Interview: Rocky Mountain Land Library
ROCKY MOUNTAIN LAND LIBRARY
Conducted November 2015
Issue No. 10 – December 2015
For over twenty years, Colorado bibliophiles Ann Martin and Jeff Lee have had a dream. A crazy, incredible, spectacular dream. They call it the Rocky Mountain Land Library, and if you’re ever in the area and itching for a good read at 10,000+ ft., you might want to give them a call.
It is perhaps too easy to call Ann and Jeff’s project a “library,” for at its heart the R.M.L.L. is something far more transformative. It is a historic preservation mission, as its volunteers work long hours to restore a string of nineteenth-century homesteading buildings. It is an educational resource network, consisting of a children’s collection and public sustainability workshops (co-sponsored by the University of Colorado–Denver). It is a sanctuary for naturalists, containing dormitory space, a cafeteria and the fixings of good mountain living. And yes, it is a library, and at its heart sits a 32,000-volume deep collection of Western history, literature and cultural works.
Buffalo Almanack is pleased to present this brief conversation with Jeff (pictured below), and we encourage our readers to seek out further information on the Land Library at landlibrary.wordpress.com.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: We first encountered the Land Library when one of our friends—a particularly intrepid Western outdoorsman and administrator for the Wyoming Conservation Corps—conducted some volunteer work for you, helping to renovate the old homesteading buildings of the Buffalo Ranch site, now your Library. The logistics of the project seem overwhelming, through twenty years of book collection, then land plotting, historic building preservation and repurposing, and of course the costs involved. It doesn’t feel as though two ordinary bookkeepers employees could pull something like this off. So…how did you and Ann do it?
JEFF LEE: Well, we haven’t been alone! We’ve had help from the start, whether it’s financial support, the offer of advice, or the selfless donation of time and energy—exactly what your Wyoming friend gave to the cause.
BA: All kinds of Colorado institutions have embraced the Land Library, from the Tattered Cover bookstore (our all-time favorite!) to the University of Colorado, the city of Aurora and the South Park National Heritage Area. What draws people to a project like this?
JL: I think it comes from a deep love of both books and the land. People know that the Land Library is all about a love of learning, and taking the time to know and appreciate where we all live.
It’s a project with a lot of respect for the past—for instance, all the embedded human experience contained in every Land Library volume. But people also realize that the Land Library is even more about our common future. With all the environmental challenges ahead, we’ll all need a land-literate society—and one that finds a lot of its joy in the natural world.
BA: Why Buffalo Ranch and the South Park region? Were other areas of the Colorado Rockies considered?
JL: The Land Library spent a few years searching for a just right site, and the community partnerships we would need. We met so many wonderful people along that road, but all the pieces finally came together when we met with Park County (CO). They are nationally-known for their heritage tourism program—something very akin to the RMLL’s place-based focus on a region. It wasn’t long before we (and other partners) began to talk about bringing new life to Buffalo Peaks Ranch, one of South Park’s earliest homesteads. It’s a site that has been vacant for over 20 years.
BA: More than just a room full of books, the Land Library is a complex, containing living quarters, meeting space, room for educational workshops and a children’s learning center. What makes each of these elements so critical to the fulfillment of your dream? Have you had to jettison any ideas along the way?
JL: We’ve always tried to keep any design ideas loose, and ready to accept something new. This will be a “residential” library. Folks will be able to stay over as long as they want, especially after we get the bunkhouse restored. We’ll offer both a quiet environment, and plenty of good workspace, but lots of people will probably just want the freedom to explore the shelves and the surrounding landscape.
We’ll also offer writers and artists workshops, and natural history field classes. At this point we haven’t had to jettison any ideas, but we may at some point—just depends on the Land Library’s focus, which is all about the ties between people and the land. That won’t change, but maybe the balance of activities will.
BA: It’s our understanding that you came to Colorado from Connecticut. Hello fellow Eastern transplant! Western writers and scholars like Wallace Stegner, Richard White and Patty Limerick have spent decades ‘decoding’ the West, so maybe it’s not fair to ask this in the framework of a brief interview, but all the same. What does the West mean to you?
JL: Maybe it comes down to blue skies and wide open spaces. I still love the East, but it was the West were I had my first long immersion in a landscape. I worked with the U.S. Geological Survey. We had a mapping project, and for four years, you might say that my whole job was scanning the horizon, noticing old mining scars, cattle trails—the landscape of the West. I loved it, and those days always stay with me.
BA: What are the essential, can’t-miss works of Western writing?
JL: I love that question, but I have to admit, I’m not very good at answering it. Partly, I’ve always felt that a reader’s experience is such a personal thing — and that trumps any “top ten” list I could come up with.
But you asked about essential Western books. My personal list would have to contain William deBuys’ memoir of place The Walk (set in northern New Mexico), Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and an old anthology I loved in my school days: John Bierhorst’s collection of Native American poems & songs, In the Trail of the Wind.
And this is geographically off topic, but have you read Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Places? Macfarlane is a young British writer, and his book is all about searching for the last wild places in Great Britain and Ireland. It’s a wonderful book, and I’ve never encountered anyone who writes about landscape as Macfarlane does. He’s a beautiful writer!
BA: You once said that the mission of this project is “to create a place where people can slow down to nature’s rhythms, and appreciate their ties to the land.” It seems then that the ‘land’ is as important as the ‘library’—but what do we make of that? What bonds exist between knowledge and place that make this kind of ‘in the field’ learning space so necessary?
JL: That’s a great question. I might not have an answer, but we’re always thinking about how the land and the library interact. The land inspires a real love that makes it a joy to learn more about what you see and experience. That might be part of it. The library in turn gives you some of the tools you need to not only understand the land, but also to appreciate people ties to it.
I also think that being on the land quiets a person down. And that makes for calm observation, and the ability to feel connections that we miss if we’re too distracted.
BA: Where do you see the Land Library five, ten or even twenty years down the road?
JL: We would love to see this old ranch fully restored to its new life. A horse barn will become a library, the bunkhouse will remain a bunkhouse.
I hope the Land Library remains open to new ideas, and in twenty years, I hope we’ve had the good fortune of having many people come to Buffalo Peaks Ranch, and then, here’s the big hope: have those folks return home feeling even more connected to the land, and to the places where they live.
BA: What are some ways in which our readers get involved with the Land Library?
JL: People should reach out to us in any way they like. We’re still involved in ranch renovation, but we’ve already launched educational programs at the ranch—with more to come in 2016!