by Robert Neumiller
I have a poster hanging on my wall at home that the U.S. Forest Service issued in 1991 to commemorate its centennial. The poster is a collage of photographs with captions, each photo capturing a moment in the agency’s history. At the bottom of the poster, between a 1908 photo of Ranger George A. Fisher saddling a horse in Utah’s Uinta National Forest and a 1970 photo of a Lockheed C-130 air tanker dropping fire retardant somewhere in Montana, is a photo of a young man sitting in a mountain meadow with two Border collies. Beyond the man and the dogs, several dozen sheep lie at the timber’s edge. A caption reads: Herding in the Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho—1940. The man sits in profile and he and the dogs and the sheep all look in the same direction, beyond the border of the photo. They stare downhill, the timberline running parallel to their line of sight. In this black and white photo, the meadow grass is short from grazing and is a light gray, perhaps from having lost its summer color. It is an autumn day, I believe, probably October.
I’ve spent a lot of time fighting forest fires or just walking in the same mountains in which this man sits, sometimes with little on my mind, other times with plenty. I like to imagine that I’ve been in that same meadow and stared at the same things as this man. Whatever is beyond the borders of that photo had to have been compelling for all three species to have been interested in it. And having been in those mountains I know that one needn’t look far to find compelling sights.
The trees in the photo are subalpine fir, a high elevation tree, which means there could be a clear, cold glacial lake at the bottom of that hill, with maybe a black bear or a coyote sniffing out its shore, a sight that would certainly be of interest to all those in the photo. This is a photo, however, and what is probably happening is that the photographer has sent an assistant downhill to get the attention of the animals, or, after setting the camera’s timer, has run down there himself. But despite what is going on in the photo, it is 1940, and a young American man is staring with a sober expression beyond his surroundings, whatever they are, and probably is beginning to realize that he can no longer ignore the exploding world around him.
* * *
Ranchers move their herds into Idaho’s high mountain meadows in June and July each year. They do now and they did in 1940. Spring is slow to arrive at this elevation, and not until June or July are the passes clear enough of the previous winter’s snow for the ranchers or anyone else to make the trip. Upon arriving there, one sees the meadows alive with new growth; young elk and deer are already at play. One can’t help but feel a sense of the world’s promise and potential; sheepherders are probably no exception. But hard frosts throughout summer, and early autumn snowfalls, serve as reminders that winter is never far away. The young man in the photo may just have learned of an approaching winter.
When sheepherders go into those mountains they are cut off from the world. They live lives so solitary—just a man, his dogs, and his sheep—as to defy imagination. News for them arrives as slowly as the spring, gleaned usually from passing campers and woodsmen. Deep in the mountains radio waves often cannot penetrate the granite walls surrounding those green pastures. Cell phones are mostly useless. Human contact is rare.
Most sheepherders appear to be little concerned with the outside world, which is the reason, perhaps, that they seek out isolation in the first place. Or it may be that the outside world’s usual condition sends them in search of places like Idaho’s high mountain meadows, places that make them feel lucky to have solitude, however short-lived that solitude may be.
* * *
Much happened between July and September of 1940. Hitler launched an all out air attack on Britain, the evacuation at Dunkirk left Germany in sole control of Continental Europe, and the first peacetime military draft in U.S. history was about to begin. Did the photographer, before sitting him down, fill the young man in on what had happened since June? Most likely. It’s possible, too, that the young man felt he was at a sufficient distance as to make these events of no concern to him. But an intelligent man would have known by this time that the world beyond this meadow would catch up with him; he couldn’t remain seated there forever. In the course of world history there are events that reach the remotest of areas and shake even the most ardent isolationists into action. Winter had arrived.
I probably have seen the same things as the man sees in that photo, and maybe even fought a fire in that timber, but no news I ever heard during my own wanderings matched the importance of what that young sheepherder may have learned on that Idaho mountain in 1940. I hope he made it back to enjoy the tranquility of that meadow and to have thoughts of a world at peace, however briefly an intelligent man is able to entertain them.
Copyright 2000-2014. Robert Neumiller. All rights reserved.