The moment was classic Hal Rothman: dumbfounded by the inane commentary on the audio tour of the Ansel Adams exhibit at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, he let go of the recorder, murmuring “this is bullshit.” Or something like that, for his speech was slurred, a consequence of ALS wearing away his capacity to speak. To my untrained ear it was hard to decipher his exact words, but his meaning was crystal clear. Hal was never vague or imprecise. You always knew what he was thinking and why.
It was this precision and clarity that made him such a dynamic teacher, riveting speaker, compelling scholar, and sharp-tongued pundit. And it is why his death on Sunday, February 25, at 48, is so very tragic.
I first encountered him in print in the late 1980s: as I began research on a biography of Gifford Pinchot, I read an article Hal had written on the tense relationship between the Forest Service (for which Pinchot was the first chief) and the Park Service during the 1920s, an exploration of how Parks Chief Stephen Mather deftly plucked one landscape gem after another from the national-forest inventory, including Grand Canyon, Zion, Bandelier, and Cedar Breaks. Although he probed a bureaucratic struggle of considerable import, Hal was less interested in the backroom maneuvers that enabled Mather to best his rivals in the Forest Service than he was in the cultural significance of this contest. “The National Parks Service tapped the pulse of the Jazz Age,” he argued, allowing it to sell “Americans leisure and grandeur at a time when, in the aftermath of World War I…the outdoors connoted appreciation for American values as well as for the physical strength of the people.” Its success, bound up with the national fascination with the automobile and the mobility it provided, put it in the driver’s seat; the Forest Service had much to learn from its rival.
So had I from Hal, a realization that was reinforced when we finally met at an environmental history conference in Houston in 1991. Appropriately enough our first conversation occurred in the book exhibit and its opening was no less apt: Hal walked up and asked me how my work on Pinchot was coming along. Open and generous were qualities he would reveal time and again, but at that instant I more puzzled by how he knew who I was. Later, I’d come to realize that this gregarious guy with a vast network of friends and colleagues somehow knew even those he did not know. It turned out, he had just named editor of Environmental History Review, had read its back files, found an article I had submitted on the first chief of the USDA Forest Service, and told me to “rewrite the damn piece and resubmit.” It was that simple.
His own writing seemed as effortless. The dozens of books and anthologies he wrote and edited over the last 15 years alone are an impressive-enough reflection of his remarkable productivity. But add to that massive outpouring of scholarship his innumerable commentary for High Country News, Las Vegas Sun, and New West, among a host of other venues, and it becomes clear just how much effort he exerted to bring his ideas before his readers. Up by 5 o’clock every morning, he wrote and worked out at a furious pace before heading off to teach at UNLV, a ritual and rhythm that gave shape to each and every day. “Truthfully, I got 47 perfect years,” he told UNLV Magazine in the summer of 2006. “Everything broke my way. That’s a hell of a lot more than most people get. The gods reached down and put ideas in my head. Even better, they let them come out my fingers — and at a pretty good clip. Not everybody gets that.”
His almost-maniacal energy produced such a surge of words that at least three more books will appear posthumously, most notably Blazing Heritage: A History of Wildland Fire in the National Parks (Oxford University Press, March 2007), a magnificent study of the complex impact fire has had in the national parks and on National Park Service culture. Much of this final body of work was completed with the aid of his family and a devoted clutch of former graduate students, and by dint of sight-recognition software that enabled Hal to compose text after he had lost motor control of his fingers. Despite ALS’ corrosive power, he continued to write his Las Vegas Sun columns until late October, a startling testament to his deep-seated desire to speak his mind as long as he could. His last was in the angered voice of a vigorous man ready to toss his hat into the ring: “I am a political junkie from a long line of political junkies, but this campaign season has really turned my stomach,” it began. “If I hear the phrase ‘outside of the mainstream’ or ‘out of touch with Nevada’ one more time, I may run for office myself.”
Although he could not run in any sense, he conceded nothing to the disease that disrupted his brain’s ability to regulate muscle function, remaining as engaged with the world around him as he was concerned for how others fared. When we last saw one another in early August, I arrived at his home in Henderson bearing bags of food (“what can you eat?” I had emailed before flying to town; “surprise me,” was his laconic reply), and before I could ask him how he was he wanted news of my wife’s recovery from chemo. Only then could we get to his situation, only then could we break bread.
In truth, I have no memory of what we talked about, just images: of Hal chewing with care small bits of bagel, lox and schmeer; his humorous banter with his son Brent and wife Lauralee; his disdain for the idiocy of the Bellagio audio tour; his skilled maneuvering of his motorized wheelchair to gain better perspective on Adams’ arresting and iconic images–“Moon and Half Dome,” “Tetons and the Snake River,” and “Oak Tree, Snowstorm.”
After the show, Hal herded us over to the nearby Café Gelato where we took turns feeding him spoonfuls of the sweet Italian confection. He grinned in delight, but then bought me up short by noting I was late for my plane. I learned over and kissed him goodbye, and broke into a run.
Char Miller is professor of history and director of Urban Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. With Hal Rothman, he co-edited Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History (1997) and in Hal’s honor, he is editing an anthology, entitled Cities in Nature: Urban Environments in the American West (University of Nevada Press), to be out in 2008.