Living Free in the Rockies

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Bill Moyers takes a fascinating look at Stewart Mace, a World War II vet who moved to a remote corner of Colorado to raise his family and his huskies.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers, believe it or not, and this is my oldest son, Cope. The ride we’ve just taken down from the high Rockies is part of this week’s Journal. It’s part of the story of a man whose love for his family, this mountainous country, and those Husky dogs, makes him a unique figure in the eternal struggle of selfhood against mobism. Join me as we meet Stuart Mace.

BILL MOYERS: This is Toklat, twelve miles northwest of Aspen, Colorado 10,000 feet above sea level, in the Rockies. In Eskimo, the word means a valley formed by a glacier, as Toklat was millions of years ago. This is where, in 1947, Stuart Mace chose to live and where, with his wife, four sons and a daughter, he built this home from timber and stone taken from the valley. He came to these mountains to raise his children close to nature, and because here he would be able to keep his Huskies. During the Second World War, Stuart Mace had been in charge of Artic survival, and the dogs he trained to rescue downed American fliers became friends he wanted to keep alive.

STUART MACE: Anybody home down here? Oh, it’s nice and warm and toasty. Come on. Come on, big shot. That’s the boy. Come on. Here’s my big shot. Come on, big shot. Come on, these men won’t hurt you. Now here’s a big, healthy guy who has no basic problems in the world at the moment, except the worming we’re going to have to do in another week. This is a big Malamute. The mother’s a medium-large Malamute, and the father’s a very, very large one. So you see the broad skull, the thick face, even in the puppy. You know it’s a Malamute, which is your Alaskan-type dog. They have a sense of community, these animals do. I mean, they all belong here. They all have been raised here. They all have worked here. You have everything from the little guy’s sister to the grandpas, but they’re all one. And you can see calmness of this cookie here. Couldn’t you even stir a little bit, and show a little enthusiasm about getting scratched and petted? How about it? May I have a paw first? You see, there’s jealousy.

Malik, in Eskimo, means noisy — one who mouths off too much. And he was given that from a young pup, because he was the noisy one in the litter. He had too much to say. And he’s jealous because I’m petting Nick. Is that right? You want some? You — want a little T.L.C.? You do? O.K., O.K. This fellows name is Kabloonik — you see the big white eyebrows? The word Kabloonik, in Eskimo, means white eyebrows, and therefore means white man, because the first men to make contact with the Eskimos were the Norsemen who had the big, bushy, white eyebrows. So that’s Kabloonik — that’s the father of that brat over there, and he’s almost as much a brat as the son. This is Lika. Lika has the beautiful blue eyes, and Lika, in Eskimo, means ice. And he has the ice blue eyes. And he’s a very sensitive guy. A little later on, we’ll talk more about lead dogs, especially when you see them work, and what makes a good lead dog, and why all the storybooks are full of baloney. Lead dogs aren’t what the books have cracked them up to be.

BILL MOYERS: I met Stuart Mace three years ago, and soon realized that, for him, animals are only a part of the living world. For him, nature is a whole, and man’s joy is to live in harmony with it. He devotes much of his time to sharing with students from Aspen the lessons he has himself learned from nature.

STUART MACE: (to students) There’s an old saying that they’ve used in connection with some kinds of birds. They talk about “fouling their nests.” They dirty their nests up, so they don’t keep ’em clean, so they have to build a new nest each year, and move on. Now, if you’re interested in nature, if you want to understand what it can mean to you as an individual, or mean to all of us as a society of people, you have to understand that we cannot keep fouling our nests. We cannot keep covering the green land, and we cannot keep shoving the wild animals farther and farther away from us, because they are a very part of the reason that we’re here at all. These green leaves purify our air. These green leaves, and these green plants produce the only basic food produced. Man is incapable of producing food without the aid of green plants. Alright, it’s as simple as that, if you want to get down to the core basics of it.

We can’t even keep the simple chemistry of life going, if we do not set aside, if we do not protect, if we do not take care of natural portions of the world, because all you have to do is walk up four blocks, and you got a start of pollution which, if anybody told me when I came to Aspen 25 years ago that we were going to have a pollution problem and that I’d have to wait ten minutes to cross Main Street, I would have laughed at them. And it’s becoming geometric now. So that you all can see it’s conceivable that within the next ten or fifteen years this group, sitting here, could see this turned into a dried-up housing development, except that one person gave this in perpetuity. This cannot be destroyed. I’d like to read chants, or legends; from the Taos Indians:

“This was our land — the land that the mountain needed in order to rise in majesty — the land that my people needed in order to roam its secrets in reverence. This was the land of our great waters — the beating heart of nature flowing through time. This was our land — the land that provided everything good for my people. The land was always our land, and the sun set upon it. The rain washed, and the fire was kind in its fury. It was so for all time. Then the land was taken from us. It’s your land. Do you know how to speak to the land, my brother? Do you listen to what it tells you? Can you take from it no more than what you need? Can you keep its secrets to yourself? Sell the land, my brother? You might as well sell the sun, and the moon and the stars.”

BILL MOYERS: You understand best how Stuart Mace expresses this reverence for nature in the winter, as he, and the young men who work with him, take visitors higher into the Rockies on sleds pulled by the Huskies, sleds Stuart Mace himself fashioned from rawhide and hickory. In January, my fourteen-year-old son and I joined him for a two-day venture. New snow had fallen the night before the journey began, and the dogs, moved by some ancient instinct to the challenges of weather and work, were ready for the harness.

STUART MACE: These last two dogs going in are younger and less disciplined, so we wait ’til everybody’s loaded and ready, and then we put them in.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you like it up here so much?

STUART MACE: Well, just look around you. The biggest problem as I see it, with myself and with other people that I know well is the constant battle with my ego And I think; this country is one of the greatest ego-busters that’s going. How can you have an over —inflated ego when you work every day in this kind of country? You know, the mountains cut man down to his — proper size, I think. This is one of the things I get out of it. I think more than anything else, is the constant reminder that where I belong and where I fit in the pattern of things. Isn’t this beautiful in here?

BILL MOYERS: We’ve entered another world.

STUART MACE: You couldn’t design a frosty forest any better than this. There’s a tremendous satisfaction out of challenging without destroying the natural world. We’ve even tried not to leave any marks on this land. Let’s get this team up. As far as I can see it, man’s the only animal that’s gotten fully out of tune with the basic laws of the living world — namely, that you’ve got to give back as much as you take. When we got back from the war, I went back to the University, and I was trying to hold onto a full-time job to boot. And I could see, almost instantly, that I was going to not be able to raise my family in the manner in which I really wanted to, meaning that I wanted to keep my children busy and happy, and follow my feeling that you have to build a whole person. You have to build the mind and the body and the imagination and the artistic sense. You have to build all those things into a young person, and I wasn’t going to be able to do it in even a small university town

BILL MOYERS: How did you think you could do it here?

STUART MACE: Well, I not only could, but did And the reason is, it’s just the same thing as the ranchers and farmers and people who’ve raised their children closer to nature — the kids get a different set of values as to that is important in life.


STUART MACE: Well, I feel that you can’t appreciate your fellow man ’til you have the respect of all the other living things which have made it possible for him to be here. And, without understanding those, you don’t. It has a wholeness you don’t have a feeling of — most people don’t realize what they belong to. You know, they belong to the greatest thing that ever happened — is all these things. I know we have a numbers game problem. I know that we have supposedly too many people for food — for the basics. Not just to supply the soul with its energies. But, if you go to other places in the world, where people have matured in their love of the land, it is possible to have more people everywhere. as long as they care more about the land, and have a sense of belonging to it, and a sense of wanting it to survive, and a sense of protecting it and all I can say is: I feel right now that this country is just in its adolescence, because we’re just feeling our oats. We’re so great in technology. We know how to run a bulldozer, we know how to run a destroyer. But we don’t know how to build and live peacefully with nature. We’ve always felt it as an adversary. And I think you can come out. I mean, you don’t have to live here, but you do have to get exposed to it.

BILL MOYERS: What was that you say to your second and third grade children?

STUART MACE: Hell, I just tell ’em. I tell them that I’m never lonely because all these things are my friends. I know them. And because I know them I care about them, and I don’t step on them or hurt then and I say ‘hello’ when I go by. So, I always tell the kids I talk: with the plants and the animals, and that they talk back to me.

BILL MOYERS: Do you tell them to say the same thing?

STUART MACE: I tell them to learn to listen. And they say: “Well, what’s a plant say?” And I say: “The plant doesn’t talk like we do, but it has things to say. It tells you how to live, how to conserve energy, how to live with your neighbor, where to live, and tells you all kinds of things if you learn to listen. And listening isn’t just with your ears it’s with your eyes, and the rest of your perception.” And I can teach this to young children, and they understand it. And I tell them: “Look, don’t step on that plant, because that plant can’t say ouch.” One little kid tapped me on the shoulder, and says: “Oh yes, it can. When you step on it, it says crunch.” Now, you can take that for a better reply.

But if you believe in something, you have to take a stand, and if you do, you’re bound to hurt somebody, see. Right now, they’re talking about land use, and I insist that man can’t; doesn’t, and shouldn’t own land. He can use it, but he shouldn’t own it, or even be allowed to use it unless he cares about it. Unless he proves he cares about it, he shouldn’t be able to own it. Alright, this hurts the guy who’s got an investment pocketbook in a piece of land where he wants to build a big project, where he’s going to make lots of money, because you’re interfering with his set of values, So, in that sense — like, they asked me to come down and talk to the Lodge-owners Association about land use problems — we’re never going; to have any solution to them until we change our value system.

BILL MOYERS: You know, England is experimenting now with a long-term lease — that is, you can lease land for 99 years.

STUART MACE: Yes. Well, this is what I live on, see I live on a lifetime lease. I don’t own that land. When I leave, that land will not be fought over by my children, and will not be sold. It goes into a public trust, and my home won’t become some useful entity rather than a home. Now, that’s my firm feeling. Now, everybody’s saying: “It’s crazy, you should leave your children something.” I say: “I’m trying to leave my children some kind of heritage of inner strength and it’s nothing that a wallet or a sale price on a home will buy. And I’ll do nothing but cause friction among my children if I let my home become a part of my estate. So I’m trying not to leave them anything in the form of money. Anything they get from me they’re going to get before I go. Can you see the smoke from the cabin down there? I think we can get the four-footed gang to give us a song from this distance. Boys and girls, can we have a little song, please? Come on. Thank you. That’s the call of the wild, gentlemen.

BILL MOYERS: Stuart Mace has spent half his life working with these Huskies. Financially, it’s an unprofitable avocation. The dogs cost him more than he can earn from their labors. He subsidizes his expenses by operating, with his wife, a small dining service, and by making and selling mountain jams, jellies and curios. But it’s the way he wanted to live, and he’s been rewarded manifold, he says, by the wonders of nature, and by what the Huskies have revealed to him. What makes a leader?

STUART MACE: Well you know, Bill, it’s pretty much the same whether it’s two-legged or four-legged. First off, they have to be born leaders. Now, in the case of a sled dog leader, what we want is an animal that is highly aggressive and willing to be out front… accept the responsibility of being out front — but also, an animal who is sensitive and responsive and willing to learn, like this fella. This is Lika with the lovely blue eyes. At any rate, Lika’s history is typical. He singled him out at about four months as having the potentialities.

BILL MOYERS: What did you see in him?

STUART MACE: Well, we could see that, when we took the litter for a walk. he was out front, he was curious, interested. He always led the group, but yet. he would listen to us, and pay attention when we spoke to him even as a puppy. But you know, you take a five year old child, you don’t know whether they’re going to be an engineer, or an artist, or what not. You can see tendencies. So we saved him because of his tendencies. But you don’t see real leadership ’til after you’ve put the dog in the team, and had him do some harness work for a year — for a whole winter. And then, you slowly move him up in the team to where the grey female was yesterday , working alone, behind a fine leader. We call that ‘single point.’ And there a potential leader learns his lessons of the voice commands of ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw,’ and the various singing that you notice we do to the dogs.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the reward to a Husky for being a leader?

STUART MACE: The reward is the same as any leader: the satisfaction of putting it all together for you. In other words. He’s your foreman, and you, through your voice, do the actual leading with your commands. And he takes those commands and transfers them to action. But you can see that he’s not the old storybook version — the fierce dog that whips the rest of the dogs in the team for leadership. This is stupid, because, if you just think about it you don’t want any fighting in the team. Team fighting is a disruptive factor So you don’t want a dog that is going around spoiling for a fight, looking for trouble trying to whip the rest of the dogs on the team. And, if you stop to think about it, the human leaders who try to use their physical dominance as their basis of leadership, get very poor results from their followers. So, I’ve find a great parallel between one kind of leadership and another.

BILL MOYERS: What is there about Lika that the other dogs will accept?

STUART MACE: Well, the other dogs accept Lika like many people, you know, some people are great followers, they do great things under proper direction and under guidance. And most of the dogs don’t want up front. They’d rather be led. They’d rather have somebody else take that responsibility like he does. Now there are some that would be out front, but they wouldn’t listen They wouldn’t pay any attention to me. Notice the sensitivity and the empathy I have here. Now Lika’ s a great love, and he gets this kind of attention when we’re not in harness. But when we put that harness on, then it’s all verbal discipline between Lika and myself. But you can’t have the verbal discipline until you have the empathy and the love first.

BILL MOYERS: This dog and you have something going.

STUART MACE: Yes. You have to have something going between you and your leaders. I see very very few born leaders. I see too many of the overly aggressive type and not enough of the sensitive type who are responsive to, what we call our constituency and those who are willing to listen from behind — willing to be up in front, leading, but willing to listen to what the rest of the gang is saying, and what their ultimate leader is. Everybody has somebody above him. There’s always one leader above another.

BILL MOYERS: Who has Stuart Mace?

STUART MACE: Who has Stuart Mace? Well, my leader is the challenge of the living world, of which these animals are a great big slice.

BILL MOYERS: When Henry David Thoreau completed his stay at Walden Pond he wrote: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment — that, if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours He will put some things behind him, will pass an invisible boundary. New, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him and he will live with the license of a higher order of being.”

This transcript was entered on May 6, 2015.


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