhaling about a million carcinogens with every breath.
This land is your land, this land is my land
I learned the value of the land as a kid growing up in the Midwest. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what was happening when I spent all those hours pulling weeds, feeding livestock, and competing in the county fair to have the best damn tomatoes this side of the Mississippi. I was very fortunate as a kid and I got to see a lot of different places around the U.S. traveling on family vacations. My old man even took me to Rocky Mountain National Park to live out of a tent for a weekend and eat noodles “cooked” by water boiled over the campfire. I accepted all of this as the norm. America was just the geographic depiction on the map that I called home; chock-full of different places to go, things to see, and a t-shirt for each and every one of them. It wasn’t until Uncle Sam was kind enough to drop me into a region of the world, void of any sign of life, completely and entirely polluted by man’s hand, that I realized just how special America is. How beautiful the Rockies are, the way they reach up and kiss the sky in a manner that would make Jimi Hendrix proud. The way a person can get the overwhelming sense that they’ve been swallowed up by an M.C. Escher painting by standing on the edge of the Great Lakes. There isn’t a place on this Earth that will ever come close to the incredible natural heritage that all Americans share.
From sea to shining sea
In 1804 Lewis and Clark departed for the unknown, heading West, under the auspices of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’d probably sell my first kid to get a chance to jump on that expedition. There’s something unapologetically American about tromping off into the unknown like that—beaver fur cap and all. This adventure wasn’t an entirely novel concept. Without ideas like this, North America wouldn’t have found its way onto a map in the first place. There’s a certain piece of spirit, the tireless drive to peek over the next ridge, that I firmly believe runs through the veins of the American Dream. But the harsh reality is that this character trait is a double-edged sword. The same unquenchable thirst for adventure and westward expansion that inspired Thomas Hart Benton today fuels lobbyists in Washington as they push for public lands to be auctioned off for the sake of one more mining operation.
I recognize the importance and value in development, growth, and expansion. I’m an American after all—that’s our bread and butter. However, that doesn’t mean I can justify a lack of ethics in matters of man vs. land. Just the fact that I place it in the context of “vs.” ought to show how many Americans perceive the natural world today. Aldo Leopold did an incredible job putting it into words for us:
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community in which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
I’m not advocating that we all go out and buy a dilapidated Volkswagen van, complete with a tattered copy of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac on the dash, and hold hands in the forest. That’s not what this is about. It’s bigger than that. We cannot afford to squander our natural heritage and deprive our grandchildren of what is rightfully theirs. Do you really want to someday take your grandkids to an abysmal parking lot and tell them about what it looked like before all the concrete suffocated the soil and uprooted the wildlife?
My dress blues now hang in the back of my closet. They’re dry-cleaned and pressed with every accoutrement polished, every ribbon pinned to the 1/8th of the inch, neatly sealed away in a garment bag. Running the zipper up to its apex renders a tempest of emotion. I’ve now tucked away years of my life. Years full of my greatest experiences, my most potent memories, and a bunch of stuff I won’t even try to dictate. Now I’ve found what will be the next chapter of my life; my service and my civic duty is far from over. I owe it to my nation to advocate on behalf of land and wildlife conservation. I want to keep the wild places just that—wild. ~
 Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press, viii.
Visit Ian’s hunting website, Public Pursuit!
All photos in this piece were taken by the author.