Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Rocky Mountain Guy

By Debbie Gilbert

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Feel free to laugh if you like.

But I'll say it anyway: The death of John Denver was a great loss.

Oh, maybe not to the music world. You could characterize Denver's brand of overproduced folk/pop as corny and syrupy, as Muzak for tree-huggers, and you'd be at least partially right.

But that is beside the point. The bottom line is that Denver did more for the environment than just about any other entertainer. He also was involved in a number of human-rights causes, although unlike a certain other famous individual who recently died in a violent crash he carried on his efforts mostly out of view of photographers.

Denver held many strong beliefs, but probably his two fundamental tenets were: (1) all human beings on Earth are entitled to equal treatment; and (2) whatever wilderness is left on this planet should be allowed to remain wild.

It's the latter stance that Denver made his trademark. Throughout his life, he was so overwhelmed with wonder at the beauty of the natural world that he felt compelled to express those feelings in his songs. He didn't give a damn if the critics considered him trite; the conviction behind his simple words was genuine.

Anyone who has ever summited a Colorado peak knows that the "Rocky Mountain High" is not just a glib phrase but an actual physical phenomenon, a high-altitude euphoria (and it was, in fact, this very song that drove me to Colorado, in the summer of my 27th year, to discover this firsthand). Yet even as Denver sings the praises of the Rockies, you can hear his dismay at urban sprawl:

Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear/ Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend/ Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more/ More people, more scars upon the land.

Can you change public policy with a pop song? Denver wasn't naive enough to think so. But his songs subtly invaded our consciousness, stirring an awareness of what's precious, what needs to be saved. Even his songs that weren't explicitly "environmental" were filled with images of wilderness. "Annie's Song," ostensibly one of the most romantic encomiums ever written, is actually a laundry list of scenes from nature: a night in the forest, a mountain in springtime, a storm on the desert. Denver couldn't think of a higher compliment to his then-wife than to say that she "filled up his senses" just as these things did.

Denver achieved his greatest commercial success with a string of hits in the early '70s, but eventually he came to realize that merely singing about the environment wasn't enough; he wanted to take active steps to solve the world's problems. In 1976, he bought 1,000 acres of high-country land in Snowmass, Colorado, and established (with friend Tom Crum) the Windstar Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors environmental-education programs and "Choices for the Future" symposiums. The emphasis is on each person learning to take personal responsibility for the quality of life on the planet.

In 1995, Windstar's directors took this philosophy to heart and formed the Windstar Land Conservancy, turning the foundation's own property into a wildlife refuge to protect critical habitat for elk migration. (To find out more about Windstar, call 970-927-4777 or check their Web site, www.wstar.org.)

But even with Windstar, Denver didn't feel he was doing enough to make a tangible difference. So in 1992, he founded Plant-It 2000, an organization with a singular purpose: planting as many indigenous trees as possible worldwide. "Indigenous" is the key, because species that naturally grow in a particular area will fit in with the local ecosystem and have a much higher survival rate.

"That was one of John's environmental ethics," says Plant-It 2000 executive director Michael Thau. "Don't just pop trees into the ground; take the time to do it properly."

Since its founding, the organization has planted more than half a million trees in two types of projects: customized tree-planting events underwritten by sponsors, usually occurring in city parks, schools, and other urban settings; and massive tree-plantings, often of 10,000 or more seedlings at a time, in areas prone to deforestation, such as Honduras, Indonesia, Paraguay, and the Philippines.

Plant-It 2000 will plant one tree for every dollar contributed, and the donor gets to chose where he or she wants the trees planted. If you're interested, contact Plant-It 2000 at 9457 South University Boulevard, Suite 310, Highlands Ranch, Colorado, 80126, or call 303-470-3222.

In addition to those two major initiatives, Denver founded the Hunger Project, made several wildlife documentaries, and served on the boards of many organizations, including the Cousteau Society, Friends of the Earth, and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. But he especially enjoyed using his musical abilities to directly benefit causes. (In his 1994 autobiography Take Me Home, he wrote, "It broke my heart to not be included in the Live Aid, Band Aid, and We Are the World concerts," when his popularity dwindled in the '80s.)

Denver was the perfect choice, however, to perform at the big Earth Day 1990 celebration on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He sang a selection of ecology-themed tunes, later re-recording them in the studio for an album called Earth Songs; all proceeds from sales of the record went to the National Wildlife Federation.

In 1995, Denver was approached to do a benefit concert for the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which currently conducts nearly 300 research projects around the world. The Wildlife Concert aired on A&E that year, and sales of the CD and video continue to bring in revenue for the society.

There is no question that, had he lived, Denver would have continued his work for the environment. While the ecology movement waxed and waned over the decades, his commitment never wavered. At 53, he was still searching for answers in his personal life, yet he had no doubts about how the world ought to be, how the world could be.

"If I said I didn't yearn for immortality, I would be lying," Denver wrote in 1994. He fretted that he'd be remembered mostly for his annoying repetition of the catchphrase "Far out!" during the '70s. "I have a feeling it will be in my obituary," he said prophetically.

But Denver underestimated his impact. In a music industry in which artists are either fashionably apathetic or attach themselves to causes merely to draw attention to themselves, John Denver stood out because he truly cared about what matters most: how humans can co-exist with the planet and with each other.

That's not such a bad legacy to leave behind. He will be missed.

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