This week I lost a dear friend. A man who some thirty years ago became one of the most important mentors of my life - sparking much of my work as a nature writer, helping me set the rhythm for this long waltz through the world's last wild places. I was twenty-one when I first met Chuck Ebersole, in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, where he spent four years tutoring me in the arts of the interpretive naturalist. It was from him I learned to assemble stories from stray marks left in wet ground by claws and pads and hooves. It was from him I came to know the homes and habits of trees and rocks and plants. How life rises again in the wake of fire. How mountains are broken to bits and carried to sea by little more than drops of water turning into wedges of ice.
Beyond all that, though, what Chuck did most for me was to confirm my fledgling notion that passion was a virtue. I'll never forget how, while in his late 50's, he'd stomp on the brakes of his 1977 government green Chevy Vega, swerve to the edge of the ditch and fling the car door open, then run off to pluck a seed head of some grass, or a flower blossom, or maybe a pine cone. Then, literally spitting with excitement, he'd set about describing some ingenious aspect of natural design: how the single, hairy stamen of a penstemon encouraged visiting bees to leave extra pollen on the flower's stigma; or maybe how certain lodgepole cones opened only in the presence of fire, thus laying down seeds of the future forest. At the end of such lessons he'd slap his knee with the palm of his hand, quite beside himself with how incredible it all was.
Where I grew up, in the corn and rust of the Midwest, my own enthusiasm for the natural world seemed to many odd at best, accepted as valuable only in the context of scientific pursuit. But although Chuck was all for science - was in fact quite driven by it - it was his unfettered sense of wonder that made him exceptional. His peculiar, and at times nearly delirious enthusiasm is what gave me the courage to keep feeding and watering my own sense of wonder, what kept me working to unearth a clearer understanding of what it means to live well in the world.
Goodbye, old friend. I'll think of you often. Whenever the deep lavender of a penstemon catches my eye. Whenever a bluebird fluffs his feathers from the top rail of a log worm fence. And on those timeless summer afternoons in the wilderness when, rounding some nondescript stretch of trail in the dark of a lodgepole forest, I find myself grinning like a lunatic for no reason at all.