May 2014 Review

~by Michele Gregoire

The Light in High Places: A Naturalist Looks at Wyoming Wilderness, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Cowboys, and Other Rare Species, by Joe Hutto

This mountain may truly be formed from skin and flesh and bone with its soft and supple tundra integument, with strong muscular granitic souls and a skeletal armature articulated in solid stone. Without apparent indifference, it seems to welcome all those less-substantial beings who would choose to be here. Could it be that the mountain offers not the brutality of the sleeping giant that I imagined but rather refuge and consolation, as it shares some unfamiliar but nevertheless indisputable warmth? There is not only an unsuspected abundance here in this seemingly austere ecology, but also a subtle generosity. I have never felt so much at home.”

The Light in High Places, Joe Hutto’s second book, is as enlightening as his first (Illumination in the Flatwoods, reviewed in November 2013), but taking place in a diametrically opposite climate and landscape. From the swamps of north Florida he moved to the high country of Wyoming, a state he visited and spent much time in over the past thirty-plus years that finally became his permanent home several years ago. Clearly in this book is seen a profound relationship between the author and the entire ecology of the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. This includes the very mountains themselves, together with their landscapes, and the plant ecosystems and wildlife that populate this vast land largely uninhabited by humans. In this book we see his deep love for all the creatures he encounters, demonstrating that Joe Hutto is basically in love with every living being, and what a joy it is to read about his appreciation of all animals, humans included. Indeed, Hutto shows again in this book, perhaps more so than his previous publication, that he seems to prefer the eremitic lifestyle, alone in God’s cathedral of creation. He says of his first visit to the state, “My motives had been all about solitude and wilderness, but I found the people and culture of Wyoming to be, in a multitude of ways, irresistible.” His work as a cowboy was extremely satisfying because it is basically solitary work beginning before daylight and ending after dark, so it provides ‘endless opportunities for contemplation and introspection.’ The author says he ‘never met a working cowboy who did not show the inevitable signs of a thoughtful mind.’ Humanity, albeit sparsely populated humanity, is afforded considerable attention as creatures he has studied, and appreciates, along with the wild animals. While this is not a religious work, Hutto refers to certain aspects of spirituality quite often because there is simply no other way to express the depth of experience he has just being out in nature and being present in each moment to everything it has to offer. For example, in the second chapter he describes a mountain scene: “Eerie shafts of filtered sunlight pierce a dark churning maelstrom and illuminate gleaming glacial ice across the vertical walled chasm that surrounds the mountain. The scene is biblical.” His deep appreciation and absolute respect for not only every wild being he encounters, but also the earth and the grand landscape that surrounds him, is an expression of awe inspired by wilderness.

The book is divided into three major sections, with an epilogue and a final chapter, ‘Some Thoughts on our Dilemma,’ in which Hutto expresses his deep concerns over the degradation of the environment in general and does not limit his commentary to only Wyoming and his research. The first and third sections detail his research with the bighorn sheep and the middle section provides autobiographical content that gives the reader a closer look at the author’s personal life and his relationship with the state of Wyoming and the people he encounters there, going back to the late 1970’s and significantly pre-dating his first book. He chronicles his life with reference to time in the state leading up to the permanent move to his ranch. Further, in this middle section he describes several friends and characters of Wyoming with great reverence, respect and admiration. So the book is as much about the people as it is the wildlife and land. This distinguishes The Light in High Places, topically a more comprehensive narrative, from Illumination in the Flatwoods, which was exclusively about Hutto’s experiment with the turkeys with less attention to the people surrounding him during that time.

Several plates of photographs are included in the center of the book and a number of black and white photos are placed within each of the chapters, although the pictures are subordinate to his spectacular prose. While it is difficult to capture the vast spaces of the west in 4×5 or 5×7 photographs, the close-ups of the sheep are really quite engaging, and there are some stunning glimpses of the mountain scenery in these pages. Still, one longs to see the photos in a more expanded format that provides larger views of the landscapes about which the author writes.

Hutto discovered the deleterious effects of human activity on even this isolated area and its wild populations through his research on the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Acid rain has depleted selenium in the environment and the sheep suffer loss of lambs that are born with deficiencies of this trace element, ultimately causing a large percentage of newborn lambs not to thrive, leading to significant population loss. This is the result of imbalance in the entire ecosystem due to contemporary society’s extreme use of natural resources that are being exhausted permanently. In spite of this result and his expounding upon it in the final chapter, the author still sees hope for restoration; he is at heart more optimistic than pessimistic, or at least chooses to look for the good that might yet come. This, even though he grieves the loss of each life, whether lamb, ewe, ram, or any of the other species he encounters. Indeed, he feels deeply every death and it impacts him, signifying his sensitivity as a truly caring human being.

Hutto muses on a number of topics throughout the book. He discusses, for example, the ethics of hunting that he learned as a youngster and the evolution of this pursuit into a ‘sport’ that moved the provision of food for the table into a competitive activity without a moral or ethical base. He also writes about his personal history to a fairly considerable extent. And beyond the details of his research with the bighorn sheep he addresses all the topics of the work’s subtitle. His Franciscan outlook is more broadly articulated in The Light in High Places, with the considerable attention he gives to human relationships and an emerging concern for humanity, along with his continuing deep, abiding love for all of creation, especially wild animals. Through it all his writing is beautiful and a pleasure to experience.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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