Between my father and Roy Rogers, I didn’t stand a chance. Songs of wide open spaces, mountains, and prairies, would weave a tantalizing tapestry of the trail. Dad grew up a country boy working around the farm and orchard, and riding horseback. He often told stories, played harmonica, and sang cowboy songs as we’d travel west from Wisconsin in the ’50’s and ‘60’s to visit relatives back in his home state of Washington. This was an every other year adventure, camping along the way.
During that same time, my brother, Dave, and I occasionally went downtown in Green Bay, to the “Bay Theater” to take in the double feature (in those days kids could safely hang out downtown). I don’t quite remember whether the price was a dime or a quarter, but it was affordable. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would ride across that big screen. Not only did they ride horses through beautiful country and dispatch bad guys… they also sang some of the same songs Dad did. Those western songs had a lot of attraction for us would-be cowboys.
Unlike the rest of the world, the U.S. was fairly recently carved out of pristine wilderness. This is reflected throughout much of the arts: movies, literature, and music. If you pay attention, there are echos of natural beauty, virgin prairies, forests, clean air, free flowing rivers, and native people living close to the land. According to Dr. E.O. Wilson, we all have a built in affinity for nature. He refers to this as “biophilia.” We come from a long line of ancestors who were more directly dependent on the ecosystem for survival. With a modest amount of encouragement, kids today will still hunt for little treasures (such as snail shells, feathers, or colorful rocks), and observe such things as predation… on their own.
As a kid I saw spiders snaring moths and flies in their gossamer larders, and I watched garter snakes swallowing frogs, alive. I noticed that energy doesn’t “flow,” as text books imply… it struggles, and gets dragged through the food chain. The resulting deaths aren’t bad or evil, it’s simply dinner.
We had a huge advantage back in the ’50’s; we didn’t have the competing distractions of TV, smart phones, video games, or internet. Plus we had a nearby natural area. We used to spend a great deal of time wandering in the woods, climbing trees, exploring, and observing. Research has shown that kids with these opportunities tend to develop interests in science. By coincidence, my brother and I both majored in science. He became a paleontologist, and I went into biology.
Instead of a life science teacher, I became a “naturalist” and moved to Peoria to work at Forest Park Nature Center. I don’t think I could have found a better or more creative place to work than Peoria Park District, thanks to such mentors as Rhodell Owens and Bob Prager. Bob used to say working in a Nature Center is a privilege. He was right.
Peoria will surprise you in many ways… the extensive forested parks, nature preserves, and hiking trails offer kids of all ages opportunities to explore and discover. For me there was another surprise. I found kindred spirits who shared my enthusiasm for western music. Elroy Limmer, Lou Carter, and I formed a cowboy trio… “The Bunkhouse Buckeroos,” and performed western songs throughout Central Illinois for a couple decades. A few of our favorites had been recorded by Roy Rogers and the “Sons of the Pioneers.” Audiences knew many of these songs, and some could even sing along with us. As a self conscious and timid high school kid, I could never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined yodeling in front of large groups of people. But there I was… and loving every minute of it!
Songs such as “Night Rider’s Lament” point out that what is truly valuable in life has little to do with monetary wealth. “Why does he ride for his money… why does he rope for short pay?” The cowboy in the song provides perspective (the best things in life are not things) …”then they’ve never seen the northern lights, never seen a hawk on the wing, never seen spring hit the great divide, and never heard ol’ camp cookie sing…” This song always put me in mind of chapter 44 in the “Tao Te Ching,” by Lao Tzu.
“If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never truly be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.”
Some kinds of popular music do a good job of initiating rhythm and ‘motion’… western songs, on the other hand, evoke different kinds of ‘emotion.’ “Timber Trail” is a song that conjures up connections to the land. “All nature sings a song along the Timber Trail.” There are many other examples: “Oh give me a land, a wilderness grand, of timber on mountains so high… there my fond reveries, mid cathedrals of trees, can majestically reach toward the sky,” or “Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above… don’t fence me in,” or… “lonely but free I’ll be found, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”
If western music got some play in today’s media, it could help cure “nature deficit disorder,” by encouraging people to hit the trail. Our attraction to nature might need just a tiny nudge, particularly in our materialistic culture. The messages between the lines in so many of our great old western songs are about what some call spiritual value. Real wealth is clean air, fresh water, healthy soil, and the countless varieties of animals and plants with whom we share this planet. The challenge is to make your life connect. Rather than apart from, become a part of nature.