Gray-green lichens slowly increase their hegemony on the large rock that sits below our family cabin Mateskared in Bakers Mills and fifteen feet west of its outhouse. My older sister Esther’s daughter Layla Ward remembers sitting on this rock as a child and fearing falling off. Its steep downhill side slopes into depths of tall blackberry plants, ferns, goldenrod, and fireweed.
I was down in those tall plants some years ago to fetch a stray Frisbee for Christine and our younger son Eric. Even as an adult I experience the dense foliage’s cloaking anxiety. Plant tips reach my neck. I feel like Snoopy dog in the “Peanuts” cartoon, caught in tall grass. The rock’s uphill side and an old driveway pull-in from the road define a mowing line for the cabin yard. The interface of mowed and not mowed creates an ecotone, an edge between yard culture and the beginnings of wild nature’s recovery to its former forest estate. We struggle to deny the trees a foothold too near the cabin.
A Mateskared photo, around 1950, shows our mother Alice walking up toward the cabin through this downhill pasture. What has today been re-taken – where allowed to farther downhill – as young forest of forty- to fifty-foot-tall trees, shows in the photograph as bare pasture. It was grazed to the nubbin then by John and Hester Dalaba’s cows – and punctuated by ubiquitous immovable rocks. Vegetation now obscures all but this one rock.
“Karen used to get up on that rock and do acting.”
My mother was remembering the rock just as I do. My sister Karen adopted the rock as her stage – the Acting Rock. Karen would cajole us, even as teenagers or older, into taking turns climbing to its summit to speechify or declaim.
The Acting Rock became even more effective after we added a front porch to the cabin in 1967, although by then my generation was already through college. The declaimer’s audience could now be more cohesive and comfortably seated on the porch.
I credit the Acting Rock with Karen’s mid-life career switch to becoming an Episcopal priest. That I identify the Acting Rock with speechifying—its nearly square-foot summit flatness doesn’t quite parallel the ground—may betray my narrow concept of acting as delivering soliloquies! I’m not sure what it says about my concept of the priesthood. My brother Mathias is an ordained minister, too, but with a PhD. in Arabic, taught university and college comparative religion and cross-cultural courses and still writes scholarly material about the Koran.
One morning as Mom and I sat on the porch drinking coffee and staring at “The View,” Crane Mountain, I was struck by how much Acting Rock looks like a scaled-down Steamboat Rock. Steamboat Rock stands at a looping bend in the Green River in the Pat’s Hole or Echo Park portion of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.
It’s no mere rock but a high, sheer peninsula set in its great looping river meander. It came to symbolize permanent protection of nature in the 1950s struggle over the Echo Park Dam proposal. The US Bureau of Reclamation planned to dam the Green River just downstream. Most of Steamboat Rock would be submerged and Pat’s Hole or Echo Park obliterated. And so would much of the Yampa River tributary that joins the Green River nearby.
Steamboat Rock takes its name from how the motion of the great Green River, a major Colorado River tributary, makes seem like the rock were chugging through the waterway. Our whole family was to see Steamboat Rock in summer 1953. From on or across the river it looks like a great archetypal Mississippi Queen triple-decker stern-wheeler putting its shoulder to the current.
It is fair to say that on that Steamboat Rock today’s 109-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System would one day be founded.
It may also be fair to say that, had Paul Schaefer not lured my father Howard Zahniser to the Adirondacks in 1946 to fight dam threats to Forest Preserve wildlands here, a rag-tag band of conservationists would not have come, nine years later, to save Steamboat Rock and Dinosaur National Monument from being flooded behind a dam.
That utterly surprising victory in Utah came against politically powerful and well funded western water interests and the federal bureaucracies supposedly regulating them. The victory emboldened my father and David Brower, then head of the Sierra Club, to turn their national anti-dam conservation coalition to the pursuit of federal legislation to protect wilderness on federal public lands.
Environmental historian Roderick Nash characterized the defeat of Echo Park Dam as a “decision for permanence.” The final settlement my father negotiated on behalf of the conservationist at last held National Park System lands to be inviolable.
This first great national grass-roots conservation victory also redeemed the 1913 vote by Congress to allow the magnificent Hetch Hetchy Valley – inside Yosemite National Park – to be dammed and flooded. Losing Hetch Hetchy was the most profound disappointment in the conservation career of Sierra Club founder John Muir.
Proof of my speculation about the Adirondack influence in the Echo Park fight, if there is proof, no doubt resides in the personal papers and Adirondack conservation collection of the late Paul Schaefer. He penned the elegant telegram text now burned into Mateskared’s fireplace mantel in my father’s block-lettering handscript.
One direct connection—to the proverbial bottom line—is well documented. The Echo Park fight cost far more money than small membership organizations like The Wilderness Society and Sierra Club routinely wrangled from their memberships in the 1950s. Defense of the environment did not become a groundswell movement until after 1970.
Zahnie first met the man who would bankroll crucial points in the Echo Park campaign while he and Paul Schaefer were fighting the Adirondack dams. Environmental historian Roderick Nash wrote that “In the course of defending the Adirondacks in the 1940s, Howard Zahniser became acquainted with the wealthy St. Louis chemical manufacturer and Sierra Club member Edward C. Mallinckrodt, Jr. When the defense of Dinosaur moved into the conservation spotlight, Zahniser persuaded him to become its patron.”
On many of my father’s work trips to the West in the 1950s he would stop in St. Louis. There he would brief “Mr. Mallinckrodt,” as he spoke of him to us children, or ask him for money. He was visibly impressed with Mr. Mallinckrodt’s formal manner and attitude toward his wealth and the needs of the conservation cause. My father would adopt his manner to illustrate his generosity.
“You tell me what the need is,” Mr. Mallinckrodt would say, “and I will just kiss”—and here my father would mimic Mr. Mallinckrodt’s gesture of kissing the gathered fingers of his hand to broadcast his money to the wind—”the money goodbye!”
Broadcast to the printing company and post office, the money did the job. Conservationists foiled the politically powerful western hydropower lobby. It was the 1940s western Adirondack Black Water Wars redux.
Photo of Howard and Edward Zahniser by Alice Zahniser, courtesy of the Zahniser family.