Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jack Densmore

We lost a man who dedicated his career to making our farming and forestry more sustainable when Uncle Jack Densmore died October 19.  In addition to being a devoted husband, father and grandfather, he was our link to the Roosevelt days of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and also to an earlier era of homesteading pioneers.  He would have been 100 years old next May. 

Grandpa dropped out of college to homestead 160 acres near International Falls, Minnesota.  His partners in this enterprise sold their quarter sections after acquiring clear title, but Grandpa got attached to his land, and returned several years later with his wife and first two children.  Jack was the oldest.  Three more were born on the homestead.  They built another cabin large enough for the family, and lived by logging, farming and occasionally hunting.  Their cash income came mainly from felling timber on their land and hauling it by horse and wagon to the railroad siding a mile away.  When the deer got into the garden, well, there were fewer carrots for the winter, but more meat.  One winter, the mill closed down and wasn't buying any timber.  They didn't have enough cash to buy bullets, and had to set snares for the snowshoe hares that were abundant that year.  Jack said they seldom did any fishing, but one of the tangible benefits of their church membership was that the preacher fished for all of them, using gill nets which nowadays can be used only by Native Americans.  It was a life which many in my generation aspired to, but few could actually carry out.  My Mom, his middle sister, said that the Laura Ingalls Wilder books seemed to be about their family. 

The family moved back to Iowa in 1927.  Grandma wanted her children to have a good education, and the nearest high school, in International Falls, would probably have required boarding in those days.  They eventually settled on a 60 acre farm that was a little more fertile, with a growing season long enough for corn.  The family was blessed because Grandpa's attractive sister had married a successful banker, but was childless.  During the depression, she took care of the education of many of her nephews and nieces.  Jack had an abiding love of the land instilled during the homesteading days, and graduated from the Yale school of Forestry in 1935, He earned his masters degree from Yale in 1938. 

His first job, as forester for the CCC, was restoring the watershed of Coon Creek, in southwestern Wisconsin.  He worked with Aldo Leopold, Yale class of 1905.  Although farmers were initially very reluctant to sign up for a government program, most of them came around.  Countour strip plowing became the norm on farmlands, with the more sloping ground being dedicated pasture, and the steepest left in forest.  This watershed is still regarded as one of the best examples of watershed restoration.   Brook trout eventually returned to the stream.   Like many more modern foresters, he credited his success to the fact that he got along well with the tree fallers and tractor operators who were the actual boots on the ground.  Eventually, Jack became Regional Forester for the midwest states, with the Soil Conservation Service.  In retirement, he was active in the Wisconsin Woodland Owners' Association.  As family historian and geneologist, he left us a treasure trove of stories of the old days.

A few years back, several of us got together in Minnesota to try to recreate a canoe trip Grandpa took in 1905 to deliver a new stove to their neighbor.  At 92, Jack was a little too old to canoe with us but he came up to show us the area.  We saw where the schoolhouse had been, four miles away, and visited the ruins of the old homestead.  They had 80 acres cleared then, but now it has all come back to forest.  He pointed out the biggest tree, a large white pine with a broken top, and said, "I remember that one as a young sapling." 

He is survived by Betty Densmore, his wife of 71 years, children Ann Densmore, David Densmore (Susan), and Jean John (Ivor), as well as granddaughter Jasmine John and brother Frank Densmore.. 
Here on Earth
A Natural History of the Planet
by Tim Flannery

Flannery's book is a summary of evolutionary science and the various threads of environmental science, starting with Darwin, with an emphasis on the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, whom he regards as the heir to Darwin's colleague Alfred Russel Wallace.  The book is overdue at the library, so this will be brief. 
I have always considered the Gaia hypothesis to be anthropormorphic nonsense.  But as explained by Flannery, it makes sense, as long as you think of the earth as analogous to a living organism, but don't actually classify it as alive or in any way conscious. 
Where I really take issue is his Pollyannaish idea that overpopulation can be dealt with by making the third world more prosperous, while at the same time cutting back on the use of the fossil fuels that have been the basis of our prosperity.  Sadly, the use of extremely dispersed sources of energy such as solar is not going to be economically competitive with very dense sources of energy such as oil until oil becomes a lot more scarce and expensive.